Wednesday, November 11

The Old Lie

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

-Wilfred Owen

[On November 11, 1918, Wilfred Owen's parents were listening to the cathedral bells ringing in celebration of the war's end when a telegram arrived informing them of their son's death seven days earlier, at Ors.]

Return Armistice Day. Even at the expense of taking it off the Federal calendar and creating a Veterans' Day somewhere else, if Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day, and the individual services' days aren't enough to amortize our bunting expenses.

Return it to the solemn remembrance of The Great War and all who died, on both sides. Let us have one day to remember the horror, the futility, the enormity of War, and the human vanity which tries to cover the suffering with Glory, and swears in the aftermath it will never make the same mistakes again.

Return to us the memory of a conflict which gave us the tank, the military use of air power, and modern infantry strategy, which gave us mass-market propaganda and mass starvation. Let us remember, despite the efforts of those who would have us forget, just Who we bleed and die for, and not just What. Let us remember--even those who would have us remember Munich and forget Verdun and Ypres--that it was the insistence on Honor above Humanity, on Spoils which no one had won, which brought the guns back just twenty years later.

Safe for Democracy! Give back the Armistice, even if it finds a rank grave in a lost and forgotten field. The bells of 11/11 belong to her dead, as surely as the Arizona belongs to hers. If we cannot set aside a Day, even a sacred Hour, to remind ourselves that not all the madness is on the other side, that Glory will not feed the dead nor comfort the living, then we are cowards unworthy of honoring the Brave whose graves we festoon, deaf to what they might tell us if they still could.


Anonymous said...

This is also a nice remembrance of that particular war: "" (Sorry can't link this morning).


Captain Goto said...

Damn you, sir. In the best possible way.

Scott C. said...

I wouldn't have thought it possible to do justice to Owen's words, but...damn you indeed.

Anonymous said...

Is it accurate to say WWI ushered in modern infantry tactics? I always thought (while teaching Owen, by the way) that the Great War, like many wars, was fought with the best possible tactics from the previous war.

Also, watch for a new Christmas season show, either broadcast on NPR or live on stage if you live in the Twin Cities, called "All is Calm". It's a recreation of the Christmas Truce of 1914 in the words of soldiers who were there, with seasonal music. Includes some Wilfred Owen.


Doghouse Riley said...

I think it's fair. The Kaiserschlacht, the last desperate attempt of the German army hoping to convert its newfound one-theatre war into victory before either rebellion on the homefront or the large-scale involvement of trained American troops, utilized small, highly trained and specialized units which were taught to go around obstacles and get into the enemy rear. Some dispute that this was the first instance of these tactics, but it's true that infantries have pretty much fought this way ever since.

Tactics did advance beyond Mons; the great shortcomings in generalship had much to do with the inability to understand new technology, or even the concept of new technology.

R. Porrofatto said...

An argument crafted with moving eloquence. In an era when the warheads carried by a single Ohio class submarine (still!) could probably reduce world population by a multiple of the total lives lost in the Great War, it's worthwhile to be reminded of just how insane and pointless the slaughter of any war is, and especially this one. Another Owen masterpiece for the occasion:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
   Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
   Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
   Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
   The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Jaye Ramsey Sutter said...

I thought if I read Flander's Field one more time today I would puke. The war to end all wars, indeed. I am waiting for the police action to end all police actions.

Can we count up how many of our holidays are about death and violence?

thanks for this post.