Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Ode for the American Dead in Asia” succeeds as both a pacifist statement about all wars and an antiwar poem about a particular war, the Korean War. Except for the references to rice paddies, the poem in its entirety is general. McGrath’s most important theme is the connection of “bravery” and “ignorance,” which he makes in all three stanzas and which he focuses upon in the last lines. Clearly, McGrath, himself a veteran of World War II and a person who had been on the battlefield, believes that bravery, in war at least, is a product of ignorance:
You mined a culture that was mined for war:The state to mold you, church to bless, and alwaysThe elders to confirm you in your ignorance.
A cliché of Western civilization going back to the Greeks is revisited here in thought if not in words: “Old men legislate wars that young men fight.” However, in this work bravery is to be lamented, not celebrated.
Perhaps of more importance than the connection between bravery and ignorance is the connection between bravery and death. Ignorance accounts for bravery, and bravery, in turn, accounts for death. The poet seeks recognition of this, but there is no call to action—no sense that readers (mourners) should do anything more than realize the futility of deaths in these faraway countries. In the early 1970’s, the...
(The entire section is 363 words.)
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