Guard Duty

I read a book recently written by Tim O’Brien. He’s a new author to me, and so I intend to read his books in chronological order. The first one is called If I Die in a Combat Zone,  about the Vietnam war, and it inspired this poem. I was of the going-to-war age toward the tail end of theVietnam war, but I was not called to go. Two of my older cousins went, and thier account of it matches many others I have heard. It was hell.

Guard Duty


When the night comes

The ritual of guard duty begins

Telling tales of night terror

We stare long and silent

Into an opaque shell of shadows

And dark


Three men to a foxhole

Two sleep while one remains awake

No smoking

Charlie sees your light

He’ll blow your lungs out

Stealing a victim from cancer


Maybe nothing will happen

But this is war, so who knows

And it doesn’t matter

Fall asleep during your watch turn

The punishment is court martial

Hmm… wonder what that’s like


Copyright © 2013 C Mashburn

Sharing this with dVerse Poets Pub on their Poetics feature this afternoon.


  1. claudia said

    ah heck…i think that tears on the nerves…the listening, watching, waiting and not knowing what happens next…i bet the night has thousand eyes when you’re on guard duty and the hours must feel endless until day break..

    • Your comment reminds of when I was a teenager and worked in the hay fields irrigating at night. Just me, the snakes and the coyotes. And, yes, there seemed to be a thousand eyes watching from the dark.
      Thanks, Claudia! (I’ll probably have nightmares tonight!)

  2. Wonderful poem, Charles. And so great that you are reading Tim O’Brian. He is one of my favorite authors. Going After Cacciato is a bit crazy – fanciful – but great, and The Things They Carried is heartbreaking. He’s so good. I liked this very much. Thanks. k.

    • Reading the first book already inspired three poems. The guys is a great writer.
      Thanks for the great comment, k!

      • He really is. His books are so very moving. They are just terrific. k.

  3. for some i think it might be a relief from the tension of knowing deaths shadow…but then again you are letting down your buddies…he is the one that wrote th things we carried right? enjoyed that book…

    • Ye, that’s one of his. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of them. Great writer!
      Thanks, Brian!

  4. Myrna said

    Don’t know if I could say this is nice ’cause there’s nothing nice about war. My husband didn’t go to Vietnam, but he swears where he went was worse. It was a tour in isolation. Hard to recall those days. You captured the torture of it all, in so few words. So well done.

    • No, nothing nice about this one, Myrna. Thanks for the visit and “nice” comment though!

  5. foxhole prayers on the edge of darkness !! I liked you take on the prompt !!

  6. Grace said

    A terrible way to live and die, during war ~ Nice to see you Charles ~

  7. Mary said

    A vivid picture of what war was like in the foxhole. This kind of ‘war’ seems so different than war now, doesn’t it?

  8. …you demostrate the usual scenario of being duty while everyone’s asleep very well… always wondered what they really talked about during those witching hours of deafening silence & mystery…at least got a bit of a hint… smiles…

  9. Charles – you may like to check out this great Iraq war poet, Brian Turner. I think he is so good. Most famous poem is Here, Bullet – which is also a book –so good. Here’s a link to an NPR interview –these good too.

  10. marousia said

    Excellent suspenseful writing – adore this image “an opaque shell of shadows”

    • Thank you very much! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      However, I can’t take credit for that image. It came from the book.

  11. An awesome write Charles…that last line really hits hard. You would wonder wouldn’t you… Terrific take on the prompt! 🙂

    • I did use some lines out of the book, but that last one is mine. In the book, Mr. O’Brien talks about the irreverence of some of the troops in that awful war, and details how so many of the young men fighting in it were confused, wondering why they were there. Lots of young men fled the U.S. to avoid going, and many who went surely had thoughts that maybe court martial and/or jail would be better than dying for reasons they couldn’t understand.
      Thanks, Dianne.

  12. zongrik said

    i guess the good side of all this is that they can’t smoke. it won’t kills them 😉

    hades gate

    • Yes, that would be about the only positive in the situation.
      Thanks for the visit and comment!

  13. Dark realism of war.
    Well penned.
    “Charlie” {The V.C. (Victor Charlie)} and “Stealing a victim from cancer” show your age!
    We all eventually die. We all choose how to live.
    I was a C.O. for that war – #52 , war ended before I was called
    to prison. “Hmmm .. wonder what that had been like?”

  14. lucychili said

    isolation or war, what a choice. stark poem. sadly real.

  15. Very thought provoking. Thank you.

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