The Poetry of War
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 11, 2007
They called it “The War to End All Wars,” which sounds like an almost pathetic label now. So presumptuous and supercilious. “The War to End All Wars” was followed, just twenty years later, by a greater and even more deadly conflict. Then second half of the twentieth century witnessed one war after another, all across the globe: Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East Nigeria, Mozambique, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait—now Iraq. And that’s only a (very) partial list. The Iraq-Iran War fought during the 1980s cost somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million lives, and accomplished absolutely nothing. Most wars, if we look at them historically, accomplish little—certainly little positive (there are exceptions, of course: World War Two comes to mind). Today, the First World War is remembered, when it is remembered (which is seldom), not as “The War to End All Wars”, but as the conflict which spawned Hitler and led to the tragedies of World War Two.
What tragic perversity afflicts our human race—what a fundamental stupidity—that no matter what the degree of sacrifice has been—no matter the deluge of suffering and desolation imposed upon the world—we still seem to have no better way of resolving our grievances than war. Wars are very poor tools for carving out better tomorrows, Dr. King once said. That the richest, most technologically advanced nation in history could find no better way of dealing with a tyrannical dictator than unleashing untold firepower and havoc and death over his poverty-stricken nation—and then have the nerve to call it “the expansion of freedom”—would baffle even Orwell.
Today, Veterans’ Day (or “Armistice Day” as it used to be called) is a day to remember those who have served in our armed forces, of course. Even more, it is a day to celebrate the vision of peace—to long for that ultimate armistice when war’s terror is no more, and the guns are finally stilled.
“If ye break faith with us who die,” John McCrae wrote in Belgium, just hours before his own death, “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields.”
How do we keep faith, on this Veterans’ Day, and every day, with those who have died?
We keep faith by remembering. But even more important, we keep faith by ridding the world of the scourge of war. There, sadly, we have broken faith far too many times, and we break faith still.
No triumphalist Veterans’ Day observances will suffice any longer. Mere high-sounding words of pomp and glory will not do, not any longer. Unless we believe in the utter destructiveness of war, and the essential pointlessness of such destruction, we will not be keeping faith; we will not move forward. War of itself is never right; it is never good and is never just. There may be right and just reasons for deciding to go to war, and we may be able to justify those reasons on the basis that war is, sometimes, the lesser of two evils. But resorting to force and going to arms must always be the last resort. Given the military madness of our times, it has all too often become the first resort. Even to suggest that war is an acceptable condition of human relationships is to blaspheme the Creator who made us all; it is to render violent disrespect to the memories of those who have given their lives.
We keep faith by remembering. We truly remember the fallen when we make part of our reality what they actually went through, and how they actually suffered. Only those who have witnessed war firsthand can speak the truest word against war. The political machinations that gave the world that first Great War may lie largely forgotten, discarded on the ashbin of history. But the voices of the poets of that war—the “War Poets” as they are called—McRae, and Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke, and Isaac Rosenberg, and Charles Sorley, and Wilfred Owen, and others, continue to speak to us still.
They are as timeless as the vision of the Hebrew prophets: “and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”
They are as fundamental to our humanity as the words of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
They are as challenging as the words of the Buddha: “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”
Beyond a doubt, the deepest and most genuine poetry against war comes from those who have seen war.
Wilfred Owen was the son of a railway worker who was born in Shropshire in the English midlands in 1896. He hoped to enter the University of London, but after failing to win a scholarship he found work as a teacher of English in the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. Although he had previously thought of himself as a pacifist, in October 1915, in the patriotic fervor of the moment, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and joined the Manchester Regiment in France in January, 1917. While in France, Owen began writing poems about his war experiences.
Life on the Western Front was bitter indeed. In the summer of 1917, during the Battle of the Somme, a shell landed just two yards away from Owen and he was forced to spend several days trapped in a bomb crater with the mangled corpse of a fellow officer before assistance could pull him out. Following this experience, Owen was diagnosed with shell-shock, and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him to keep on writing, as did another writer at the hospital, Robert Graves.
Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Sassoon had written:
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Later, Sassoon took aim against the Church and the Establishment back in England as well:
The Bishop tells us; “When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”
“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”
Over the next several months, out of the horror and pain he had experienced, and the futility of the conflict in which he was engaged, Owen wrote a series of war poems, including “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Owen then hurled his own experience of the hell of war against a poem called "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori” written by a woman named Jessie Pope, a pro-war propagandist back in England. The facile words of the Roman poet Horace-- Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.— “Sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.” – had been a lie in ancient times, Owen declared. Even more was it a lie in his own time:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out 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.
There was no beauty in war, Owen knew-- as only one who had experienced the hell of war firsthand could know. (Owen was later “cured” of his shell shock, and sent back to the Front, and was killed on the fields of France in November of 1919, during the last week of the Great War. He was 26 years old when he died.)
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden once wrote (in a poem). Wars go on. More young men—and women—and children—will die. New tyrants will rise. There will perhaps always be that endless struggle for power and position and wealth and resources.
Yet the voices of the War Poets—of World War One, and of all wars, too-- sing deeper and stronger with the passing of the years. Their hopes may be unfulfilled, but their vision abides. That is why so often it is the voice of poetry that presents the clearest picture of those human endeavors (and all too often, follies) that matter most. Poets witness to the deepest reality of the world, be that a physical reality or a spiritual one. They pull our eyes toward that which is within, and beyond. They challenge us to be the full men and women we would be, if we allowed the Spirit (call that Spirit by what name you will, or call it by no name if you prefer) to transform our beings, and move within us, and move with us as we move to change the world.
To observe truly this day of remembrance, and to honor those who have fallen, we must never lose sight of those things for which they died. As Archibald Macleish wrote: “We were young, they say. Remember us… They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.”
May the deepest lesson we discern in this sacrifice be the truth that war must be no more. Not if we are to be true to our deepest human virtue. Not if we are to be true to the divinity within our souls. Or, as one English cleric has put it: “For in that truth lies the possibility that we can be changed, that the world can be changed and that we will [no longer] allow soldiers and airmen and sailors and patients in hospitals and shop keepers and poor people and farmers and refugees and Christians in their churches and Muslim in their mosques, and trees and houses and fields and animals to suffer the consequences of war any longer.”
In that truth lies the blessed vision of which a poet sang:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.
Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
The singing will never be done, and our vision for peace may well never be realized. But we must never stop seeking it, not if we are to be true to those who have come before.