Dulce et Decorum Est

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Great War, the War to End All Wars; a slaughter on a global scale such as had never been experienced before and one which has left such an indelible impression that all these long decades later the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is seared into the minds of people of many ages across nations, across continents. As the people who passed through this dreadful time and too many others since the War to End All Wars age and, as Old Soldiers do, fade away, it becomes increasingly important to stop on this day on the eleventh hour and Remember. A two minute silence once a year – not too much to ask, is it?

It’s not about glorifying warfare or jingoistic heroism, it’s about marking the sacrifices made by so many. It’s about remembering the awful things that supposedly civilized human beings can do to one another for ‘a good cause’. It is ever more important that today we all remember. As today’s scenes showed all too clearly our species still seems unable to move beyond warfare as a method of attempting to solve problems – you’d have to be a stone not to feel a lump as old veterans laid poppy wreaths this morning in the weak winter sunlight. Amid the rows of blood-red poppies and the small, simple, elegant, wooden crosses was one to honour and remember the men of the Black Watch killed only days ago in Iraq, being laid by old veterans of this venerable Scottish regiment. Horrifically it is more than likely that a lot more mothers, fathers, wives and husbands will be receiving similarly dreadful notices sent to them in the near future.

It’s so very important we remember because as current events keep showing we seem to be stuck in a pattern which repeats over and over and over. The mechanised, industrial-scale slaughter of the Flanders trenches did not come from nowhere. To those of us who actually read history the tragedy of the American Civil War 40 years before can too easily look like a warning, which was ignored and instead blossomed awfully into a dreadful promise, right down to the enormous scale of the battles, casualties, devastation of mass-produced, modern weapons, sepia photographs and poignant memoirs and poetry. It makes me so furious I want to take the volumes of Shelby Foote’s histories and hit our so-called leaders around the head with it until they learn.

History is not dry facts (although admittedly poor teachers may put some off for life by making it thus); history is a tapestry, a fabric, in which we are all woven together. Both the glories and horror of the past impinge on us all, every day, even although we often don’t notice. The events of the past not only shaped the world in which we live, they influence it still, just as the actions we take today will ripple through times and places we may never know. And yet still we act so irresponsibly, our leaders shun history in favour of quick fixes, brief feelings of power over thoughtfulness. They go through a charade of remembering for the cameras in front of the cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers, but it is a selective form of remembering. One year only since the end of the Second World War have we marked and Armistice Day in these islands where we did not also have to remember a British soldier who had died that very year in service. One year. We need to remember and we need to teach each successive generation to remember so that one day people will simply not allow warfare anymore. They will ask how we can dishonour the sacrifices made for us by previous generations by sending more young people out to die. They will feel it their patriotic duty not to take up arms against their fellows but to value understanding and friendship. They will remember forever by striving for peace and in so doing they will finally build the monument that all those lives were given for. “Dulce est Decorum Est” – it is sweet to die (for one’s nation). Even when written it was bittersweet, recalling both the suffering and the earlier blind patriotism that lead to it; innocence and the Fall combined in a single line.

“This book is not about heroes.  English Poetry is not yet fit to speak
  of them.  Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour,
  dominion or power,
                              except War.
Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are not to this generation,
        This is in no sense consolatory.
They may be to the next.
All the poet can do to-day is to warn.
That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
If I thought the letter of this book would last,
I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives Prussia, --
  my ambition and those names will be content; for they will have
  achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders.”

This fragmentary preface was found among the papers of Wilfred Owen (who I found out only recently taught at the school literally around the corner from my home while on medical leave for Shell Shock, where he met Siegfried Sassoon). After his treatment Owen returned to the trenches – not by then from any deep-rooted patriotism or dreams of glory I suspect but because like so many others he felt obligated to be with his men, his brothers in arms and share their fate. He was gunned down by German machine-gun fire on the 4th of November 1918, mere days before the guns fell silent on the very first Armistice Day.

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 gas-shells dropping softly 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 flound'ring 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
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.
Dulce et Decorum est, Wilfred Owen.
With thanks to the excellent people at Project Gutenberg, who do remember and try to share it with the world.

As long as we continue to fight among ourselves the silent, accusing eyes of the fallen dead will haunt us.