It's worth rereading the poem itself first:
Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen
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 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.
As the British website War Poetry explains:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean "It is sweet and right." The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.
(Christopher Eccleston, Kenneth Branagh and Ben Whishaw perform good renditions of the poem.)
Owen's view of war isn't rare among those who served in WWI; similar views can be found in the poems of his friend Siegfried Sassoon, or in Robert Graves' bitingly satirical memoir, Good-Bye to All That. WWII vet Eugene Sledge, among many others, admired Owen's ability to capture the experience of war. It's a disturbing but honest perspective, and should not be surprising.
In a January post, William Kristol quotes a 1997 David Frum piece that touches on Owen's poem and the loss of respect for authority. Kristol comments that:
As Frum pointed out, Horace’s line is one “that any educated Englishman of the last century would have learned in school.” Those pre-War Englishmen would, on the whole, have understood the line earnestly and quoted it respectfully. Not after the War. Living in the shadow of Wilfred Owen rather than Horace, the earnestness yielded to bitterness, the respect to disgust. As Frum puts it, “Scoffing at those words represented more than a rejection of war. It meant a rejection of the schools, the whole society, that had sent Owen to war.”
This year, a century later, the commemorations of 1914 will tend to take that rejection of piety and patriotism for granted. Or could this year mark a moment of questioning, even of reversal?
Today, after all, we see the full consequences of that rejection in a way Owen and his contemporaries could not. Can’t we acknowledge the meaning, recognize the power, and learn the lessons of 1914 without succumbing to an apparently inexorable gravitational pull toward a posture of ironic passivity or fatalistic regret in the face of civilizational decline? No sensitive person can fail to be moved by Owen’s powerful lament, and no intelligent person can ignore his chastening rebuke. But perhaps a century of increasingly unthinking bitter disgust with our heritage is enough.
(Kristol goes on to recommend the "The Star-Spangled Banner" instead of Owen's poem, remarking that "[T]he greater work of art is not always the better guide to life.")
In a post at Crooked Timber titled "Some Desperate Glory," John Holbo marvels:
Amazing. Bill Kristol is hoping that, after a full century of unwillingness to go to war, because Wilfred Owen, this might be the year we consider – maybe! – going to some war. For the glory of it! Wouldn’t a war be glorious? If we could only have one? "Play up, play up, and play the game!" For the game is glorious!
Why have we been so unthinkingly unwilling to consider going to war for an entire century? Doesn’t that seem like a long time to go without a war?
Couldn’t we have just one?
Indeed, Kristol's column is awfully odd in that it ignores that the world has seen plenty of war since 1914, but more pointedly because it ignores that William Kristol himself has not only fervently pushed for numerous wars – he's gotten many of them. There's also the matter of the assumptions he glosses over in his argument. Kristol likely defines "piety" and "patriotism" far differently than I would, but he nonetheless doesn't bother to provide evidence of their "rejection." Likewise, he doesn't provide any proof of "a posture of ironic passivity or fatalistic regret," let alone "civilizational decline." As CT commentator bt puts it, "I love the part where Bill Kristol links Civilizational Decline with our regrettable lack of enthusiasm for a glorious War." It's really an Orwellian marvel by Kristol. (The rest of the CT comments are well worth reading, too.) Besides that central gem, it's darkly hilarious how Kristol claims that opposition to war is "unthinking." Requiring a high threshold for war is the mark of basic sanity and maturity, and questioning those eager for war is both a moral necessity and a simple act of bullshit detection.
Without recounting all of Bill Kristol's sweetest, most glorious hits, it's worth noting that he advocated invading Iraq in the 90s (and has rarely met a war he hasn't liked). He was one of the biggest cheerleaders for the Iraq War. In 2003, he dismissively claimed that Iraq had "always been very secular" and that concerns about religious or sectarian conflicts were overblown. He was, of course, disastrously wrong, yet despite his remarkable knack for being wrong about almost everything, he has a long history of "falling upward" and being a permanent fixture on the pundit circuit. Nor has Kristol shown any noticeable sign of contrition; this year, he's urged the U.S. to send the military back into Iraq, and recycled many of his arguments from 2002. (For Iraq War advocates, the operating rule seems to be that any positive situation in Iraq, no matter how many years later, somehow serves as retroactive vindication; moreover, the goal is not merely to be right, but to have been right.)
Perhaps Kristol is sincere and simply consistently, horribly wrong about matters of grave importance. However, it's notable that he also played a key role derailing health care reform in 1994, and for political reasons. Similarly, he was one of the most enthusiastic boosters for Sarah Palin becoming John McCain's vice presidential running mate – and it wasn't for her command of policy. (He was still singing her praises earlier this year.) Not that being a true believer is an excuse for consistently terrible judgment, but the evidence suggests he's at least as much a hack as he is an ideologue.
It's worthwhile to recall the bullying atmosphere leading up to and extending past the start of the Iraq War – it did not invite the 'thinking' and 'questioning' Kristol supposedly values. For instance, there was Ari Fleischer's "watch what they do and what they say," Richard Cohen's "fool – or possibly a Frenchman," combat-hardened Megan McArdle's two-by-four to pacifists, Ann Coulter's call to "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity," Andrew Sullivan's "decadent Left" as a "fifth column" and Tom Friedman's eminently mature macho posturing, "Suck. On. This." (The era yielded many other lovely moments in thoughtful discourse, overwhelmingly from Kristol's side of the aisle.)
One of the striking aspects about the Iraq War turning 10 last year was the lack of introspection. (James Fallows covered this very well.) This dynamic stretches beyond a rejection of reflection – there's still a rejection of basic facts. To quote a 2013 post:
It also isn't rare, even today, to hear conservative pundits insist (often angrily) that the Bush administration didn't lie in making the case for war, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary (and plenty of misleading, dishonorable rhetoric besides). Sure, one can quibble in some cases whether those many misleading false statements were technically lies versus bullshitting versus the product of egregious self-delusion, but in no universe were they responsible. Meanwhile, it's disappointing but not surprising that the corporate media, who were largely unskeptical cheerleaders for the war and prone to squelching critical voices, would be reluctant to revisit one of their greatest failures in living memory (let alone doing so unflinchingly).
It's worth revisiting one of Kristol's most sneering statements, right before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (emphasis mine):
We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam's regime. It will produce whatever effects it will produce on neighboring countries and on the broader war on terror. We would note now that even the threat of war against Saddam seems to be encouraging stirrings toward political reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a measure of cooperation in the war against al Qaeda from other governments in the region. It turns out it really is better to be respected and feared than to be thought to share, with exquisite sensitivity, other people's pain. History and reality are about to weigh in, and we are inclined simply to let them render their verdicts.
These are the words of someone who wasn't merely disastrously wrong, but also was an immature asshole (and who knew full well he wouldn't be the one to suffer the consequences of his positions). Advocacy for war should necessitate more seriousness. And Kristol has been too cowardly to acknowledge who was clearly wrong about weapons of mass destruction and political reform, and too dishonest to face history and reality's verdicts. Estimates of deaths caused by the Iraq War vary significantly, but it's a true – if terribly impolite – point that thousands of people are unnecessarily dead because of a position Bill Kristol zealously pushed, and continues to support. It's not that war can never be advocated for, but it is not something that should advocated lightly or cavalierly. Perhaps the weight of such a significant decision – and such a monumental error – should be felt; perhaps some acknowledgement is in order; perhaps those who have been unrepentantly, disastrously wrong should be shunned from public commentary rather than allowed to continually peddle the same old deadly crap "with such high zest." This smug belligerence is why, in more polite company, Kristol has been denounced as an armchair warrior, and called far worse in other venues.
To be fair, Kristol is far from the only warmongering pundit, and the blithe imperialist faction in the political establishment spans both major political parties. Seemingly, no Beltway pundit has ever gone hungry or lost credibility for agitating for war, no matter how farcically unnecessarily it may be. In one sense, Kristol's continued prominence, even on supposedly legitimate media platforms, is an indictment of the mores of Beltway culture. In (the somewhat tongue-in-cheek) stupid-evil-crazy terms, Kristol is mostly evil, in that he knows (or damn well should know) the all-too-likely consequences of his positions. But his a perfectly respectable evil in certain high circles, as is advocating for torture or opining that the poor should suffer. Alas, although the precise stench may vary, Kristol's rot is far from uncommon. (That said, it would be wrong to minimize Kristol's signature, despicable awfulness.)
It would nice to think that no one could ignore or deflect what "Dulce et Decorum Est" or the many phenomenal art works, memoirs and histories say about the costs of war, but trusty ol' Bill Kristol has shown himself up to the challenge. He can't plausibly deny outright the power of Wilfred Owen's work, so he has to make a planned concession and then pivot to his undying cause – glorious, glorious wars. Great art and good history have a knack of surviving misappropriation, but as with our nominal democracy – which in theory, is a bulwark against unnecessary wars – they still need their champions. Kristol's signature, despicable awfulness.)
(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)