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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Casualties by J.P. Clark

The casualties are not only those who are dead.
They are well out of it.
The casualties are not only those who are wounded
Though they await burial by installment.
The casualties are not only those who have lost
Persons or property, hard as it is
To grope for a touch that some
May not know is not there.
The casualties are not only those led away by night

The cell is a cruel place, sometimes a haven.
The casualties are not only those who started
A fire and now cannot put it out. Thousands
Are burning that have no say in the matter.
The casualties are not only those who are escaping
The shattered shell become prisoners in
A fortress of falling walls
The casualties are many, and a good member as well
Outside the scenes of ravage and wreck;
They are the emissaries of rift,
So smug in smoke-rooms they haunt abroad,
They do not see the funeral piles
At home eating up the forests.
They are wandering minstrels who, beating on
The drums of the human heart, draw the world
Into a dance with rites it does not know.
The drums overwhelm the guns°°°
Caught in the clash of counter claims and charges
When not in the niche others left,
We fall.
All casualties of the war
Because we cannot hear each other speak.
Because eyes have ceased to see the face from the crowd.
Because whether we know or
Do not the extent of wrongs on all sides,
We are characters now other than before
The war began, the stay-at-home unsettled
By taxes and rumours, the looters for office
And wares, fearful everyday the owners may return
We are all casualties,
All sagging as are
The cases celebrated for kwashiorkor,
The unforseen camp-follower of not just our war.

The year 1967 marked the beginning of the Nigerian Civil war  also referred to as the Biafran war   which claimed an estimated three million lives along with properties unaccounted for. The Civil war which lasted for two years, six months, one week and two days, took its root from various political, ethnic, cultural and religious crisis in the prior years of 1960 - 1966. Post-Independence Nigeria faced diverse issues relating to political power. Coup after coup, it became clear that the once popular slogan of "One Nigeria" was nothing but a mere slogan. The Easterners   Igbo's in particular   became the target of the North. This resulted into the pogroms of Easterners in the Northern part. The Igbos became fed up of such inhumane treatment and fled to the East where the motion for a Biafran State was presented. It is on the basis of this motion that the Civil War took place and the renowned poet, J.P Clark wrote "The Casualties".

In line 1-2, the poet tells us that the casualties of this war "are not only those who are dead" because "they are well out of it". The dead are no doubt victims in this brutal war but death in itself is the ultimate escapism from the pain and anguish in war. The casualties are not only the "wounded" as well, even though they "await burial by installment". During the war, many were left with injuries, some more severe than the other. The hospitals and clinics which accommodated patients were under siege. Refugee camps had little or no equipment and facilities to treat the injured. Stores had run out of drugs due to the trade blockade. It would therefore be a gradual death for the wounded, thus, they "await burial by installment".
The casualties are also "not only those who have lost...persons or property.." during the war. Many lost their loved ones, family and friends. The pain of loss enlists them as casualties. During the war when panic set in and killings were the order of the day, loved ones were separated in the bid to take shelter. They therefore "grope for a touch" that they "may not know is not there". They yearn for the touch of their loved ones unbeknownst of the probability of death.
Furthermore, the casualties "are not only those led away by night". Many were captured and led to cells during the war. Some while the sun is out and others in the dark of the night. Intellectuals and writers were often the victims of such. Wole Soyinka, Africa's most foremost dramatist, was arrested and imprisoned, without trial for twenty-two months. He was accused of assisting Biafra in the purchase of arms without any substantial evidence to prove it. The poet further tells us in line 11-12 that there is an uncertainty to the function of the cell. Sometimes, it serves as a "cruel place while at others, it's a safe haven. On some days, being in the cell can be as cruel as signing your death warrant; while on another day, it could just be your saving grace from death. With this uncertainty, the poet concludes in line 13 that "no where is as absolute as the grave". It's only in the grave that man's fate is sealed.
The casualties are not only those "who started" "a fire and now cannot put it out". The main belligerents who started the fire are General Chukwuemeka  Odumegwu Ojukwu and Yakubu Gowon and it's evident that they were unable to "put it out"   at least not until about three years. When the Easterners called for a secession, they were prepared to achieve it the hard way. They made up their minds that victory would come at any cost. With the unyielding federal government to deal with, the war began with both sides unwilling to raise the white flag. The poet accords them the title "causalities" because both sides are believed to have had a great and genuine reason for going to war. However, " Thousands" are "burning that have no say in the matter". Many innocents were killed in this war and it is in fact an understatement to use the word "thousands". One of the many "thousands", as Christie Achebe recalls in a scenario, was a pregnant woman and her unborn child, bombed in the night market. Just like this unborn child, many other children, women and men burned in a fire that they didn't start   the fire of death, starvation, traumatic stress and psychological imbalance.
The casualties are "not only those who are escaping" the " shattered shell" and become "prisoners in" " a "fortress of falling walls". Although some survived the war, thus escaping the "shattered shell", they become captives in a "fortress of falling walls". The "fortress" here could refer to a range of things. It could refer to the refugee camps which ought to be neutral zones and refuges for those who escape the war in the cities, but this fortress has its walls falling down because it lacks the necessary to provide for its campers. With not enough food, infections flying around, little or no medical supplies and Nigerian soldiers disregarding the neutral-zone sign, the fortress has its walls coming down and the people become prisoners because they have no where else to go. The poet could also be referring to Nigeria as the "fortress of falling walls". Those who survived the war had to rejoin Nigeria because Biafra surrendered. The condition of Nigeria then (and now) could be likened to a fortress of falling walls with the existence of corruption, ethnic prejudice and economic downturn. Being a prisoner was the only choice   which wasn't really a choice but more of a command.
From line 18, the poet becomes more direct on who the casualties are. In line 18, he makes it clear that the casualties are many. They are "a good member as well", "Outside the scenes of ravage and wreck". The poet refers to those who during the war were not in Nigeria and more directly, in "Biafra". Note the use of the words "ravage" and "wreck". The poet uses these words to describe the gravity of damage. The casualties are "emissaries of rift" who are so " smug in smoke-rooms they haunt abroad". The diaspora representatives of the secessionist struggle are casualties as well. They are so elegantly dressed in "smoke-rooms" which happens to be their place to retreat after diplomatic meetings. They are smug in smoke-rooms; they "haunt abroad". They have become accustomed to these rooms abroad. They light cigarettes to smoke so as to alleviate tension and calm their nerves. They use this as an easy escape from the tension of failure as emissaries. They are unable to "see the funeral piles" at home, "eating up the forests". The forests will soon be unable to occupy the graves of dead Biafrans and Nigerian soldiers as well.
The casualties are "wandering minstrels" who "beating on" the "drums of the human heart, draw the world" into "a dance with rites it does not know". Minstrels are just like troubadours, they are itinerants who go about composing songs and poems to entertain people. The poet refers to the Nigerian writers as "wandering minstrels". Writers such as Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike amongst others, used their writings to influence other nations to come to the aid of the Biafrans and at some point help end the war. With their writings, they beat on the "drums of the human heart", appealing to the sensitivity of the human heart and drawing them into a "dance", a dance for peace, a dance for compromise. But unbeknownst to them, the world cannot dance along because they do not know the "rites". The other nations are unable to come up with a compromise for Nigeria and Biafra to make peace. With several conferences and meetings such as the Aburi Accord of 1967 and OAU peace meeting of 1968, the nation's were unable to strike a bargain of peace.
The drums soon " overwhelm the guns" in January 1970 after Ojukwu announces that he is "leaving the People's Republic of Biafra to explore alternative options for Peace". They are now "caught in the clash of counter claims and charges". With the Nigerian government emerging as the victor, officers especially senior officers who played a role in the secession were charged for treason. Yet, the Nigerian government claimed no victor, no vanquished.
The poet makes a final resolve as to who the casualties are from line 29. He says that "when not in the niche others left". When the people couldn't find their footing anymore; when the Biafrans were no longer at their best and at her niche of productivity, everyone became causalities of the war. Thus, "We fall" "All casualties of the war". J.P. Clark goes further to explain why we are all casualties of the war. In line 32 we are all casualties because we "cannot hear each other speak". The whole atmosphere is clouded with enmity. If all the ethnic groups in Nigeria took one another as brothers, the war would have been evaded because there would be no need for a secession. But the climate of hatred, envy and distrust between the ethnic groups made it and still makes it impossible to "hear each other speak".
We are all casualties of the war because "eyes have ceased to see the face from the crowd". The poet first appeals to our sense of hearing and speech in the line above. He then appeals to our sense of sight because we have become blind. So blind that we are unable to "see the face from the crowd". We are unable to see the innocent who have no say in this matter. We are unable to see the trauma we have all caused. We are casualties because "whether we know" or "do not, the extent of wrongs in all sides", we have become "characters". Even if we don't take sides, we have all become characters. Even if we trace out who started the fire, it won't change the fact that we are all victims of the war.
The poet says that everyone is now a character "now other than before" the "war began" and the "stay-at-home unsettled". Although many of us were absent during the war, we are still characters because we always feel the need to protect ourselves or defend ourselves against another ethnic group. This may not manifest itself on a large scale, but it doesn't negate it's presence in our day to day activities. With the war, economic activities and trade is disrupted, thus " the stay-at-home unsettled" by "taxes and rumours". There's an uncertainty as to when economic activities would commence. There are rumours as to when trade will begin. The poet goes on to show the effects of war. There are " looters for office" and " wares". This group of people take advantage of the turmoil. They steal goods and positions in offices, feigning as though they own it. But deep down, they are "fearful" that the "owners may come".
     We are all casualties
     All sagging as are
     The cases celebrated for kwashiorkor.
     The unforseen camp-follower of not just out war.
J.P. Clark ends the poem by stating the most devastating effect of the war   starvation. During the war,the federal government employed the use of economic blockade against the Biafrans. Gowon successfully cut off Biafra from the sea making it impossible to receive military and humanitarian supplies. With no food, many died, especially children. Those who managed to survive had to deal with the lack of adequate protein in their diet thus leading to kwashiorkor. Many term this as an act of genocide towards the Igbos. A statement credited to Chief Obafemi Awolowo in Jacobs "The Brutality of Nations" shows the insensitivity of the federal government at that time:

"All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don't see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder."

The Casualties by J.P. Clark is beyond just a poem but a poetic representation and depiction of the Nigerian Civil War.


1) Alliteration;
"A fortress of falling walls" line 17
"So smug in smoke-room..." line 21
"Caught on the clash of counter claims...: line 28
"shattered shell"-line 16

2) Simile
"No where as absolute as the grave" -line 11
"All sagging as are...the cases celebrated for kwashiorkor"- line 41-42

3) Anaphora: Anaphora is a literary and rhetorical device in which a word
or group of words is repeated at the beginning of two or
more successive clauses or sentences.

"The casualties are not only those who are dead" -line 1
"The casualties are not only those who are wounded"- line 3
"The casualties are not only those who are lost"-line 5
"The casualties are not only thos led away by night"-line 9
"The casualties are not only to see who started"-line 12

4) Personification
" The drums of the human heart...
"...clash of counter claims and charges"
"...cases celebrated..."
"..funeral piles...eating up the forests"

5) Oxymoron
"..fortress of falling walls"

6) Imagery: J.P.. Clark invites our senses into a dance with his words. With the use of well handpicked words, he creates visuals in the mind of the readers making it seem as though we relive the moment. Words like "Thousands...are burning" appeals to our sight. Words and sentences such as
"Funeral piles"(line22)
"hard as it is...To grope for a touch some may not know is not there" (appeals to our emotions.) (line 6-8)
"A fire"
"...those who are dead" (line 1)
"...those who are wounded"3 (line 3)
"looters for office"(line 3
"Kwashiokor...The unforseen camp-follower..."(line 41-42)

7) Synecdoche:
"Because eyes have ceased to see the face for the crowd"
"eyes" and "face" are both used to represent human beings.

Tone: The tone of the poem is melancholic and devastating

Mood: the mood of the poem is sorrowful and gloomy.


1) The Nigerian Civil War
2) The effects of war
3) Violence in war
4) Diplomacy in war
5) Uncertainties during war
6) The aftermath of war
7) Starvation as a cruel tool of war

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  1. This is comprehensive as usual. Thanks for simplifying Clark's masterpiece

  2. This article has scholarly depth and demonsrates intimacy with poetry.
    Thanks for revealing clarks public and private voices through education, entertainment and nationalistic social criticism

  3. I've been searching for this poem for a while and so glad that I found it here. The great JP Clark captured something that Nigerians in 2018 should be mindful of. In my view, the crux of his poem is that war is ultimately barbaric and doesn't solve problems. Thanks Alakowe for the detailed analysis of the poem.