Retired Major General John L. Borling of the USAF gave an address at Wright College last night. A long-time resident of Chicago, General Borling talked about his extraordinary life with students, faculty, staff and members of the community through the lens of his book, Taps on the Wall: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton. It was moving and provocative.
Borling, an Air Force Academy graduate, was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War when he was shot down in 1966. He was captured and held, along with a small number of other American soldiers, under horrific conditions in Hanoi. A love of classical education and language, along with an indomitable will, kept him sane and his spirit positive for six and a half years of imprisonment. American POWs used a code to tap out individual letters to communicate with each other. Borling wrote poems with the code, creating culture and hope in the most inhospitable of circumstances.
When released, Borling recorded his poems but did not share them with the public. He remained in the Air Force, furthered an already significant career with a White House Fellowship, head of operations of SAC (Strategic Air Command), and high-level NATO posts. Upon retirement, General Borling’s commitment to civic service has remained active. He serves on multiple boards and is a much sought after public speaker. His presentation at Wright was direct and authentic. Borling gave us history, humor, philosophy and poetry. He also engaged us in an extensive and free-wheeling discussion.
What can one ask a man who has given his life and risked his life for public service? Political questions seem insubstantial, but politics drives the military. Quizzed about current affairs. Borling stressed the importance ethical and independent leadership, divorced from the trials of day-to-day politics. He is a practical idealist.
And what of his poems? Borling said that they are meant to be read out loud, just as Robert Pinsky would prefer. Standing strong and speaking loudly and clearly, Borling’s words filled the theater with musicality and emotion. Borling does not play games with words or meaning. His strength is in meter and rhythm and clarity.
Later, I read the poems but then tried something different. I picked a short poem and tapped out letters, using the code. It was cumbersome – and even more difficult to remember individual words and then string them together into lines and stanzas. I tried to imagine what it would be like to do this in a dark cell, thirsty and cold, hungry and unsure about what tomorrow might bring. The poem, and all the other poems in the book, took on a richer meaning as I thought of how General Borling chose particular words in particular order. He could not say these out loud as a POW; he would have been punished. Instead, he and his fellow POWs would have to transcribe them, remember them, and hear the words in their heads.
In an informal discussion after the presentation, General Borling said that he believed that the courage to do what is right is more courageous than military courage, the courage of the battlefield. He may be right. However, I also think that what he did in a Hanoi prison demanded a different kind of courage, a courage of imagination and creation.