Counting Small-Boned Bodies

by Robert Bly

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Themes and Meanings

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Bly calls on his personal imagination to create the stages the bodies pass through as they are made smaller. By contrasting the concrete images of plain, desk, and ring with the surreal idea of shrinking the bodies, he heightens the satire. Readers can see that the Pentagon method of scoring progress in the war really does make the bodies smaller, the deaths less important, and the enemy something other than human. Indeed, Bly makes his view clear that the body-count method of tracking the progress of the war is evil.

While death has always been a result of war, previous methods of calculating progress in conflict involved measuring geographic territory taken and held. This proved to be impossible in Vietnam for several reasons, the main one being that in a guerilla war in a jungle setting, the enemy can return and may at any time be only a few feet away. In addition, the United States forces found it difficult to distinguish between civilians and soldiers, Vietnamese allies and Viet Cong enemies.

Because honors were meted out to American units based on their reporting of body counts, such statistics were often inflated—in fact, a “partial body count” process was created to help make U.S. forces appear superior. Disparaging comparisons were made between body counts and baseball scores. Bly read “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” and other antiwar poems during rallies and readings, often while wearing a frightening patriarchal mask. He became a prominent member of the antiwar movement, which held that the United States should withdraw and leave the conflict to be settled by the Vietnamese themselves.

“Counting Small-Boned Bodies” may be read as a powerful statement against all war and especially against the war it was written to denounce. It demonstrates that all war remains visceral and abhorrent. As published in Bly’s second collection of poems, The Light Around the Body, the poem appears in a chapter simply entitled “Viet Nam.” When Bly won the National Book Award for the collection, he contributed the prize money to a group he had helped found in 1966, Writers Against the War.

“Counting Small-Boned Bodies” is especially effective in its final image. In war, soldiers often take souvenirs consisting of a piece of the equipment, personal effects, body or hair of the defeated enemy. Bly’s final image of the shrunken body as a keepsake suggests both the horror of plunder and the casual aplomb with which the results of victory may be flaunted. The reader is left with the warning that the practice of counting bodies and, by implication, other such misrepresentations of the truth will result in lasting psychological damage to the warring culture.

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