World War I, the Great War, which sadly proved not to be “the war to end all wars,” was raging 100 years ago. One of the war’s best poets was Wilfred Owen, who tragically died shortly before the war’s end. I’ve featured his poetry before, including this piece, but was reminded of it again recently:
By Wilfred Owen
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers.
But they are troops who fade, not flowers,
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.
And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on armies’ decimation.
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.
We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
These are old and recurring themes, and this poem resonates across eras. It spoke to World War II veteran Eugene Sledge, who wrote the war memoir With the Old Breed (part of the basis for the series The Pacific and also used in the Ken Burns documentary, The War). Sledge recommended the piece to Studs Turkel during his interview for Turkel’s great, ironically titled oral history, The Good War. Remarking on the poem’s speaker, Sledge observed, "This is the only way he can cope with it mentally... and he hates to see his buddies killed." (It’s fascinating to listen to the discussions between Sledge and Turkel because Sledge is so candid and reflective, and Turkel is so genuinely interested in other human beings.)
“Insensibility” covers a great deal of ground in a short space – it expresses a sardonic wit, explores numbness (whether voluntary or involuntary) as a survival mechanism, and ponders “Chance’s strange arithmetic,” an apt phrase for a perennial wartime fear. Insensibility isn’t the only possible response – Sophocles explored rage and madness in his 5th century BCE play, Ajax, a piece that still resonates with modern audiences, particularly those who have experienced combat. How does someone deal with such experiences? It’s not easy, and sometimes the response may indeed be post-traumatic stress disorder (the “shell shock” of an earlier era), or numbness, or rage, or depression, or fatigue, or some mix, or something else altogether.
This is an old story, but not one our country has grappled with well, especially as it plays out against actual human beings. Obviously not every veteran is a powder keg, and that’s definitely not the point of discussing this – the issue is whether we’re offering adequate help to those who need it. A set of 2014 studies bolsters past findings on PTSD and its prevalence. It can be treated, but there’s still a heavy and unfortunate stigma attached. Anthony Pike of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) observed that “An estimated 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are diagnosed with PTSD or depression, and most civilians are unaware that 22 veterans take their own lives each day.”
Reportedly, the military has gotten better at addressing PTSD and similar issues over the years. But for perspective, military spending by the U.S. has often exceeded 600 billion a year in the past decade or so, and that trend looks to continue when everything is tallied. Given all that money, perhaps more could be diverted to the general mental health and well-being of servicemen and women. Perhaps more effort could be made at addressing attitudes that PTSD or other problems are due to a lack of character (or, as we’ve explored in previous posts, a lack of religious faith).
Wars of choice are unconscionable (and we’ve explored that in depth in other pieces), but especially if one supports such a war (or really any war), it’s inexcusable not to take care of that war’s veterans. That means not serving up hollow slogans or flag-waving or jingoistic platitudes and instead providing actual help, from physical health care, to mental health care, to jobs programs. (Honestly, all of that would a good idea for the whole country, too.) The vacuous, the rabid, and the dullards might not want to discuss such things – or any of the negative consequences of war – but addressing them remains a matter of basic decency and common sense.
(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)