Baghdad Elegy

for Michael J. Dugan, GEN, USAF, ret’d.:

“The cutting edge will be over downtown Baghdad.”


When I was nine or ten and

sleepy at the end of a school day

or bored in math or science,

my girlfriend and I would mount

our noble steeds, brave and

beautiful, daughters of the wind

mild as milk, and ride to Baghdad.

City of the `Abbāsid caliphs,

city richest of all under the sun,

Damascus swords, Indian jewels and spices,

African gold and ivory, horses and slaves

from nearly every land under the sun,

and from those lands, too, virtually all

the things of the mind to be bought

neither in the bazaar nor with gold,

city richest, oh yes, as few have been

since Periclean Athens.

As it happens, I have never been to Baghdad;

it is Saddam’s modern city of steel and glass now.

Little of the golden glory of the

city of Hārūn ar-Rashīd remains;

it is a republic of fear now.

The thousand and one nights were stories

for children while I was still a child.

I dare say, I shall never go.

I do not want to be disappointed.

What could live up to the dreams

of a Cretan blue tiled pool

set in a garden of roses and jasmine

behind walls of plain brick,

my friend of the long-lashed liquid

black eyes and long, brown limbs,

cool, strong and ringing with gold,

wrestling me to a tender fall and

rising from our bed with me to pray

at the muezzin’s call in the cool dawn?

No one told me of the black-veiled

women, of the men who killed their

women kin for giving their bodies

to whom they themselves pleased,

but in a thousand years, Saddam’s trash

will be in ruins, and ugly still.


Collateral damage is a neat

and bloodless term for homes and

lives bombed flat or incinerated

by white phosphorus and napalm;

the child running burning down the road;

the cathedral a century in building leveled;

the entire city turned into a three days’

firestorm by a single raid;

indiscriminate of combatants and

noncombatants, trash and treasure alike,

more or less accidental.

And the one thing you learn is that

even surgical strikes always cause

collateral damage.

Oh, Baghdad, once a Persian village,

you survived Arab conquest and the near

destruction of your ancient citadel

by Hārun’s two sons in their civil war

only to be conquered again by the Būyids

and then the Seljuq Turks.

You endured the sack of Hülegü the Mongol

and Tamerlane’s Mongol troops.

Retook by your own Persians, you

served as an Ottoman capital,

endured the English mandate and a coup

that overthrew the Hashemite monarchy –

Oh, Baghdad, survivor of the ages,

how that small child’s corner of my heart

breaks at the thought of you reduced to

rubble by an afternoon of B-52 raids,

the same B-52s that failed to shorten the war

and end the killing in Vietnam:

if it were mine to do and I thought it’d work,

I’d authorize the strikes myself.


Wide-wayed Troy held ten years while

the heroes fought before its walls,

until earthshaking Poseidon, moved by

the Achaian sacrifice of the carefully

crafted wooden horse, threw

them down with one angry stamp and

sacred Ilion was given up to the sack.

Lest they lead an expedition

against the Achaians, hard pressed

by the Dorian invasion at home,

the royal women were enslaved

and little Astyanax, son of

shining helmed Hector and

Andromache of the white arms,

was thrown from the walls.

When even the gods bow to necessity,

the Achaians were ashamed of their actions

and buried Astyanax in Hector’s shield,

most prized of all their victory spoils.


The Dorians conquered horse-pasturing Argos,

strong founded Pylos, golden Mykenai

– all Hellas fell

and the well-greaved Achaians were enslaved

without benefit of a Trojan alliance.

21 September 1990


One thought on “Baghdad Elegy”

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