Letter from an Infantryman

Copyright © 2006 Benjamin A. Shelton
I have heard rumors that this poem has circulated around overseas by way of distribution via a friend or relative to those of you currently in Iraq or Afghanistan. If you’ve come across this poem during your tour, I’d love to hear from you. Of course, if you haven’t encountered this abroad and feel compelled to leave a comment, feel free!

What do I hear?
I hear the squeal of sprockets
As they drive a pair of tracks;
I feel the crunch of skulls beneath my feet.
I try not to look but eyes tend to wander;
Two pairs of empty sockets gaze back up
Behind an anonymous grin and laugh at me.

I smash it to bits.
(I have to be strong; I’m an infantryman.)

I cackle maniacally.
(Some think I’m crazy, but I’m really afraid.)

There’s nowhere to go but forward–forward I march.
The acrid smell of burning things
(people? books? buildings?)
–Life hangs low on delicate strings–
And suffocates me.
I feel death, death is near.

A face in a window, was it my own?
Or will I be left alone,
Slumped over like the man on a bench,
With my life running away from gaping wounds,
And my mouth catching flies?
(It smells awful here.)

I patrol briskly down Main Street,
The empty windows of hollow shops straddle me.
Death taunts me from within each–
Cut me loose, you fool!
I carry the burden of memories no man should bear,
Wrapped around my mind like intestines around a pole.
(I wonder whose they were?)

Blood and entrails paint color on a colorless landscape.
Ordinary men would be sick,
Adding their lunch to the canvas.
Thankfully I’m an infantryman,
I don’t eat lunch.
I eat bullets.
(I hate this place.)

A machine gun burst rings out,
Three rapid shots,
And the lieutenant goes to his grave.
The medical officer buzzes over him like a swarm of bees.
“There’s no use here,” he shouts,
“He’s got a cavity where once his brain had been.”
A hollow mind for a hollow life.
(I wince.)

Empty helmets teeter on their backs like beetles,
Struggling for someone to right them on their feet,
But I’m here to snuff them out.
No mercy for the wicked.
I spy an enemy soldier unawares and take aim.
Your life belongs to me now,
I’m here to snuff it out.
(I cry.)

The muzzle reports with a loud bang,
And a body in the distance falls limp.
“That was for the lieutenant” my other soldiers chime.
They have no tact, spitting in the wind,
And fill the corpse with lead–
Vitamins for the wicked.
Take your pills, it won’t hurt for long.
(I load another magazine.)

We shuffle across No Man’s Land,
Speaking with our hands,
And a tower of Hell rises up from the rubble.
I know you’re in there watching me through your sights;
I’m helpless, all alone in the open,
And Death has singled me out.
Make this quick, I have an appointment with God–
Tea at noon.
(Did someone yell “get down?”)

Someone grabs my arm just a moment too late,
I felt the wasp’s sting,
The landscape goes from gray to black.
My mind thinks its last thoughts on the way to my nap.
Where do heathens go when they die?
I’ll ask God when we sit down for tea,
And then I’ll ask about my brother.
(He died at the age of three.)

A few grenades later and our platoon has been dropped.
The building nearby collapses and buries us all.
My soul was buried before I was,
And for my sins my punishment:
Rotting in an unmarked grave,
With a bullet for a heart,
And shrapnel for brains.
(The tea is delicious, by the way.)


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