Dulce Et Decorum Est

Memorial Day is just not my favorite holiday. (I’m not sure there is one I really like, but that aside.) Sale circulars arrive by snail and e-mail, beer is bought in truckloads, cars take off for the beach, and people stage obnoxious parties, like the one that ended around 1 a.m. this Sunday with my calling the cops over the matter of two returning corybants down my street engaging in an outbreak of obscenity-laced partner violence on my neighbors’ lawn.

Then people make some very solemn speeches about how our military keep us free, and the phrase “ultimate sacrifice” is used a lot. People choke up, feel noble, and go home.

Wilfrid Owen, who was a British officer in the First World War and a poet, didn’t come home. He had this to say about it:

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 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.

Owen was not a conscientious objector nor a draft-dodger. He was invalided home in 1917, and returned to the front “in order to help these boys; directly, by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.” He died leading his men across the Sambre Canal a few days before the Armistice.

In the Great War it was gas and shell-shock. These days it’s IED’s and brain damage: there’s always a weapon that no one is prepared for and a generation that has to deal with it, and no one wants to hear about the aftereffects.

I really don’t think all the little flags help much with this, do you?


11 thoughts on “Dulce Et Decorum Est

  1. I’m with you, yet again… I have my only brother in law in the military and I just don’t quite get it. He was poor PA stock and didn’t have much choice, and is now one promotion away from being top rank you can get as enlisted…but that means if he wants to fight, he comes home a little more strange each time. Glad he does, though – come home, that is. The fighting… No, it’s horrible.

    • “Poor” and “didn’t have much choice” — the operational terms, which have been much belabored.

      I meet a lot of people who think the military is “just the place” for a young man trying to find his way… and I meet people who have actually enlisted and served. The two groups rarely overlap much.

      For everyone who comes home a little more strange each time, I think of the people like you who know them, the wives, kids, birth families, it goes on… everyone pays. Except the arseholes who think that war is a game you play with people for board pieces.

      I think this blog post by a very strange, brilliant person says it best.

  2. A heartfelt post for Memorial Day! Thanks, Ms. Sled.

    Many patriotic people talk about “freedom.” But few would be able to define it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m in favor of freedom! But for many, “freedom” means others should be “free” to conform to the speaker’s own preferences and values. As in, “Every American is free to be just like me, and to do exactly as I say.”

    Alas, I’m not optimistic about humankind’s ability to overcome the habit of resorting to violence and war to resolve differences. I’m afraid war may be engraved on our DNA.

    • I know. I knuckle my brows with frustration whenever I see that some head of state or other has rattled a sabre or dispatched a drone — but my own yen to knock together the heads of idiots is never-ending. I get up and lie down with rage; I have a whole list of people I would euthanize if I were queen.

      Yet somehow I’ve never even taken the first tentative step towards being queen so I could get to work. If there’s any hope, it’s wound up with knowing that a person can feel the desire to burn down the world — and then not try to do it.

  3. With drones, it’s too easy for a wealthy group to terrorize unseen victims on another continent. Automated warfare is more terrifying than suicide bombing, but without the personal sacrifice on the part of the attacker.

    • And… hey… automated! What could go wrong?

      In Alan Garner’s wonderful Moon of Gomrath, which is a story with elves and wizards and all the rest of that, one of the dwarves remarks that the cold and disturbing nature of the elves (Garner’s elves are not very sympathetic) can be traced back to their bows, which let them kill in battle without ever coming close to their enemies. Garner, a keen reader of human nature, was telling us something about ourselves.

      • Hmmm. I guess “Hunger Wars” makes the same point. The difference between archery and automation, I suppose, is archery requires a personal practice, and direct personal involvement. You not only see the enemy, you see the terror in his eyes when the arrow hits the target.

  4. Thank you for Wilfrid Owen …

    Also for the word “corybant”!

    It seems someone recently shared his discomfort calling every single war veteran a “hero” and was soundly whipped in every known internet forum for his mewling anti-patriotism. It’s funny, I became a conservative patriot type many years ago after leaving my very Berkeley hometown but the shouting yahoos that have appropriated the term today have little alignment with those old ideals of mine. Very few soldiers / airmen / sailors / marines are heroes. They’re all to be respected, most are to be thanked, many have earned great honor, but damn few are heroes.

    Still, we do well to honor those who’ve kept the world in some sense safe for some sense of democracy.

    • I don’t hesitate a moment so far as honoring anyone who’s risked life and limb for any even half-unselfish reason. My dismay centers more on the superficial sentimentality of this deeply bastardized holiday…. and the pious talk that makes it sound as if the mere fact of people being willing to die for something makes it an honorable cause. Nations have used that Old Lie for so long to perpetuate the notion that there is something basically right and noble about fighting wars, throwing human lives into the shredder because someone at the political level had to prove who was the Bigger Dog.

      Funnily enough, it is my Republican-voting neighbor who calls the county to complain about overflow parkers from the nearby National Guard HQ. I, with the Occupy sign on my bumper, take care to stop for these people when they cross the main road to report to their posts, and have more than once fudged county parking rules and offered a temporary parking tag to some reservist who had to report late and couldn’t find parking for love or money.

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