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 title of this poem was changed from “Ode to the American Dead in Korea” to “Ode for the American Dead in Asia.” McGrath’s reasons were all too tragically true. The United States government, having not learned any lessons about bravery and deaths of soldiers in Korea in the 1950’s, became involved militarily in Vietnam in the 1960’s, which resulted in exactly the same consequences. American youths lay dead in rice paddies in Asian jungles in “scarecrow valor” to be returned to places such as North Dakota, where their courage would count for nothing, and would continue to exist only in the form of “fossil[that] fills/ The limestone histories.” The “nameless hills” are in Asia where American youth were killed, and they are in the United States where these brave one are buried.