Kilroy Essays and Criticism
by Peter Viereck

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The American Spirit of Adventure

(Poetry for Students)

“Kilroy” is a poem that could not have been written about the War in Vietnam, the more recent Gulf War, or even earlier conflicts such as World War I and the American Civil War. Its cavalier treatment of a soldier’s experience (on the surface, at least—obviously, the poet is familiar with the actual horrors of battle) reflects Americans’ overwhelming support of the government’s declaration of war on Japan after its attack on Pearl Harbor. Shocked and angered by this act of aggression, young men were happy to sign up for the armed forces, not only to protect their own nation, but also to help rid the world of Nazism, Fascism, and any other governing system considered evil by most of the free world. Likewise, American citizens were happy to support them. But even in the midst of gung ho patriotic fervor and feelings of justification in fighting for a worthy cause, real combat is anything but glorious victories, conquering heroes, and exotic travel.

Adolph Hitler was one of the most feared and despised men in the history of the human race. As obvious as his unquenchable thirst for power and territory was, the full terror of his inhumane plans was not completely recognized by people outside the target groups—Jews, people of color, homosexuals, and others deemed unsuitable—until the war was over. Even so, the “Final Solution” was understood well enough by Hitler’s enemies to know it was a threat to democracy and individual rights everywhere. Americans who may have felt isolated or protected from Germany’s aggression changed their tunes in 1941, realizing Hitler’s push to conquer the world was supported by nations hoping to gain more territory for themselves by supporting Germany—in particular, Japan and Italy. But a newly enlisted soldier who suddenly found himself in boot camp and weeks later in some distant land a world away from family and friends must have felt fear and confusion, if not panic and regret. Many who wound up in Europe, Africa, or the South Pacific islands had probably never ventured far from their quiet homes in the suburbs, that place considered a “final trap” in the poem. But how likely is it that a GI trying to fall asleep in a tent somewhere with death a possibility at every moment would be thinking of his home in America as a trap?

Throughout “Kilroy” the hero is compared to figures who are not even fighting a war when they go on their adventures. Only Ulysses has a connection to battle, but the accounts of his journeys make it clear that he would have preferred to go home to his wife after the Trojan War instead of being sentenced to ten years traveling dangerous seas. Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus were not warriors, but explorers. Their agenda was obvious and a great spirit of adventure came with the territory. In the tale of Icarus, the point is clear that he is a victim of youthful abandon and too immature to appreciate a need for caution. And Orestes is hardly a swashbuckling soldier; rather he is an accused killer on the run. So what do these mythological and historical figures really have in common with Viereck’s concept of the American GI in World War II? The most likely answer is that the overwhelming feeling of patriotism that permeated soldiers and citizens alike during this war is easily translated into a high-spirited sense of duty and self-righteousness. Kilroy is a man on a mission— one that not only provides an opportunity to see the world, but that may also save it from destruction.

Consider a poem written about a soldier’s experience in the American Civil War. Most likely a “Kilroy” in this conflict would have had a Blue or Gray counterpart just as heroic. Supporters of both the Confederacy and of the Union considered themselves “Americans,” and, therefore, each side considered themselves patriotic and justified. But this war tore the United States apart, and a poet would have difficulty singling out any one particular trait of the real...

(The entire section is 6,720 words.)