Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dulce et Decorum est

Civil War family via Dream Dogs Art

I never have much to say on these holidays that memorialize soldiers and war and killing and dying. I shirk from expressions like freedom isn't free. I feel a roiling conflict when asked to honor the soldier and not the war and risk the censure of those who take to these easily. I might even envy them. I don't begin to understand the life of a Marine, the dedication, the camaraderie, the duty. I saw the movie Lincoln this weekend and was struck, again, by the simpler brutality of the Civil War when men fought against men, most of the time, in hand to hand combat. It is at once heroic to watch and absurd. I also happened to read an article in the New Yorker magazine called Atonement about a very young Iraqi veteran tortured by a debacle in 2009 when his unit in Iraq opened fire in a street battle and brutally murdered members of a family, including a baby. He eventually tracks down the remaining members of the family and asks for forgiveness, which they give to him, but the cost of this atonement took my breath away. Over 4,000 American soldiers died in Iraq and over 150,000 Iraqis died. This morning, the Los Angeles Times newspaper includes an article titled 2 Wars, 11 Years, 725 fallen Californians. The article states that 41% of these soldiers who died were not yet 22 years old. Sixty-three of them were still teenagers. Those numbers don't make me feel proud; they make me feel ashamed. No, freedom isn't free, but sending boys away to fight and kill never works, has never worked and will never work. On Veterans' Day, I will honor those who have fallen and those who have had to kill others in the name of freedom or liberty or God, but I feel sad for just about everyone.

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 (1893-1918)


  1. Your words are an arsenal of powerful, well-placed shots. You packed a wallop in just one paragraph, and i agree. I so agree. My friend Francis just turned 4 and her dad just came back with no legs. It seems impossibly hard some days.

    Also that poem, whoa. Just whoa. My grandfather had similarly gnarly and horrifying war stories.

  2. and how about Flander's Field? Was reading an article on the infamous death field of WWI. And how, the soldiers on their own called a truce on night, exchanged food and gifts and played a game of soccer. Then, the next day back to the slaughter. It's a mystery to me. Today, Veterans Day, we do honor military veterans, and I have a list of friends who fall in that category. I take the opportunity to thank them for their service, for a service that could have claimed their lives. This is how I can embrace the day, but not war and killing.

    I listened to Neil Young's War cd this morning...that was my way of saying no to war in a big way. He ends the cd with a choir's rendition of God Bless America. It'll bring tears to your eyes.

  3. You echo my feelings. By coincidence I was listening to Bob Dylan's Masters of War earlier today. It still resonates with me as it did when I was a teenager.

    Greetings from London.

  4. Today it is good to read something about soldiers and war and killing that I agree with. I've avoided fb today because I can't stand the thank you posts. I used to apoligize to all the vets I know both for what they went through and what they still suffer afterwards. Now I just try and avoid the whole thing.

  5. It's especially cruel for us to send young men whose attitudes and psyches are not even fully adult into battle. Teenagers, for god's sake. It's crazy.

  6. I wonder what it is in us that makes us think slaughtering others means that we are worthy of something more than they are. If we win a bloody fight, that gives us the right to......what? Or is it simply about getting them out of the way? I know that the war (Vietnam) my father fought was equally as damaging to him as it was to those whose lives he ruined with Agent Orange and bombs. He came come with PTSD, a completely different person than he had been when he went, and ended up dying of lung cancer thanks to the toxic chemicals he ingested when he dropped them on another country. I am proud of him for learning to live with his demons, but more than anything I am sad that he felt at the age of 20, that he had no choice but to go fight a war he didn't understand or want to fight, and that he ultimately ended up losing his family and his life as a result of it.

  7. Yesterday my father had a dinner and the guest of honor was a man he met on a golf course a few years ago who had been a POW for five years at the Hanoi Hilton. He had invited him to his house and to speak to the kids at the local high school. He was so quiet and elegant. The one thing I took to heart was how he learned to think about his young family at home for only two minutes at a time and then shut it off. It was what got him through it and the biggest torture at the same time. It seems so crazy. A local young Hispanic teen my son's age was killed in Afghanistan last year. At his funeral they bestowed upon him US citizenship. I could not stop the sobbing. It is such a complex feeling - honoring Veterans - while not understanding war. The cliched flattering just confuses me.



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