Christopher Simeone: On "Crash Report"

In his analysis of Thomas McGrath’s “Crash Report,” John Marsh calls the poem a “decidedly anti-populist” and “decidedly cynical account of World War II.” Puzzlingly contradicting his track record of populist and socialist politics, McGrath, Marsh suggests, criticizes the “unthinking patriotism” of the masses even when the war effort itself might be morally justified for fighting fascism and stopping the Holocaust. Yet while surely infused with bitterness towards the imagined readership that so easily renders the war dead as “heroes,” McGrath’s poem does not condemn “the people.” Rather, “Crash Report” attempts to carve out a space for the genuine appreciation of heroes while directing its criticism against an industry of news production and news consumption—an industry that sentimentally flattens the sacrifices of enlisted men—perpetuated by profiteering suppliers and savagely naïve genteel readers. Populism, in fact, has everything to do with the poem’s politics.

The poetic voice hails us as meta-commentary on the one of many typical stories we might encounter in the newspapers of the early 1940s. Posing as crash report, it turns against the very assumptions and violences committed by the genre. This newspaper critic wishes immediately to assay our character by posing his (and I presume a male gender because of his probable identity as a soldier in the 1940s) central question in the first stanza:

 

If perhaps you read in the paper somewhere

How Captain—or maybe Private—so and so—

Had been killed in Africa or India or even

The Aleutians—well, would you think him a hero?

 

In the idiom of brash, unrefined frankness, the speaker interrogates our alliances—are we, as readers of yet another crash report, a “Gentle Reader” for whom the real circumstances of such deaths “don’t matter a damn” (25), or are we more appropriately grouped with the “us” and “we” of the sixth stanza? “We can recognize heroes” the speaker contends, “Before they are dead or fogged in with medals” (21-22). The poem details a stark contrast between the two potential factions in its audience, a division that ultimately hinges on our material relationship to the war dead. The poem’s structuring pronouns—“us” and “you”—do not easily map onto speaker and reader, respectively. Instead, “Crash Report,” unlike the uncritically written and passively consumed news stories it excoriates, demands that we make our understanding of dead soldiers into a political commitment. Are you a Gentle Reader, or are you with us?

As a socialist populist poem, “Crash Report” structures these differing alliances according to class lines. The Gentle Reader is not only, as John Marsh suggests, the ironic title for the perpetrator of violent crimes against soldiers. The Gentle Reader is also the “genteel reader” who, in keeping with the 19th century tradition, might read the day’s news of death and suffering alongside the society page, works of literature, and other witty refinements. Situated in such a textual and cultural collage, the typical crash report for the Gentle Readers of the 1940s abstracts and evacuates all wartime deaths, hollowing as it hallows them. Whether the dead are passionate fighters or careless joy-riders (as outlined in the fourth stanza), whether they are “real or phony” (26), the gentle reader unthinkingly absorbs them as mere narrative, a textual surface amongst other textual surfaces—“they’re all the same” (26). Punning off the similar sounds of “Hearst” and “hearse,” McGrath distinguishes the adherents of the profiteering newspaper magnate from those who witness the meaningful death of combatants. “For heroes the hearse must be called for a reason. It is not by accident their lives are given” (24). Unlike “Hearst’s recording angel” which sees all wartime expenditure of life as “equal” (19-20), the men who report and record the real circumstances of death—the Christian Front mug from Yorkville, the abundance of whisky and nurses, the actual battleground where the soldier died—retain an authentic understanding of personal sacrifice and comradeship under traumatic duress. Death is marked by purpose. It is indeed not by accident that these men die. Against the mass media consuming Gentle Readers, the speaker differentiates a group of commonplace witnesses—the people—who can still authentically ascribe meaning to those lost in the tragedies of war. We should be thinking about class, after all, when we are considering which men were actually compelled to serve overseas and which men were able to stay home and read crash reports in the morning paper. In response to Marsh, it bears remembering that “the people” were largely shipped off to war, while the industry leaders and profiteers who remained at home would more plausibly comprise the paper’s audience of Gentle Readers.

The poem’s final lines, then, do not indict mere patriotism. “Everyone dies for your sins” means that every loss of life contributes to the bourgeois sense of sacred self importance that Christ’s sacrifice also helps to buoy. The abstracted myth of the hero ultimately rewards the one who sentimentally consumes that death as narrative—the hero dies always to preserve the status quo, and never to revolutionize the social order. The sins ironically condemned in the poem’s closing lines are the sins of a capitalist social order that uniformly valorizes its human expenditures and offers them for shallow, unthreatening consumption.

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Title Christopher Simeone: On "Crash Report" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Christopher Simeone Criticism Target Thomas McGrath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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