During his career, Fenton was a freelance reporter in Indochina, and a number of his poems deal with the violent revolutionary and civil wars in that region that he witnessed firsthand. The central theme of “Dead Soldiers” focuses on two primary aspects of those conflicts: first, the manner in which the brutality of war can coexist with a superficial “cultured” life; and second, the tendency for interfamily conflicts to be the most vicious and unforgiving of all. The first theme is announced boldly in the second line of the poem when Fenton notes that the prince had “Invited [him] to lunch on the battlefield,” an invitation that would make sense perhaps only in such a surreal atmosphere as that of the Cambodian civil war. Yet the invitation is consistent with the situation because, as the poem notes with characteristic irony, “They lived well, the mad Norodoms, they had style.” While this luncheon was unfolding, troops and armored personnel carriers were pushing into the jungle, seeking rebel soldiers to fight and kill, but none was there. However, just because there were no casualties on this particular battlefield does not mean there was none elsewhere or that the war was without victims. Those casualties and that violence were real and the luxurious lunch only underscored their true horror. The second theme, that of internecine family conflict, is more casually introduced and embroidered upon. In the fifth stanza, the poem casually notes that the prince’s drunken aide, the Jockey Cap, was Saloth Sar’s brother and reveals, a few lines later, that “Saloth Sar, for instance,/ Was Pol Pot’s real name.” In such a casual fashion is the identity of one of the twentieth century’s most infamous mass murderers uncovered and linked to this seemingly minor incident in a distant jungle.
“Dead Soldiers” is a deceptively simple poem, a story that seems to have no meaning beyond the events it relates. However, once its narrative is opened to reveal its ironies and deeper references, it is clear that Fenton is writing a modern variant of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), where the slim veneer of “civilization” is all too ready to crack, and the dead soldiers of his title are not only so many empty bottles but also too many fallen bodies.