SHERPATUDE NO. 26: "HUMOR IS A COMBAT MULTIPLIER ..." Has your war become workaday? Does life on the Forward Operating Base (FOB) now seem commonplace? Armed with deadpan snark and poker-faced patriotism-and rooted in the coffee-black soil and plain-spoken voice of the American Midwest-journalist-turned-poet Randy Brown reveals behind-the-scenes stories of U.S. soldier-citizenship. From Boot Camp to Bagram, Afghanistan. And back home again. Here's a taste: Three Cups of Chai-ku 1. I had hoped, I guess, for something more like Starbucks, not yellow water. 2. We build our nations one tea party at a time. They serve, we protect. 3. No one here can lead this endless talk of action. "Que shura, shura."
Freelance writer and citizen-soldier by day, and secret (writing as "Charlie Sherpa") blogger by night, Randy Brown was preparing in 2010 to deploy as the sole "knowledge manager" for an Iowa National Guard unit of 3,000 soldiers. ("Historian, librarian, lessons-learned reporter—it was sexier to say my job was 'Brigade Staff Jester,'" he jokes.) After a paperwork snafu dropped him off the list, he retired with 20 years of military service and a previous overseas deployment. He then went to Afghanistan anyway, embedding with his former colleagues as a civilian journalist.
Brown's often-humorous military-themed poetry and non-fiction have appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies. He was the 2015 winner of the inaugural Madigan Award for humorous military-themed writing, presented by Negative Capability Press, Mobile, Ala.
Brown was the 2012 winner of the Military Reporters and Editors' (M.R.E.) independent-blogging category, and a past finalist in the Milblogging.com awards' reporter (2011) and veteran (2012) categories.
He is the current poetry editor of Military Experience & the Arts’ literary journal As You Were.
Poetry is, by nature, sparsely populated with words, almost to the point of being terse. Words carefully chosen, however, can explode into the mind, creating images and understanding where none existed before. If you ever wondered about the experiences of our service members in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is a must-read poetry book. It logs the humor and joy as well as the pathos and tragedy that comes as a result of serving in the American military.
The poetry is divided into several sections titled Basic Issue, Getting Embed, FOB Haiku, Lessons Learned, and Homecoming. A final section titled Notes contains valuable definitions as well as pronunciations for the ever-present military acronyms. Information in this section is critical to the understanding of how the poetry is to be read, since many of us do not know how to pronounce DFAC or TOC. My advice is to read the notes for each section before you read the poetry in that section. I think it will deepen the experience as well as allow you to get the meter that the poet intended.
One poem in particular changed the way I think of my son’s service in Iraq, where he was killed in action. “Hamlet in Afghanistan” enabled me to realize more than I had allowed myself to think that “nothing we can ever do will change that day in the village.” Heartrending, but true.
Not everyone in America understands the military culture. But for those who lived it, this book will bring remembrance and affirmation. For those who are families and friends of service members, this book will help you gain new understanding of your loved ones. For those without experience in this field, you may end up with a fresh look at what it’s all about.
An enjoyable collection of poetry (haiku and other forms) from a veteran about his experiences at war – sometimes boring, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes something in between but altogether indescribable, Brown makes as much sense of war that can be made in a poetic way. Great read. Highly recommend it.
The plan was to just read a few poems here and there to prep for an interview with the author, but I ended up tearing straight through and finishing in a day. Some terrific thoughts and images; some heartbreaking and dredging up fresh decade-old memories.
For a thoughtful look at the vivid moments of soldiering and homecoming, I definitely recommend this volume.
Poetry expresses that which cannot be said any other way. In his first book of poetry, Randy Brown, known to his blog followers as “Charlie Sherpa,” beautifully and simply relates his experience of war.
As the name of the book implies, much of his work takes the form of haikus, though the author also delves into longer poetry that, both in its free meter and rhyme, often reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner. The brevity of the haiku, perhaps the form’s greatest strength, speaks to my own love of short poetry. In just 17 syllables, Brown’s pieces capture a year’s worth of moments in Afghanistan.
That is what I identified with the most: those word images that remind me of the unbearable, yet cherished, memories that make up a combat deployment. Though I have never been to Afghanistan, reading his work stirred deep, emotional memories of my own time in Iraq. The first time I read his poem night vision, which recounts a patrol between American soldiers and their Afghan counterparts, it seemed to rip me from the comfort of my living room back to the worst—and best—memories of my adult life.
Like any good soldier, of course, the author often recounts the incomprehensibility of combat with a healthy dose of humor. I found myself grinning unconsciously while reading “your convoy leader writes haiku,” picturing any number of grizzled non-commissioned officers specifying road speed and following distance in classical Japanese form. Moreover, I could not help but enjoy the author’s use of the Army’s famously esoteric jargon to make beautifully original poems. The author uses the Army’s acronyms and pidgin English felt like he was winking knowingly at me and the other the veterans who will read the book.
As you can probably tell, I greatly enjoyed Randy Brown’s Welcome to FOB Haiku. My dog-eared copy proudly sits on my shelf—when I am not taking packing it off to the couch to read again. His well-written, beautiful, funny, and jarringly honest portrayal of a Global War on Terrorism deployment exemplifies what I believe poetry was made for: saying that which will never be able to be said in any other way.
L. Burton Brender is an associate member of the Military Writers Guild and the coauthor of In Cadence, a book of poetry from two Army officers. Follow his blog, Swords & Pens, at yobousensou.blogspot.com.
Randy Brown's book of wartime poetry is different than some other war poetry you might be familiar with like McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" and Sassoon's "Dreamers". Where those seem to encapsulate war for the maximum understanding of humankind, Brown's poems are likely specifically for the soldiers he served with. There is liberal use of military jargon that reminds me of fan-targeted Easter eggs in comic book films. The average person will understand the poem, but the soldier will appreciate it on another level.
Take, for example, a stanza "your drill sergeant writes haiku, too":
You are all ate up Like a soup sandwich, soldier! Where! Is! Your! Weapon?!
I imagine this haiku is comprehensible to anyone fluent in English. But every single line brings the veteran soldier back to a moment in time in Basic Training. He or she has heard these exact words and curiously make him nostalgic for a time once hated. The final line's punctuation can only truly be enjoyed by those who have heard them yelled by a Drill Sergeant's trademark staccato and understand the implied consequences and fear of being without one's rifle.
As a veteran, this book of poetry is worth all five available stars. It reads as one giant inside joke and gives the same wink and an understanding that old veterans look for at VFWs: I was there too.
A short, enjoyable read. The poetry is undemanding and unpretentious which makes it accessible to a wide audience. Beneath the simplicity lies depth, beauty and a deep intellect at work. Brown's unique standpoint as writer-soldier-poet makes for compelling reading. Within minutes of looking at the Amazon preview, I knew that this was a must-buy. Despite having served in different Armies on opposite sides of the Atlantic, there are strong parallels between Randy's experiences and my own as a part time Cold War Warrior turned Iraq / Afghanistan regular soldier and officer. The book captures the entire essence of the soldier's experience - there is a humour that will draw out belly laughs (Grace, Ready to Eat, Your Drill Sergeant Writes Haiku Too) and a sense of pathos (Love Note From a Drone) that will bring the reader to the point of tears. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in poetry, conflict and military matters, whether or not they have served.
What I picked up thinking was going to be a humorous little adventure - as only "Charlie Sherpa" can create - I put down with a chill down my spine. This is a thematically expansive collection containing humor, heartbreak, happiness, and nostalgia. It is a fitting mix given the subject, as many veterans (this once included) can say the same as they reflect on their service. There are some gems in this work, and overall it is a genuine treasure in the canon of military literature and poetry.