Martial Machismo: At What Cost?

A good work of art, though it may be the product of one person’s experience, is timeless and universal.  By that standard, the song “At What a Cost”* by Mark Lentz is, to my mind, a great work of art.  In war, there are always the grand planners at the top, but the actual dirty business has to be carried out by other human beings at the bottom.  The price paid by those at the bottom seldom weighs very much in the calculations of the grand planners at the top, and if there is folly in the plans, no one sees it better than those at the bottom.

Listening to “At What a Cost” the first lines that come to mind are those written by A. E. Housman upon the occasion of the celebration of the 50th year of the reign of Queen Victoria.  Observing the bonfires burning all over the mountaintops of Shropshire as part of the big shindig, with the celebrants singing “God Save the Queen,” the poet reflects:

Now, when the flame they watch not towers

About the soil they trod,

Lads we’ll remember, friends of ours,

Who shared the work with God.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,

To fields that bred them brave,

The saviours come not home tonight

Themselves they could not save.

Housman’s friends died furthering the plans of the builders of the British Empire; the subject of Lentz’s song suffered for the planners behind the American one.

Below the grand strategists, between those at the top and those at the bottom, are the tactical planners, the military officers.  Their plans often go tragically awry, as they did with “The General,” a fairly typical British World War I character as captured by combat veteran Siegfried Sassoon:

“Good-morning; good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
. . . .
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

But how do those above get the human instruments below to carry out their plans when the underlings’ costs can be so heavy in the process?  Bear in mind that the potential costs are not just physical, but they are emotional, moral, and spiritual, as well.  The military pawn is not just asked to risk life and limb, he is ordered to kill and maim, as well, and to witness his comrades being killed and maimed.  To achieve the proper degree of dehumanization a psychological appeal is often made.  The planners’ pawn must be persuaded that he is more than that, he is the spear point, he is a superman, or as Lentz’s warrior puts it with bravado that deep down he only half believes, “I’m your rock.”

Reality, though, usually intrudes.  A man, no matter how masculine, as hardness goes is a good deal less than a rock, but he is also more than one.  The rock can only get ground down, but a man can be transformed by war in countless ways, most of which are not good.

The keen student of the war in Afghanistan hears in “At What a Cost” precisely what has been going on there for more than a decade now.  Surely no military adventure was ever more fiendishly calculated and planned, and we know precisely who the planners were.  That is the theme of at least two of my poems, “PNAC’s ‘Mein Kampf’” and “PNAC’s Pearl Harbor.”

The song is presented on YouTube with accompanying photos that leave no doubt that what is being described is the post-9-11 Bush-Obama “War on Terror” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond.  It turns out, though, that “At What a Cost” grew out of different, earlier war.  The song didn’t come from the experience of the repeated tours into hell that have reduced even many would-be human boulders to gravel.  Rather, it came from what most Americans think of as a short, glorious victory.  It might as well have been one of those countless, nameless little wars of the Victorian era that moved Housman to pen his lines instead of the human meat grinder of all meat grinders that was the WW I that Sassoon experienced and wrote about so movingly.

Here are the artist Lentz’s own words:

An old friend of mine, a Gulf War veteran from the first war in 1990, conveyed for the first time to me the details of his tour over in Iraq. After one too many drinks, he started pointing to himself saying how he had to be a rock, could not show any emotion, had to kill against his beliefs. How could this be him.  He talked of how he had to do what he was told while their objective was a goal that had no point. They were within 50 miles of Baghdad and told to turn around. They could have ended that war then but it was not in the plan. As you can see. the violence and bloodshed which accompanies any war is pointless. It kills innocent people and also destroys the lives of those fighting it. The guy has never talked about his tour again. I don't suppose he ever will. I was fortunate however to get a first hand glimpse of his pain, hence the song. This guy is not the only one suffering in his own mind. I'm sure there are numerous (beyond comprehension) veterans that suffer just as he has and is. It will never end, but the song was my way of bringing attention to the vast numbers of our servicemen and women suffering pointlessly.

The spear point had a ringside seat for the unfolding of the twisted plan.  He had a view that his countrymen back home, besotted by wishful thinking, propaganda, and mindless consumerism could never have or even imagine.  Yes, it might have been a glorious little war in our minds, but the song that grew out of it captured it well, as it captures the ones being fought now and the much bigger one that our nefarious rulers seem for all the world to be planning.

As a final note, we have this news item from June 8, 2012, followed by the full Sassoon poem, the final verse of which concludes the “At What a Cost” video:

According to new Pentagon figures, 154 military service members committed suicide during the first 155 days of this year. During the same period, ending June 3, 136 U.S. troops died in combat in Afghanistan, according to, a website that tracks combat casualties.

     Suicide in the Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy

Who grinned at life in empty joy,

Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,

And whistled early with the lark.


In winter trenches, cowed and glum,

With crumps and lice and lack of rum,

He put a bullet through his brain,

No one spoke of him again.

.    .    .    .    .    .


You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.


Siegfried Sassoon:  Collected Poems 1908-1956 (Faber and Faber, 1961), p. 78.



David Martin

July 8, 2012


*At What a Cost

©2009 Mark Lentz


Send me there

I’ll do as you will

I’ll even kill

I’m your rock


You put me here

Can’t show any fear

You say it’s a thrill

I’m your rock 


I fight your wars

On another tour

Defend your shores

I’m your rock


Trained me well

Put me into hell

Your point you sell

I’m your rock


How can I be me

Fighting for the land of the free

Doin’ all I’m told

Watching your plan unfold

Watching your plan unfold


I took your hand

You made me a man

In this foreign land

I’m your rock 


You planted the seed

I fought for your greed

Now I live with the deed

I’m your rock


Welcome home

All I love is gone

No one on the phone

I’m your rock 


Now all is lost

At what a cost

I’m at a loss

I’m your rock



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