” My subject is war, and the pity of war..” wrote Wildred Owen, a First World War poet in the preface to a collection of his poems. He was well qualified to write about it, having known that particular hell- on- earth from the inside, in all its horror. His poetry tells a graphic story of war, it’s nightmarish realities and harrowing experiences. What it does to men and how it changes them. He was to die himself, in that nightmare, only seven days before it came to an end.
His writing exposed the lie of the glory of war especially to those who watched from the safety of untouched shores. Describing a poison gas attack in his poem
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent like some 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 .
(it is a sweet thing to die for one’s country)
The last three novels I have read, have coincidentally, had war as one of their main themes, from unusual angles. One covering the First World War, one the Second, and one the Trojan war. Different weapons, centuries apart, same violence and death. As well as its horrors, they also covered the deep bonds and camaraderie between those who fight alongside each other, facing death at every turn. It is now ten years since the start of the war in Afghanistan. The names and photos of all those young lives lost, have been posted on news websites in a silent role of honour. There have been interviews of bereaved families, and grievously wounded soldiers, telling their stories of lives changed forever. Time and time again, I have heard these soldiers talk of their time in active theatre with glowing eyes and wistfulness. Even after being very seriously wounded, they would go back tomorrow if they could.
Wilfred Owen also knew this feeling.
Apologia pro Poemate Meo
I, too, saw God through mud—
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.
Merry it was to laugh there—
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder …
The title of the poem means ‘an explanation for my poetry’ , and these are the opening lines. I guess there never is a time more ‘real’, than when life is stripped down to its bare essential, survival. There is only the intensity of the moment, and living it with all you have and are. Perhaps this is what calls them back, as well as being back with their fellow soldiers? I can only speculate from the sidelines. I have lived through a couple of wars, but was not directly involved or affected, apart from being evacuated a few times. I am perhaps not qualified to speak, which is why I am using allot of other people’s words, who are.
In the First World War, it seems to me, there was so much blood spilled with very little actually gained. A mile or two of muddy Belgian Front, perhaps. Afghanistan is a very different type of war, and yet, ten years on, it is hard to see what, if anything has been gained. The costs, however, are very obvious.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” April 16, 1953 Eisenhower
Ghandi had a very similar view, put more concisely.
“An eye for an eye, only makes the whole world blind.”
People in probably every war there has ever been, have thought similarly. Andrew Downing, an architect and poet who fought in the American civil war in the 1800’s wrote these lines, ( a selection from his poem The Bluebird) looking back to his experiences of war, and forward to the time when God’s Kingdom would come on earth, and the prophesy in Micah 4:3 about spears being used as pruning hooks, and ‘nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war, anymore.’ would come to pass.
I am reminded of the battle years
When men, full-armed, and wearing suits of blue,
Marched to the music of the fife and drum
In strong battalions in a southern land.
And all the pomp and blazonry of war–
Guidons and banners tossing in the breeze,
Sabers and muskets glinting in the sun,
Carriage and caisson rumbling o’er the stones,
The midnight vigil of the lone vidette,
The shock and roar of battle, and the shouts
Of the victorious army when the fight
Was done; the aftermath of sorrows deep–
The cries and moans of wounded, dying men,
The hurried burial of the dead at night,
The broken lives in many homes, the hearths
Made desolate–all these come back to me,
As I beheld and knew them once; and then,
In sad reflection to myself I sigh:
What weak, inglorious fools we mortals are
That war must be, or any need of war.
And yet, the better day is coming when
The teachings of the lowly Nazarene
Shall be the rule of nations–as of men;
The sword and bayonet shall be preserved,
By the fair children of a nobler race,
As relics only, of a barbarous past