In “A War Film” by Teresa Hooley, the speaker begins with her reaction to seeing a war movie. It is a mixed reaction, where sorrow meets pride and anguish meets glory. There comes a shift, however, “when [her] day [i]s done.” This is a transition in the text, and it is where the war comes home for the speaker. It becomes personal.
I think the beginning shows that the mother does at first identify with some sort of patriotism or emotional draw to the concept of war; I read the first stanza as saying that she felt her heart rise and breath catch at the film. Here, she might believe such conflicts are necessary and see the importance and distinction of being a soldier. It becomes contextualized for her in a unique way, though, at the thought of her son going to war. She speaks of the “sudden terror that assaulted [her}” as she imagines the “body [she] had borne…A part of [her]” being “taken away” to war. She seems him “tortured,” “torn,” and “slain.” The language conveys the strength of attachment that she feels. He is torn apart and torn from her. She is not on the battlefield, but it’s as if she is present there. This is not an indirect experience of war. There is no more glory; her son’s body is instead desecrated, “rotting…out in the rain.”
She asks in the poem, “How could he know” the fear she felt at the thought of losing him as well as “How should he know” why she kissed him repeatedly. The use of “could” makes me think she’s also asking how an innocent being could understand violence like this and possibly how a child, a son, could understand a mother’s love. The later use of “should” makes me think that she’s also asking how a parent could explain war to a child and then answer the underlying question of why they brought them into such a world.
Hooley’s poem ends with the mother stating, “He thought that I was daft. / He thought it was a game, / And laughed and laughed.” These lines reminded me of a trope in war movies, where mothers stand on the doorstep and beg their sons not to go to war. They cry, and their sons stand solemnly or try to smile, encouraging her that this must happen or that they’ll be fine. In these scenarios, it’s implied that the mother is well-meaning but silly or selfish; she doesn’t understand that the war is bigger than her, than her son or family (the forced center of a woman’s life in earlier eras). Their sons think that they know better (because of youthful naivete, arrogance, the glamorization of violence, its association with traditional masculinity, etc.) or possess greater integrity; she could not understand that it’s about honor and a man’s duty. In this poem, her son laughs because he’s young and unable to understand, but to me, these lines could also foreshadow this type of interaction, where her son wants to go to war and thinks his mother is daft for discouraging him. It’s a point in their relationship when her love becomes tedious, naïve, stupid, feminine, etc.
To me, this poem flips the concept of sons knowing war better than mothers. In this scenario, she is the knowing party. She is not the innocent one being protected. It’s an interesting idea to know evil through love and understand war and loss through bringing life. She understood the draw and “glory” of war at the beginning, but her ”silly” love enlightens her fully in the end. Her sacrifice is not the beginning of a soldier’s story but a story and experience of war in itself. It’s a different perspective than I normally see, a different kind of grief and fear. It demonstrates that what has been visually depicted as a mother “not understanding duty” could be her understanding it too well. It could be a rejection of it, a rebellion, where she doesn’t believe that she should have to sacrifice her son. The poem juxtaposes a mother who views her child’s life as precious with a country and conflict that sees it as a resource, and I think that you see her disillusionment progress throughout the poem.