An Analysis of Randall Jarrell’s ”The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”
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Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is a five-lined poem which narrates the equally short life of a ball turret gunner who is killed while in action, firing shots from inside a ball turret of a bomber aircraft during a war encounter. Afterwards, his remains are hosed out of the turret. The stark and matter-of-fact tone of the poem belies a searing episode of war and the effect of the presentation is made shocking by using a first person narration and the metaphor of an abortion.
The title of the poem directly states its subject: the death of the poet’s narrator, a ball turret gunner. The job requires the individual to ride hunched under a war bomber craft as he operates two machine guns connected to the turret. The turret, and the gunner inside, revolves with the machine, depending on the location of the enemy or target below. The task is not easy. It is uncomfortable because the small space inside the machine requires that the gunner be in fetal position. It is also dangerous because enemies from the ground are constantly trying to attack the gunner.
The entire poem consistently recalls images of an aborted birth and the helplessness of the child in relation to the mother. The gunner describes his position like a baby “hunched in its (the ball turret’s) belly (line 2)”. In this fetal position, he is helpless against forces outside and beyond him like the baby in the womb who does not have an opinion or voice to determine its fate. It is the mother who thinks and decides for her baby. The freezing “wet fur (line 2)” which surrounds him connotes an image of a frightened animal trapped inside its constricting covering, further emphasizing the tone of helplessness of the speaker. On the part of the gunner, it is the State which decides for him. From his “mother’s sleep (line 1)”, a phrase which connotes a peaceful life, he “fell into the State (line 1)” and from then on, he becomes under its control. Unfortunately, for him, the State is not the nurturing kind who would like to see him live and thrive. The State believes that the purpose of its citizens’ existence is to fight in the name of the State and become heroes of its wars. The State assigns him as a ball turret gunner and sends him, and many others like him, into the slaughter of war in the name of patriotism.
The gunner flies “six miles from earth (line 2)” and forced to face against “black flak and the nightmare fighters (line 3).” In the end, the gunner is hit and dies—like the aborted fetus who could have enjoyed a future, but whose hopes are arrested by a single act of violence. Finally, the last line narrates the inhumanity but necessity of cleaning the mess of the act. The gunner is washed “out of the turret with a hose (line 4).” The “they” who does the flushing are not unsympathetic and heartless creatures, but simply doing the right thing. The womb has to be cleaned for the next occupant, hopefully this time, a wanted child. The turret has to be cleaned for the next gunner, hopefully this time, one who would survive.
The violence of war because of the involuntary deaths of many people who are its victims is effectively communicated by the poem using images of the womb and aborted birth. In five short lines, Jarrell provides a commentary against war that would stay with the reader even long after multiple readings of the poem.
Jarrell, Randall. The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.