By Victor Enns

I am not a soldier, and never have been. They have, however, been speaking to me since 2007 through these poems, and directly in interviews with Canadian soldiers back from Afghanistan (from 2008 – 2009). I traveled to Kabul in May 2008 to get a sense of the landscape, the people (Afghan’s by the way not Afghani’s – that’s the name of their money) and whether Afghan civilians supported Western intervention. The answer usually was “it’s not a choice between good and bad, it’s a choice between bad and worse.”  Western intervention being bad, but Taliban governance being worse.  

The Afghans I spoke with were between the ages of 20 and 84, with those under 30 never having known peace.  They were always polite, showing trade mark Afghan hospitality and may have had different feelings about Canadian soldiers than they shared with me so as not to offend. Canadian soldiers have been involved in intense fighting based out of Kandahar (and I only visited Kabul, Kandahar not being safe enough for an individual to visit when I was there) until their departure this summer.

The Afghans were also all men, with one exception. I had made contact with a midwife that had been trained by a Canadian I got to know from Winnipeg who had spent 18 months training Afghan women to be midwives. Afghan men are not allowed to touch women who they are not related to by marriage or by blood. This is very slow to change and often means that women in distress in childbirth cannot be attended by a male doctor, resulting in a high rate of infant mortality. This midwife, escorted by a female cousin, spoke of the hardship under the Taliban of being kept indoors, sewing burqas to support her family. She had finished high school but was not allowed to work or leave the house under the Taliban. With the new administration, however corrupt, she was able to learn, to hold an important job and support the other four members of her family (including men).

I heard many sad stories, and was most disheartened by how many of the young people wanted to leave. The educated young people, with one exception, all asked if there was a way I could get them into the west. Without their education and contributions to the civil life of the country the future looks dim.

 I have written some poems about these stories but have not submitted them to any journals because I am uncomfortable appropriating the Afghan voice. They will speak for themselves.

On the other hand, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I am comfortable speaking in the voices of soldiers. I have had some interesting responses to the work. The Canadian Forces provided some access to soldiers to listen to their stories for which I am grateful, but there was distrust pretty much at every level. Partly this was because of my Mennonite name (a preacher’s kid, I was raised a pacifist), but largely because, soldiers, at every level, feel they are misrepresented by the media. The soldiers were concerned I’d use their words against them.

On the other hand my politically progressive friends, editors and writers have expressed concern that I would “speak” in the voice of a soldier, as clearly and precisely as possible, with a minimum of editorializing. They were afraid I’d use the voices of soldiers for them in support an ongoing war.

The choice I’ve made is to use mostly my own words – though I’ve heard a lot of stories, only a few of poems actually are based on them. Rather the stories provided character, incident, images and inspiration.  My intention is not to “use” the voices of soldiers either, for, or against them or the war, but to present them to the reader. Most soldiers I spoke to did not feel heard, saying their experience was not being communicated to the folks at home.

During the course of writing these poems I maintained an email correspondence with (now Master) Corporal Neil Maclean who provided encouragement and valuable technical advice. He served in Bosnia and did three tours in Afghanistan, the last in special operations.  I sent him the complete manuscript in October 2010, and it appeared with corrections on about 60 of the poems, in my porch at 200 Lenore Street exactly a year later – in time for my writing retreat in Eastend where I revised the poems and completed the manuscript.

The poems here are only a small selection, there are actually 365 poems, and though a few voices and characters repeat, I’ve tried to provide diversity of voices.  Another thing soldiers can’t stand is being thought of a unit or a stereotype or as stupid. Each soldier is different and has their own reason for being where they are.  One soldier I met joined up for the structure, because he had hippie parents, another because his studies in Classics, English and History (he had an MA) inspired him to “give or get glory” as Homer sets out in the Illiad. He chose to be an infantrymen rather than complete officer’s training. 

Some readers are concerned about the manuscript’s title Afghanistan Confessions and its repeated use numbered to 365. The title may imply that all soldiers have something to confess, and while it is true we all have whatever guilt we carry and that civilians and even saints like Augustine have something to confess, few of us will ever have to shoulder the burden of taking another human life, or seeing the death and destruction common to all wars. 

Here, then are some poems about the war in Afghanistan

Enns REVIEWED – Afghan Confessions

Afghanistan Confessions Publications
1 – 9 Poetry is Dead; Print and On-line (Canada)
14 Mennonite Brethern Herald; Print (Canada)
17 Poetry in Motion – Winnipeg Transit (Canada)
49, 50 Rattle Magazine, Print (US)
117 Cottonwood, Print  (US)




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