”Good kill.” Olivia Garard. In War, Literature & the Arts. Volume 30, 2018.
Olivia Garard has written clearly and insightfully about drones, reading lists, and the Marine Corps, but her latest offering is something more artistic. Her poem,“Good kill,” published in the most recent War, Literature, and Arts grapples with the moral contradiction inherent in the practice of professional soldiering.
To excel in the practice of killing is to apply violence justly and proportionately—a good kill is like a good tackle—proper form and technique, inside the white lines. But can a good kill be good? Good like “a Monet or a mausoleum?” This question drives Garard’s skillful poetry debut.
“Good kill” focuses on the soldier’s role as a killer. But, through short, disorienting lines, deliberate structure, and focused word choice, the poem recalls war poetry where soldiers are victims of violence, such as Dulce et Decorum Est. In doing so, Garard shows that whether professional soldiers are agents or victims of violence, perpetrators or persecuted, questions about the morality of war still confound and challenge our moral intuition.
The profile of Emily Wilson, the first women to translate the Odyssey into English, in the New York Times magazine last year, opens on the 5th word of the Odyssey—polytropos. Much of the characterization of Odysseus rests on the opening lines about him. Is he “many turning” or “many turned?” Is he a clever hero, or is he a victim, tossed and turned about by the gods.
“Good kill” turns on a similar tension. As a practitioner of violence, Garard’s narrator is many turning. American soldiers are armed with a dizzying array of technological tricks that allow them to defeat their enemy tactically—to kill them. But when the narrator hears the language used to describe that violence, the words disorient her. She becomes many turned, swept up in the tides of a never-ending war and a culture that tries to rationalize and moralize certain forms of violence.
The opening line of “Good kill” seems to be spoken at the narrator, a kind of affirmation, likely at the end of some kind of training evolution. “The words disorient” the narrator, and the structure of the poem similarly disorients, with indents and prolonged spacing between lines. Like the E.E. Cummings poem “l(a” which uses short lines where even the letters of a single word are separated, to give the feeling of loneliness and isolation, Garard seems to be suggesting at the moment of the narrator’s questioning of the morality of killing, the narrator is separated from the soldierly tribe. To question killing is to risk being ostracized and exiled.
My initial read of the poem immediately called to mind Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” The nature of the war in which Garard’s narrator fights could not be more dissimilar. Owen’s war was defensive. Soldiers sheltered in trenches and were bombarded or waded into fields of devastating machine gun fire. Great powers delivered hammer blows to each other on muddy battlefields for weeks. In this kind of war, soldiers were lambs, victims in a slaughter machine.
For Garard’s narrator, who fights for the world’s dominant military power, war is offensive, and asymmetric. Violence is meted out with lightning speed and aided by frighteningly advanced technology against an exponentially less technologically advanced opponent. The two situations couldn’t be more different. Garard’s narrator is agentic, Owen’s “boys” are casualties. Yet the language of Garard contains eerie similarities to Owen.
In the sixth line, after being spoken to, the narrator is “tired, fumbling in night vision goggles for the rest of my gear.” The green glow of night vision goggles calls to mind the “misty green panes” of gas masks in Owen’s poem—the narrator’s fumbling much like the “ecstasy of fumbling” Owen describes of soldiers after a gas attack.
A gas attack disorients victims, and undermines the glory of dying for flag and country. For Garard, it is words that disorient, words spoken at her narrator, not fired from an enemy cannon, but spoken from a friendly mouth. While the gender of the narrator is not explicit, Garard’s formulation reminds me that a presumably male voice can be a threat to women who serve, even if they wear the same uniform.
While women have served in front line capacities in war for as long as there has been war, hearing the voice of a female killer is relatively rare. There is a large and understudied trove of female responses to World War I. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is famously dedicated to Jessie Pope, who wrote poems encouraging young men to enlist. Mary Gabrielle Collins, in “Women at Munition Making,” wonders if the women filling factory roles, partaking in the making of implements of war, were forsaking a traditionally feminine life giving role to participate in life taking.
Their thoughts, which should fly
Like bees among the sweetest mind flowers
Gaining nourishment for the thoughts to be,
Are bruised against the law,
Other women poets of World War I were envious of men’s greater agency to enlist, and fight, such as Rose Macaulay in “Many Sisters to Many Brothers”:
Oh, it's you that have the luck, out there in blood and muck:
You were born beneath a kindly star;
All we dreamt, I and you, you can really go and do,
And I can't, the way things are.
In a trench you are sitting, while I am knitting
A hopeless sock that never gets done.
Garard’s narrator has the opportunity to participate in war, the opportunity Macaulay dreamed of. But the opening of combat roles to women in the U.S. military does not resolve war’s central tensions of killing and being killed.
In “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” Owen takes aim at the idea that it is right and just to die for one’s country; Garard’s poem challenges the idea that it is good to kill for the same. The titles of both poems highlight ironies—that death can be honorable, or that killing can be moral. Owen takes all the honor out of death. There is no glory in his poem. There are only “white eyes writhing in his face...like a devil’s sick of sin.” There is only “blood...gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” In Owen’s world, death is ugly.
Because the nature of Garard’s narrator’s war is different, the challenge with which she is presented is different. Rather than looking at dead bodies and discarding the idea that dying for your country can be sweet and just, Garard’s narrator wonders if killing for your country can be good. The challenge is less direct, but is still grappled with in a significant way. Since it is “an Other” who suffers for Garard, rather than witnessing the death of those on his own side as Owen did, the route to the central tension is less direct, less visceral than Owen’s horribly disfigured bodies. But the seeming contradiction between the language encouraging war as “sweet and just” for Owen or, in Garard’s case, “good” is still the ultimate destination, the point from which neither poet can go further.
Good belongs with Monets and mausoleums,
Not the impression of a 5.56mm ball round deadening—
In the arena of war, “logic and morality [clash],” and Garard seems to make peace with the notion that killing can at least be logical; it can be “Just.” But the poem, playing with capitalization, challenges the idea that it can be good, even though “this was Just / just training / just blanks.” Just because a killing is just, must we call it good?
Too often we don’t allow logic and morality to clash. We conflate the two. A just killing becomes a good killing, and we fail to ask the most basic questions—why do we have war? Our theology and morality justify war with words like “good” as if jus ad bellum alone could wash away the guilt of killing, at which the conscience recoils, even if it is necessary.
What Garard’s poem does best is return us to a proper understanding of war as not a place of moral justification, but a place of moral complexity, where armies ignorant of morality, or at least consciously suppressing it, clash by night. The moral intuition of Garard’s narrator recoils at killing—calling it “good” cannot make killing “dulce et decorum”…unless, of course, we repeat the words so often they become rote, and we forget ourselves. “The only difference between this and spilling blood was practice.”
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Header Image: “The Sea of Galilee- Aeroplanes Attacking Turkish Boats, 1919” by Sydney William Carline (Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia)
 Cummings, E., & Firmage, G. (2002). 95 poems. New York: Liveright.
 Clayton, B. Women’s Poetry of World War I. English Association First World War Bookmarks No. 8. https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/publications/bookmarks/WW1/womens-poetry-of-the-first-world-war