Diverging Views on Dying for One’s Country
It seems strange to call Memorial Day a holiday. And with two recent wars (and maybe a third on the horizon), it may also seem strange that I’m going to write about one war poem written nearly 100 years ago and another written over 2,000 years ago.
Both of the poems were written by children of empire—the British and the Roman. The first poem is Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” You probably read it in high school English class. It was written during World War I. It is a visceral, not-veiled-at-all anti-war poem about the horrors of modern warfare. Here it is:
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.
You may notice that the end of the poem does not end in English. Owen quotes directly from a poem in Latin by the ancient poet Horace. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” means, more or less, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Owen calls this a lie. Harsh words. The more reactionary among us may be quick to condemn the poet because he heaps disdain on something we’re even today taught is a virtue. But let me remind you that Wilfred Owen himself was a soldier—a decorated soldier—and he died just a week before the Armistice was signed in 1918. Took a bullet in the head.
In any case, you may agree more with the original ode by Horace—who, by the way, was also a veteran:
To suffer hardness with good cheer,
In sternest school of warfare bred,
Our youth should learn; let steed and spear
Make him one day the Parthian’s dread;
Cold skies, keen perils, brace his life.
Methinks I see from rampired town
Some battling tyrant’s matron wife,
Some maiden, look in terror down,—
“Ah, my dear lord, untrain’d in war!
O tempt not the infuriate mood
Of that fell lion I see! from far
He plunges through a tide of blood!”
What joy, for fatherland to die!
So where do you stand, with Owen or Horace? Maybe, like me, you’re unsure. There are just wars and there are unjust wars, there are acceptable ways of fighting an enemy and unacceptable ways, there’s patriotism and then there’s patriotism run amok.
Part of the problem, I think, is with modern warfare, as opposed to ancient. When we can no longer see our enemy, when the damage inflicted by our weapons leaves so many maimed, physically and mentally, when “collateral damage” is a foregone conclusion, old romantic ideals of the heroic warrior definitely need to be rethought.
Owen and Horace, children of empire, pulling us—also children of empire—in two different directions.