Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dulce et Decorum Est

There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell.

William Tecumseh Sherman, June 19, 1879

Photo of the Gettysburg National Cemetery by Mike Davis.

I'm of two minds about Memorial Day. It's fitting to remember those who fell in battle, even in service of a dubious cause. Each soldier who died sacrificed a life for his or her country; their sense of duty and patriotism was the same whether death came in a justifiable cause like the Civil War or in a vain slaughter like the the Iraq War.

What concerns me about Memorial Day is the romanticizing of death in war. This weekend, we'll read newspapers accounts and see TV stories about grieving families. The stories will have an air of unreality, as scenes from a novel or film. As we honor the dead, it's important to recall that these victims are not abstract heroes from a movie. No: They are markers in the never ending tally of the cost of war. Each stone in the photo above represents a son, a husband, a brother, a cousin, a neighbor, a friend -- someone who had a life and lost it, someone whose loss diminished other lives. Each died mutilated and often in unbearable pain. Setting aside their suffering and reducing the pain caused by their deaths to a 60-second TV news spot makes the next war that much more likely.

Perhaps nothing has expressed the futility, loathsomeness, and inhuman barbarity of war as honestly  Wilfrid Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est," written in the trenches of World War I:
Dulce et Decorum et
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 was killed in action on November 4, 1918, a week before the end of World War I...

President Obama explains why Memorial Day is at the end of May and requests that we "hold our fallen heroes in your hearts and, if you can, ...lay a flower where they have come to rest." Too bad he's an America-hating communist...

Will Texas history books remember these vets?...

Tricycle with window and milk cans...

De wolf in sheep's clothing...

Quaking aspen leaves...

"We will be back"...

Nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed me by...

The Marshes of Glynn...

I can't tame wild women, but I can make tame women wild. Scroll down to number eight...

Mouse has Fred Astaire singing one of the great songs ever (scroll down)...

PWALLY bides her time. After all, revenge is a dish best eaten cold...

The Sunday Funnies will return next week...


Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Nola is rocking the BP Protest:
And do the twitter thing too.
Oh and Happy Fucking Memorial Day!

Nance said...

Thank you for a sensitive and appropriate Memorial Day Post. Here's to our children, spouses, sweethearts, parents, and friends who found themselves as war when they thought they were signing up for glory.

John Hayes said...

This is a very good Memorial post--your words, the Owen poem, the Seeger song. I'd thought of various ways of getting to a similar place, but ultimately took the easy way out--no post tomorrow. Glad you liked the photo, btw!

tnlib said...

Much better poem than Flanders Field. Too bad people don't use M-Day not only to remember those who have lost their lives, but as a vehicle to save future lives.

Roy said...

Great post, K. In addition to the Wilfred Owen poem, anyone who needs to be cured of the "romanticism" of war should also watch one or all three of these movies: Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Clint Eastwood's latest two projects, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Somebody or other said the first 5 minutes of Saving Private Ryan was the best argument against war ever created. I agree.

K. said...

Editilla: Back at ya!

Nance: That's a wonderful way of putting it.

John: Thanks! The Seeger video is a great find: There are others out there, but none quite this moving.

tnlib: The poems written at the beginning of the war are much different from the ones at the end. Check out Isaac Rosenberg some time.

Roy: Paul Fussell wrote (before the Eastwood films came out) that the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan is the only realistic depiction of war on film. He used an obscenity to describe all of the rest.

Distributorcap said...

great post

you know what would be the best memorial day - no wars and all our troops home

Anonymous said...

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
by Randall Jarrell

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Always amazed at what these guys wrote about their war experiences.

related note K, Aside from his incredible war writings Fussell has also written probably the funniest satire of American social ambitions I have ever read called Class : A Guide to the American Status System. He's a giant plain and simple.

mommapolitico said...

I have started going on the intercom at school before each major holiday to explain to the students the reason why they're getting a day off. It is surprising to me how few families talk about the meaning of national holidays anymore. Putting out and bringing in the flag on those special days was such a tradition at our house growing up, and I am amazed when the kids don't have any notion of why they get a day off. Guess I am sounding like one of the old folks criticizing the young whippersnappers...but it's sad that we have become so divided, politically and culturally, that we don't even have a shared knowledge of the meaning behind days such as Memorial Day. Hope my little announcements will help.

K. said...

DC: What can I say but "ditto?"

Rasta: It would have been worth being an English major at Rutgers just to take a class from Fussell. I've read The Great War and Modern Memory, The Children's Crusade, parts of his memoir, and any essay I come across. I'm ordering a copy of Class tonight.

MP: Take my word for it -- you are not among the old folks of this crew! Memorial Day and Veteran's Day are difficult to explain in full without sounding unpatriotic, so good on for making the effort.

K. said...

IMHO, "the old lie" is one of the most bitter and unarguable statements ever made in a poem. It would bring even Dick Cheney up short. OK, maybe not him, but you get the point.

Ima Wizer said...

Thanks K........happy weekend to ya!

Darlene said...

A great post and so different from the usual sentimental garbage we hear now. War is Hell PERIOD.

naomi dagen bloom said...

Thanks for a splendid post. I think the peace movement really misses by not putting together explanations of Memorial Day with powerful No War message. We need to risk being "unpatriotic" if we are ever to stop this endless war-making.