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As for eyes, are eyes ready for the soft dance
of a butterfly's bootless invasion?

From "In times of peace" by John Agard. What could this mean? I have been thinking that it could reflect shell shock and the confusion of the soldier in this new world. But what else could this mean, and even this whole poem?

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The poem is about the transition of a veteran from military to civilian life. It is not necessarily about shell shock, which refers to a form of behavioural disorganization that is much more severe than what is expressed in the very regular form of the poem: each of the four first stanzas consists of two lines describing military life, which the next two lines contrast with civilian life, and each stanza ends as a question. This regularity is almost meditative and is very unlike the types of psychological issues that may accompany combat stress reaction, e.g. hyperventilation, dizziness, hypervigilance, anxiety, irritability and confusion.

However, even without shell shock or combat stress reaction, the transition from military to civilian life can be challenging. There is plenty of evidence for this from American war veterans; see for example, The Civilian-Veteran Survival Field Manual (VAntage Point, 2011), Adjusting To Civilian Life After Military (Charles Hooper, Oxford Treatment Center, May 2021), Veterans’ Struggles After Military Service (by Laura Close, VeteranAddiction.org, March 2020) and Service Members Speak Out on Difficulties of Transitioning to Civilian Life (University of South California, 2017). Below are a few of the issues that veterans need to deal with even without combat stress reaction:

  • In the military, you don't go "home" before the mission is completed; in a civilian job, you can go home after your shift.
  • In the military, you eat at set times and you eat what is being served; in civilian life, you choose when and what you eat.
  • The military uses more direct communication styles than what is expected (or even polite) in civilian life.

Nathaniel A. Brown, who started studying psychiatry after leaving the military, describes some of the issues that are also reflected in John Agard's poem:

The feel of the grip of my M-4 in my hand, my thumb brushing the safety.

In Agard's poem:

That finger - index to be exact -
so used to a trigger’s warmth

In Brown's article:

The smell of dirt and diesel and weeks-old sweat.

In Agard's poem:

Those feet, so at home in heavy boots

"Bootless" in the last stanza is a play on words: the butterfly is "boot-less" in the sense that it wears no boots (unlike soldiers); it's invasion is "bootless" in the sense of "profitless" or "unavailing" (from a military point of view) because it does not conquer anything or defeat an enemy. The veteran's "eyes" may need to adapt to not needing to be vigilant and distinguishing friend from enemy.

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