The Known Soldier

A Shakespearean sonnet by Liùsaidh

                       Truth is the first casualty of war

Remember them, we etch on walls of pain
We lay the wreaths, we offer our salutes,
Unnumbered crosses on some poppied plain:
Interred beneath lies mustard gas, and Truth.

How many does war claim that are not counted?
Statistics lie, they’ll say he lived his life.
For when the tales of war are thus recounted,
They’ll honour him discharged, returned to wife.

Still in the swamps, still in an Asian cage,
The horrors that he breathed, he’ll never tell,
Chemical wars, those curses of our Age —
At conflict’s end, he’s still chained up in hell.

Truth turns on bitter breezes. How we’ve sinned.
It’s Agent Orange blowing in the wind.


Liùsaidh (LJ McDowall) is a poet, author, and literary editor from Scotland. As LJ McDowall, she edits Quarterday, a poetry journal dedicated to classical poetry. Her poems have been widely published online and in print, most notably in Poets and War, Eastern Structures, Setu Magazine, the Ghazal Page, and many others. Her poetry has received honourable mention in the World Haiku Review and is forthcoming in Measure. She writes mostly of love and war.

10 thoughts on “The Known Soldier”

  1. This poem sprung from a discussion on Vietnam veterans dying of Agent Orange poisoning. The discussion caused me to ponder how many military casualties of war aren’t actually counted in the statistics — men and women honourably discharged— but returned to their families with long term health problems; broken bodies and minds.

    I then considered the use of chemical weapons in the ‘war to end all wars’ and drew an continual line of connection between the use of mustard gas in the First World War through to the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The colour palate of ‘mustard’ and ‘orange’ work both as a line of continuity between two fruitless conflicts of the modern age, and as a contrast.

    I referenced Philip Snowden’s comment (referencing Thucydides) that truth is the first casualty of war. The truth is that lives cut short by Agent Orange poisoning mean that, nearly four decades later, the military death toll from Vietnam war is still rising.

    Finally, the protest song ‘Blowing in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan, associated with the Vietnam War, poses a question that this poem attempts to answer: the ‘answer’ is that chemical warfare is no respecter of sides, of borders, of civilians, or of the Earth.

    In terms of form, my choice of the Shakespearean sonnet stems from the ethical and philosophical questions posed by the use of chemical warfare. While the sonnet is traditionally an Italian love poem, Donne and Shakespeare both used it in their metaphysical poetry because the first two quatrains posed question that the third answered. The use of the volta, or turn, is intended as a powerful shift in tone, with the final couplet the poet’s conclusion to the the answer. For all the sonnet’s brevity, it’s a complex form, and ideal for the treatment of complex themes.

  2. Wonderful poem. I like the multiple determinations of air and breath. The call back to mustard gas as precursor, and, of course, a nod to Dylan never hurts.

    It’s personally moving because a friend of mine who was exposed to agent orange during his time in Vietnam was only just recently given a disability rating, but only after his heart nearly failed due to complications related to his documented exposure. The idea of “exposure” and lingering effects/affects (pick one or both) is a painful complexity to which your poem speaks.

  3. So much is going on in this piece. A hundred years after Wilfred Owen laid bare the Truth of chem warfare, and fifty years after we refused to learn that lesson, we’re still seeing the horrors on the faces of those who ‘will never tell.’ Something societies thinking of new ways to kill from a distance try to insulate themselves from.

    The volta is a powerful tool. We think the poem addresses the horrors in the past and it does. But it turns, and we see that it’s about the present, and it’s about our sin, our complicity.

    This poem really rewards multiple reads.

  4. To be honest this really need to be the concluding sonnet to a heroic crown. The more I look at it I see the structure of a narrative covering warfare in the C20th emerging.

  5. Liusaidh, please write that sequence! I see a memorable, affecting, and effective book in your future. One glorious gift that the modernists gave us, as you know, is the model of a work made up of multiple parts, presented sometimes more in a Cubist or dadaist collage aesthetic than in traditional narrative order.

    One of my primary pleasures in re-reading poems is noticing how on re-reading certain lines gather strength, and sometimes are so strong that I find myself reciting them on occasion: I read a headline from some civil war or another, and hear myself reciting your fourth line.

    A single line, well wrought, can become a sort of absolute dictum to individual readers (share one of yours?). Who knows, might even become a meme, as some of those fragments from Shakespeare did before the deluge of the internet and digital media.

  6. I’ve been thinking on how to do this, but a history of chemical warfare will require almost a ‘knitting’ or ‘sewing’ approach where the first four lines of each sonnet offer a question in relation to the modern age before backtracking to historical considerations. It’s a very ambitious project and not one I have time for at the present, but I will do it before this year as a remembrance poem for Private Hugh McDowall, my great-grandfather, from whose loss in Flanders in the Great War our family never recovered. I’ll submit it here when it’s done.

  7. As to a memorable line. So many, but this one rings especially true from Donne (Love’s Increase)

    “As princes do in times of action
    Get new taxes and remit them not in peace…”

    Some things never change.

    But more on topic, perhaps, is this one — the Department of Labour Haiku by American poet Cheryl Savageau,

    in winter snow
    soup kitchens fill up with steam
    and men out of work.

  8. One reason your fourth line pleases me is that rather than using the plural noun “lie” and eliminating the comma, you have constructed this line to seem spontaneous and conversational, as if the speaker starts with only mustard gas in mind and then (ah ha!) realizes that truth lies there, too. I am less taken with Cheryl Savageau’s haiku, on the traditional grounds that there should be no redundancy: “in winter” seems unnecessary since we have a season word, “snow,” and “out of work” does not add much that we did not know from “soup kitchens.” That is six wasted syllables! While I am acting all stuffy and pedantic, I might as well add that the plural “kitchens” might better be singular. Thanks for the Donne reference, by the way. He is one of those poets whom I realize to my horror that I have not reread in several years.

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