Poetry is Metal: What veterans can learn from Metallica’s “One”
When I think of Metallica’s song “One”, I remember the epic Guitar Hero jam-sessions held in a small shack we nicknamed the M-Dub, short for MWR, at OP Restrepo. We spent countless hours passing the time between guard duty and patrols trying to complete the song on expert mode. The irony of a bunch of infantrymen in the Korengal Valley, rocking-out to a song derived from an anti-war novel only dawned on me once I was stateside grappling with the aftermath of my own war experience.
Based on the World War I novella, Johnny Got His Gun, written by Dalton Trumbo in 1939, “One’s” poetic lyrics paint a horrific scene of a soldier who is severely wounded by an explosion. Written by lead singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, these two head-banging poets recite their poems to face-melting guitar solos and double-kick bass drums that rival two talking machine guns.
The song brings to mind the brutality of war and the price we pay for democracy. Some service members pay the ultimate sacrifice, others lose entire pieces of themselves both physically and mentally. Yet, many of the politicians who send our nation’s service members to battle have never felt the rush of a firefight, the taste of gunpowder, or lived with the nightmares of war. At a stroke of a pen, the youth of our nation march into foreign countries to do our nation's bidding with no clear political end-state with little to no regard for the ramifications of an unjustifiable war… just like a wartime novelty.
The lyrics in “One” are not only deeply disturbing, but purely poetic. The song is a metaphor for the struggles of the modern day warrior and how war can change us physically but also mentally. For those struggling with PTS or a TBI, feeling disconnected and locked within their own head is default. It’s easy to feel like no one is listening when you silently scream for help. I’ve been there. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I can't remember anything
Can't tell if this is true or dream
Deep down inside I feel to scream
This terrible silence stops me
Now that the war is through with me
I'm waking up, I cannot see
That there's not much left of me
Nothing is real but pain now
Unlike the protagonist in Johnny Got His Gun, Joe Bonham, when I got out of the Army I was considered one of the lucky ones. I was fortunate enough to return home with my limbs and eyesight. The TBI, hearing loss, tinnitus, back and knee pain were par for the course; yet something had changed deep within. I was in a dark place and kept everyone, even my loved ones, at an arm's length. Many of my fellow brothers came home with Purple Hearts or never came home at all. Why did I return relatively unscathed? The guilt left me empty inside, and I felt like there wasn’t much I could offer to anyone. I did my best to mask the pain with smiles and drown it with alcohol but that only led to trouble. Silently I was screaming for help but asking for help did not seem feasible because that’s not what infantrymen do—or so I thought.
Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please God, wake me
Now the world is gone, I'm just one
Oh God help me
Darkness imprisoning me
All that I see
I cannot live
I cannot die
Trapped in myself
Body my holding cell
Many of our fellow veterans suffer in silence. Shouldering the absolute horror of war until the trauma becomes too much to bear. A first reaction is to put up walls, to become reclusive, trapped in myself. But this self-imprisonment is no way to live. For some, suicide seems like the only way to end the nightmare. Sadly, this is not only a veteran problem but an America problem, a true epidemic. I was able to break down the walls, once I realized that I wasn’t alone in my suffering, that I wasn’t just one, and that seeking help was not only okay but should be normalized. Help is out there, and at the risk of sounding cliché, the journey starts with just one step.
Landmine has taken my sight
Taken my speech
Taken my hearing
Taken my arms
Taken my legs
Taken my soul
Left me with life in hell
The final verse in “One” encapsulates not only the brutality of war itself but the GWOT combat veteran experience. Countless IEDs, landmines and RPGs have maimed an entire generation of war fighters, now missing their arms, legs, sight, hearing, and worse losing their entire being. Post traumatic stress is the body's normal reaction to an abnormal event. This reaction has different thresholds for each person but if left unmanaged, PTS can quickly turn debilitating or into PTSD. However, we are not broken.
We can find hope in a story as dreadful as “One.” Hope lies in our resiliency. Once you accept the darkness and get help you realize you have a new mission: to speak up, not only for yourself but for those who can’t speak. Turn to creative outlets to rid your minds of the darkness and to find your voice again. Share your story, whether it be through therapy, poetry, video or other creative means. Run for those without legs. Go out and see the world for those who can no longer see. Live a life that honors our fallen brothers and sisters who no longer have that opportunity.
Like veterans, metal music is often misunderstood. To the untrained ear metal can sound like senseless screaming played to a rhythmic static-filled rage rather than poetry. But if you read Hetfield’s lyrics you discover that the songs do contain meaning and in fact tell a story. Metallica redefined what it means to be a poet. They taught us that poetry is metal, that screaming our feelings is a healthy alternative to process emotion. The healing process is not the same for everyone, find what works for you.
If you find yourself writing a poem and the words just won’t come out, try screaming the lyrics while head-banging and rocking-out on your air-guitar like you’re in Metallica. For further inspiration, and to get your fingers ready to attack the keyboard, play “One” on Guitar Hero—in expert mode.
Written By Erik Villasenor
February 22, 2021