Read the full text of Amanda Gorman's poem, "WAR: WHAT, IS IT GOOD?", and go deeper with annotations from Amanda. Click the blue links below to explore material that inspired her words.
WAR: WHAT, IS IT GOOD?
.-- .- .-. / .-- .... .- - / .. ... / .. - / --. --- --- -..
How much toilet paper,
Were we allowed?
In battle, everything,
Even hope, is rare & rationed,
Creating competitors from comrades,
Making monsters of men.
This mask is our medal of honor.
It has our war written all over it.
* * *
The 1918 influenza killed 50 million people (though some
scholars suggest it could be 100 million), far more than
those killed in World War I. The death toll of the influenza
was intrinsically tied to warfare. The movement of large
numbers of troops across the continents contributed
to the spread of the virus; meanwhile millions of
noncombatants were uprooted from their homes. The
influenza was particularly devastating to Indigenous
communities, which had already barely survived ethnic
cleansing campaigns. No matter what we’re told, violence
is never little.
* * *
War, like a whale, is all consuming—
Everything fits into its mesh mouth.
Like a whale, a virus can wolf
Down the globe whole.
The bullet is a beast, as are we.
Our invisible battles
Are the hardest ones to win.
* * *
The first step in warfare & pandemics is the same:
Isolation, to rupture the channels of communication of
The British pioneered cable cutting during WWI, using
the CS Alert to dredge Germany’s underwater telegraph
cables. Wartime censorship also slashed communication
& truth-telling; the US Sedition Act of 1918 outlawed
speech or expression that damaged the country’s image or
war effort. Fearing punishment, newspapers minimized
the threat of the virus, often refusing to print doctors’
letters warning the public not to gather or travel. This
censorship & misinformation only contributed to the
further communication of influenza across the country &
globe. Fire barrel of the throat. Words, too, are a type of
combat, for we always become what we refuse to say.
* * *
After we fight
Someone we love,
We offer a question:
Are we okay?
Are we good?
The First World War was once called “Great,”
So named “The War to End All Wars.”
What is called “great”
Is often grievous & gruesome,
But what is good is worth our words.
To be good is to be larger than war.
It is to be more than great.
* * *
The body is a walking
Chaos of meat & bones.
Deaths & injuries in armed conflicts
Are called casualties, casual meaning
“By chance” or “accident.”
But bloodshed in war is no misfire.
Perhaps casualty means that war itself
Is the accident, unmistakably a mistake,
Our big, fat, bloody oops!
* * *
The second step in warfare & pandemics
Is the same: continuation,
To uphold remaining modes of connection &
communication. Writing letters to the home front was
encouraged among WWI service personnel & volunteers
abroad so as to raise national morale. The British Army
Postal Service delivered around 2 billion letters during
their involvement in the conflict. In the US, 1917’s
General Orders No. 48 stated that “Soldiers, sailors, and
marines assigned to duty in foreign countries are entitled
to mail letters ‘free’ ” . . . by marking on the envelopes On
Active Service . . . During the war, A. E. F. Camp Crane in
Allentown, Pennsylvania, reported its post office handling
nearly 70,000 pieces of mail per week. The home front is a
pen. Pen us in. We swear we can be good.
* * *
Are you listening?
There is no such thing as gentle war.
There is no peace
That can’t be flung aside.
Our only enemy is that which would
Make us enemies to each other.
* * *
More like whale mail.
It is the only thing
With a mouth wide enough to speak
When we have nothing left
To say. All this to say,
Writing our stories
Is an essential service.
It is how we go to war.
It is how we end it.
We’re still willing to believe
Peace is a place on earth.
* * *
A century past World War I, condolence cards sold out
agree that receiving letters raises their spirits & one in six
send more mail now during the pandemic. In pandemics,
everything is scarce except for grief. Writing, truth-telling
to one another, is an act of hope-making when hope is
hardest found. What place have we in our histories except the present.
* * *
The hole in the eye
Through which light travels.
The word peace shares history
With pact. That is to say, harmony
Is a tomorrow we agree on.
We’re more conditioned
To contagion than combat.
But a virus, just like a war, separates us
From our fellow people.
Yet if we are willing, the cut
Can be an aperture, the hole
Through which we reach for the whole
Of one another.
A virus is fought inside us,
While violence is fought amongst us.
In both, our triumph is not in conquering others,
But conquering the most destructive agents
& instincts that we carry
Within our mortal forms.
Hate is a virus.
A virus demands a body.
What we mean is:
Hate only survives when hosted in humans.
If we are to give it anything,
Let it be our sorrow
& never our skin.
To love just may be
The fight of our lives.
The title “War: What, Is It Good?” is a play on the song “War” by Edwin Starr, from the 1970 album War & Peace.
“The 1918 influenza killed”: Kenneth C. Davis, More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2018).
“the British pioneered cable cutting”: Gordon Corera, “How Britain Pioneered Cable-Cutting in World War One,” BBC News, December 15, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-42367551.
“refusing to print doctors’ letters”: Becky Little, “As the 1918 Flu Emerged, Cover-Up and Denial Helped It Spread,” History, last modified May 26, 2020, history.com/news/1918-pandemic-spanish-flu-censorship.
“The British Army Postal Service delivered”: “Letters to Loved Ones,” Imperial War Museums, last modified December 14, 2020, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/letters-to-loved-ones.
“reported its post office”: “Archive Record,” The National WWI Museum and Memorial, last modified September 1, 2021, https://theworldwar.pastperfectonline.com/archive/A346097B-03F6-49BE-A749-422059799862.
“condolence cards sold out in 2020”: Michael Corkery and Sapna Maheshwari, “Sympathy Cards Are Selling Out,” New York Times, April 28, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/business/coronavirus-sympathy-cards.html.
“a majority of United States”: “USPS Market Research and Insights: COVID Mail Attitudes—Understanding & Impact (April 2020),” United States Postal Service, last modified May 1, 2020, https://postalpro.usps.com/market-research/covid-mail-attitudes.
The line “What place have we in our histories except the present” is influenced by D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Under the Oak,” specifically the final line, “What place have you in my histories?”