Bruce Phillips believed that killing people in war was wrong. After fighting in Korea, he became a conscientious objector. But he was certainly no coward: he volunteered as a smokejumper. Smokejumpers parachute into forest fires to extinguish them while the fire is still remote, before it becomes a direct threat to the public. Conscientious objectors during WWII pioneered the practice, and by the end of the war, 240 were deployed smokejumping across the country. Due to the success of the program, the US Forest Service continues it to this day.
I cried when I first read this poem. It testifies to the conscientious objectors’ courage, and nonviolent convictions. They were real men.
War came; the young men
all stood in line to go.
But we, when asked to take the oath,
simply answered, “No.”
For what we said was simple,
though said by just a few:
“I will not shoot another man
because I’m ordered to.”
No wonder some were puzzled,
or took it as a joke,
when COs wrote and volunteered
to jump into the smoke.
You said that what we were doing
could prove that we were men;
we had—and didn’t need your words
to prove it once again.
You thought that we were renegades,
and the training much to hard;
we packed your words in our duffel bags
and left for Camp Menard.
But you shunned us in the cookhouse,
and cursed us to our souls;
your words were blurred by the heat and sweat,
as we practiced landing rolls.
You said we were too yellow
to jump with airborne troops;
we rolled your words in our shroud lines
when the rigger packed our chutes.
We turned aside your hatred,
and blunted your abuse;
we held your words in clenching teeth,
and climbed into the goose.
You told us we were cowards,
called each of us a liar;
we hooked your words to the static line,
and jumped into the fire.
And all you said hung over us
as we saw our chutes deploy;
we took your words to the fire line,
to save and not destroy.
You said we’d never understand
what war is all about;
we threw your words on the roaring flames
and put the fire out.
- Bruce “Utah” Phillips
Reprinted from Mark Mathews’s Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line.