Dulce et decorum est pro patri mori

the great war

“Sweet and proper it is, to die for one’s country.”
Horace, Odes

As the church bells rang on Armistice Day, Wilfred Owen’s mother received the news that he had died almost to the hour a week before.

Owen, like his German counterpart Erich Maria Remarque, wrote starkly of the horrors of war. His best-known piece is “Dulce et Decorum est”:

If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind this 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 end
Of vile, incurable sore 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 Patri mori.

The title was taken from a line in one of Horace’s “Odes.” Here’s the relevant passage from the original (John Conington translation):

Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta
vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. Illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo
suspiret, eheu, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.
To suffer hardness with good cheer,
In sternest school of warfare bred,
Our youth should learn; let steed and spear
Make him one day the Parthian’s dread;
Cold skies, keen perils, brace his life.
Methinks I see from rampired town
Some battling tyrant’s matron wife,
Some maiden, look in terror down,—
“Ah, my dear lord, untrain’d in war!
O tempt not the infuriate mood
Of that fell lion I see! from far
He plunges through a tide of blood!”
What joy, for fatherland to die!
Death’s darts e’en flying feet o’ertake,
Nor spare a recreant chivalry,
A back that cowers, or loins that quake.

Thus the myths of war are perpetuated on the graves of “children ardent for some desperate glory.”

Now they have it.

Their glory returned, but not them.

Dulce et decorum est….

The Narcotic of War

all quiet

Erich Maria Remarque was 18 when Germany sent him to the Western Front in the war that would end all wars, where he was wounded five times. In 1929, eleven years after Armistice Day, his novel Im Westen Nichts Neues — All Quiet on the Western Front — was published with his promise that it would “try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book spoke unflinchingly of the horrors of war. It became an instant bestseller, a worldwide classic, and was made into a movie. Four years later, the Nazis banned the book and the movie.[1]

In War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning[2], Chris Hedges says this about Remarque and the book:

“The German veteran of World War I Erich Maria Remarque, in All Quiet on the Western Front, wrote of the narcotic of war that quickly transformed men into beasts. He knew the ecstatic high of violence and the debilitating mental and physical destruction that comes with prolonged exposure to war’s addiction.

“‘We run on,’ he wrote, ‘overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but deliverance.’”

War is horrible, war is brutal, war brings out the worst of what humanity is capable of… and it’s also addicting.

“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug… It is peddled by mythmakers — historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state — all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess:  excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. it dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. “

Those of us who stay home probably don’t know that our soldiers feel that. And it surely never occurs to us that our enemies feel the same:

“When we ingest the anodyne of war we feel what those we strive to destroy feel, including the Islamist fundamentalists who are painted as alien, barbaric, and uncivilized. It is the same narcotic.”

Hedges confesses his own addiction and difficulty of withdrawal from the narcotic of war:

“I partook of it for many years. And like every recovering addict there is a part of me that remains nostalgic for war’s simplicity and high, even as I cope with the scars it has left behind, mourn the deaths of those I worked with, and struggle with the bestiality I would have been better off not witnessing. There is a part of me — maybe it is a part of many of us — that decided at certain moments that I would rather die like this than go back to the routine of life. The chance to exist for an intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant certain oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war– and very stupid one the war ended.

“In the fall of 1995, a few weeks after the war in Bosnia ended, I sat with friends who had suffered horribly… Yet all [they] did that afternoon was lament the days when they lived in fear and hunger emaciated, targeted by Serbian gunners on the heights above. They did not wish back the suffering, and yet, they admitted, those days may have been the fullest of their lives. They looked at me in despair. I knew them when they were being stonked by hundreds of shells a day, when they had not water to bathe in or to wash their clothes, when they huddled in unheated, darkened apartments with plastic sheeting for windows. But what they expressed was real. It was the disillusionment  with a sterile, futile, empty present. Peace had again exposed the void that the rush of was, of battle, had filled. Once again they were, as perhaps we all are along, no longer bound by that common sense of struggle, no longer given the opportunity to be noble, heroic, no longer sure what life was about or what it meant.

“The old comradeship, however false, that allowed them to love men and women they hardly knew, indeed, whom they may not have liked before the war, had vanished. Moreover, they had seen that all the sacrifice had been for naught. They had been betrayed. The corrupt old Communist party bosses, who became nationalists overnight and go my friends into the mess in the first place, those who had grown rich off their suffering, were still in power. There was a 70 percent unemployment rate. They depended on handouts from the international community. They knew the lie of war, the mockery of their idealism and struggled with their shattered illusions. They had seen the grinning skull of death that speaks in the end for war. They understood that their cause, once as fashionable in certain intellectual circles as they were themselves, lay forgotten. No longer did actors, politicians, and artists scramble to visit, acts that were almost always ones of gross self-promotion. And yet they wished it all back. I did too.”

Continued next time.

[1] For more, see Wikipedia, also this article and this one.

[2] All quotes in this post are from this source.