Study Guide

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner Themes

  • Warfare

    Don't let the size fool you. Anyway you slice it,"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" is about war. War is in the title and, figuratively at least, it's in every line. Jarrell wanted everyone to know, without question, he was addressing the horror and brutality of war. And after that last line, we think he achieved his goal.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. The language in the title and lines 4 and 5 very clearly refers to war and war imagery, but in lines 1-3 the language is much more figurative. In what ways do you think this shift from literal to figurative to literal language helps or hurts the poem?
    2. How would you describe Jarrell's attitude toward warfare based on this poem? What elements (language, structure, tone, etc.) in the poem suggest this attitude?
    3. Warfare is a big, emotional theme, but Jarrell wrote a very short, controlled poem. Should this be a longer poem? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Nice try, Randall, but the emotional and ideological complexities of war are impossible to capture in a poem, especially one as brief as "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner."

    No, really, we're serious this time. Way to go, Randall! Poetry is the perfect genre for dealing with things, like war, that feel unspeakable.

  • Death

    If you have a poem that deals with war, death is probably going to make an appearance. The theme of death is definitely at work in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," as the title would clealry indicate. Jarrell wants us to consider life and death (mostly death) in this poem and he uses some contrasting imagery (birth/death) to encourage us to contemplate these big ideas. And just to make sure we consider mortality, Jarrell chose to make the poem's speaker a dead soldier. Not too subtle. If you were looking for light reading, this ain't it. (Okay, you're right. It is short and therefore light in the sense of not long, but this one packs a heavy thematic punch.)

    Questions About Death

    1. The title of the poem tells us that the gunner is dead. How would the poem change if death wasn't in the title? Should Jarrell have kept the gunner's death a secret until the ending?
    2. The phrase "dream of life" comes at the end of line 3 and contrasts sharply with the death in the title and at the end of the poem. How would this poem be different without "dream of life" in line 3?
    3. If the truth of life is that we are all going to die, why is the gunner's death significant? What was Jarrell trying to say? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    No big whoop. Death, whether in war or in old age, is just a part of life. The ball turret gunner's death is therefore no more tragic or unfair than another.

    Actually, this poem is a big whoop. Confronting the idea of death, whether through art or religion, enables us to live fuller, more meaningful lives.

  • Power

    The "State" in line 1 gets a lot of attention (first line, end word, capitalization). When reading "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," Jarrell wanted us to think about the power of the state, of nations. The poem, then, seems to get at the power that states have to send countries into war and the power they have over individuals, sending them into horrific battles and, often, certain death. Come on, states. Knock that off, will ya?

    Questions About Power

    1. Why does the speaker say he "fell" into the "State?" How would the poem be different if the speaker entered or joined "the State" instead?
    2. What connection does Jarrell make between motherhood and the state? In what ways are their roles similar? How are they different?
    3. A literal reading of the poem's last line is quite shocking. But what does a figurative reading of the last line say in terms of states and how they view their citizens?

    Chew on This

    Despite the critique of "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," the job of the state is not to protect and nurture its citizens. A state's first priority is the survival of the state itself, even if that survival costs the lives of some of its citizens. Tough love, y'all.

    As "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" suggests, the notion of the state as a nurturer and protector is fundamental. States should put the lives and well-being of their citizens first. Show us love!

  • Innocence

    Babies and bombers just don't mix well. You can't get more innocent than a newborn baby. They are vulnerable and oblivious to the evils of the world. The birth/womb imagery that Jarrell uses puts this notion of innocence in the reader's mind. In "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," these ideas of innocence are juxtaposed, and then combined with, images of violence, heightening the reader's sense of war's horror.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. What words or images in the poem suggest innocence or have an innocent tone?
    2. Is losing an innocent perspective on life a good thing or a bad thing? Do you ever long for simpler times, those days long ago when you could get excited about a new Superman lunchbox or a coloring book?
    3. Why does Jarrell include the element of innocence in"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"? How would the poem be different without any mention of mother or birth imagery?

    Chew on This

    Despite what the poem seems to lament, innocence is meant to be a temporary state and the sooner our eyes are opened to the harsh realities of the world, the better. So toughen up, kids!

    As the poem shows, even after losing an innocent perspective of the world, we long for the comfort an innocent perspective allows and we try to recapture it. (Come on now, we can't be the only ones with a Star Wars figure collection.)