Henry Reed was inspired to write "Naming of Parts" following his experience as a soldier in World War II, and the poem is historically specific to his time and place while addressing popular and even universal themes. Reed's poem speaks about the specific types of rifles used by soldiers in World War II, and it appears to be set in Japan—the country where Reed worked as a translator for the military, and a major player in that war. At the same time, with its critique of war, the poem joins a thriving tradition of anti-war poetry and literature—one that rose to particular prominence after the First World War. Here, we'll examine several poetic critiques of war from the twentieth century, examining the approach from several angles, and including poets who bore witness as soldiers, those who were affected as civilians, those who imagined war from afar, and those who focused on the fragile safety of peace during wartime.
"Naming of Parts" was not the only anti-war poem that focused on weaponry or technology. The twentieth century was a period of rapid and frightening technological development in war, from the chemical weapons of World War I to the use of airplanes to the nuclear bombs that arose during World War II. British poet Wilfred Owen's famous poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" describes the inhumanity of chemical weapons with phrases like "froth-corrupted lungs." Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" describes the death of a World-War II era soldier, responsible for protecting the vulnerable underside of a warplane: "I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. / When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose," Jarrell writes.
The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II prompted their own waves of horrified literary response from poets, Japanese and international. Writer Togē Sankichi, himself a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, wrote vividly of the horror and violence he witnessed in the poem "August 6" with the description "before long, a line of naked bodies walking in groups, crying / with skin hanging down like rags / hands on chests / stamping on crumbled brain matter." Another survivor, Sadako Kurihara, fictionalized her experiences in the poem "Let us be Midwives!," in which a woman gives birth inside a bomb shelter: "And so new life was born in the dark of that pit of hell. / And so the midwife died before dawn, still bathed in blood. / Let us be midwives!" Meanwhile, From abroad, the American poet Margaret Rockwell described the bomb metaphorically as a "Dragon with a lantern in his mouth / To light the way to hell.." while the Malaysian poet Usman Awang protested nuclear weapons with the words "Change the bombs for balloons for children to dance with."
While some poets described the visceral violence they witnessed and others imagined that violence from afar, many poets instead described the tension and anxiety of those safe at home during wartime. Siegfried Sassoon, a prolific poetic critic of World War I, focused on the traumas of a former soldier in "Repression of War Experience." "You're quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home; / You'd never think there was a bloody war on!… /O yes, you would … why, you can hear the guns," Sassoon wrote. Philip Larkin's "MCMXIV," though published in the 1960s, actually describes the soon-broken peace at the outset of World War I: "the men Leaving the gardens tidy, / The thousands of marriages, / Lasting a little while longer: / Never such innocence again." Women, often left at home as loved ones departed to fight, recorded their own experiences in poetry. Vera Brittain mourned the death of her fiancé in World War I, writing "Perhaps some day the sun will shine again, / And I shall see that still the skies are blue, / And feel once more I do not live in vain. / Although bereft of You." Katherine Tynan's "Joining the Colours" mimics the jingoism of nationalistic war poetry, but darkly suggests that enthusiastic soldiers will likely die in vain, observing "With tin whistles, mouth organs, any noise, / They pipe the way to glory and the grave..."
The two World Wars gave rise to enormous amounts of poetry protesting war or mourning wartime losses, but the tradition of the anti-war poem has remained long after the end of the Second World War. Americans who objected to the Vietnam War composed not only poems, but also songs that served as anthems for their movement. Later, in a huge variety of languages, poets recorded the devastation of the Balkan War or protested Western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. As photography, film, and other new technologies offer new ways to convey the reality of war to the uninvolved, poetry and literature have remained valuable tools for describing its impact on the internal lives of soldiers and civilians.