Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Poetry of War

(This week marks the fifth anniversary of the United States' invasion of Iraq. This post is for the Iraq War Blogswarm and as part of a ongoing Series on War.)

There is no poetry to war itself. There is, however, some famous poetry about war, some of which depicts it as glorious, while other pieces capture its horror. Let us begin with:

The Charge of the Light Brigade
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.


Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.


When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Tennyson was a fine poet, but he never saw war. His account, stirring though it may be with its evocation of loyalty heedless of the dire consequences, actually glosses over a key aspect of the real incident. The actual charge was a completely unnecessary loss of life, cavalry charging across a long stretch of open ground exposed to over 50 pieces of artillery, all due to a poorly-communicated order. It is, in fact, a cautionary tale taught in some military schools about the important of being clear in orders. (For more on the actual Charge of the Light Brigade, see the Wiki entry, NPR, the BBC and the U.K. National Archives.)

"When can their glory fade?" That line brings to mind the attitude recently shown by President Bush (emphasis added):

In a videoconference, Bush heard from U.S. military and civilian personnel [in Afghanistan] about the challenges ranging from fighting local government and police corruption to persuading farmers to abandon a lucrative poppy drug trade for other crops. […]

“I must say, I’m a little envious,” Bush said. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.”

“It must be exciting for you … in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks,” Bush said.

Romantic? Bush's comments are all the more despicable because he could have served in Vietnam, but thanks to family connections instead spent his time in a cushy "champagne unit" in the air national guard and didn't even complete his service. It's also not the first time he's said something like this. It's one thing to receive preferential treatment, but when Bush is also sending others to die, without an exit strategy and while undermining long-term prospects for peace, Dante's Inferno seems more appropriate than even the harsher words.

Let us move to the next poem:

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.

Wilfred Owen, one of the most famous of World War I poets, saw war firsthand, and his poems (and those of his friend Siegfried Sassoon) are decidedly unglamorous. Tragically, Owen died shortly before the war's end. But "Dulce Et Decorum Est" will never be used for any recruitment drives any more than Stanley Kubrick's scathing film Paths of Glory.

It's obviously not necessary to experience war personally to understand that it is indeed hell and something to be avoided if at all possible. But it's sadly far easier to hold the dangerous view that war is glorious and romantic when one hasn't experienced it firsthand, or doesn't speak with veterans, or doesn't study the subject, whether through good history books, novels, poems, theater, documentaries or narrative films. Unnecessary war is far more likely when our leaders have a view of war far closer to Rambo than Saving Private Ryan or All Quiet on the Western Front.

It's easier to sell an unnecessary war when pundits as loathsome, bloodthirsty and unrelentingly and unrepentantly wrong as William Kristol are given such a large microphone. It's all too simple to repeat the same mistakes when such knaves are given prominent platforms not only by right-wing outlets, but also Time magazine and The New York Times. Never mind Kristol glorying in Bush's disdain for expert advice and overwhelming public opinion, accidentally inveighing against his own side's position, celebrating unnecessary cruelty on the domestic front, and urging yet another unnecessary war, this time with Iran (for but a small recap). He should have been laughed at and shamed off the national stage long ago, but instead, he's been financially rewarded. Kristol brings a distinctive smug grin, I suppose, but the absurd truth is that, inside the Beltway, such immoral, reckless stupidity as his is considered "Serious."

Nor was Kristol alone in his hawkishness, his lack of military service and knowledge, or how seldom he was challenged by the press. Most of the key players in the Bush administration, certainly the Cheney "cabal" of neocons and other hawks, were firm believers in American imperialism, and shared the delusion that America lost in Vietnam due to a "stab in the back" by liberals and the press. Not coincidentally, they're trying to sell the same crap all over again.

Let's turn to another WWI poem:

Break of Day in the Trenches
By Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away -
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand -
A queer sardonic rat -
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies
(And God knows what antipathies).
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German -
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life;
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver - what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

I had a teacher who felt that the key irony of the piece is that the soldier plucks the poppy with the idea of protecting it, but as soon as he does, it will begin to die as well. It's similar to the dreadful irony captured by Garry Trudeau when he had Bush say, "Again, we'll stay the course. We cannot dishonor the upcoming sacrifice of those who have yet to die." Admitting personal error is far more costly to these leaders and pundits than the lives of others.

A similar irony is at work with the larger "War on Terror." Jim Henley (via Jonathan Schwarz) is one of many bloggers to note how our invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped Al Qaeda accomplish what it never could on its own:

Another way of putting it is, "So, did Bin Laden win then? Did we bankrupt ourselves on an insane and criminal war in half the time it took the Soviets, in response to his ever-so-helpful prodding?"

Still, my favorite lines of Rosenberg's poem may be "Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies." As in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion, class and power may more important than even nationality in a war. The grunts on the front line on either side have far more in common with each other than they do with the men who send them to die. History shows that, sadly, even veterans who should know better have occasionally made stupid and reckless generals, but nonetheless, imperialist chickenhawks remain extremely dangerous in positions of power. Consider the following passage from chapter 1, "A Bad Ending," of Thomas Ricks' Fiasco, discussing 1991 and the first Gulf War (emphasis added):

Former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who has worked closely with both and who has been an ideological ally of Wolfowitz but a close friend of [then Marine brigadier general Anthony] Zinni, when asked to compare the two, said, "They have more similarities than differences." Both are smart and tenacious, and both have strong interests in the Muslim world, from the Mideast to Indonesia — the latter a country in which both have done some work. "The main difference," Armitage continued, "is that Tony Zinni has been to war, and he's been to war a lot. So he understands what it is to ask a man to lose a limb for his country."

Wolfowitz would later say that the "realists" such as Zinni did not understand that their policies were prodding the Mideast toward terrorism. If you liked 9/11, he would say after that event, just keep up policies such as the containment of Iraq. Zinni, for his part, would come to view Wolfowitz as a dangerous idealist who little about Iraq and had spent no real time on the ground there. Zinni would warn that Wolfowitz's advocacy of toppling Saddam Hussein through supporting Iraqi rebels was a dangerous and naive approach whose consequences hadn't been adequately considered. Largely unnoticed by most Americans during the 1990s, these contrasting views amounted to a prototype of the debate that would later occur over the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

It would be nice if more people who made life and death decisions made those decisions as if their own lives or those of their loved ones were at risk, but sadly, it's often not the case. Our current scoundrels suffer delusions of grandeur, celebrate inhumanity as boldness and fantasy as grim realism, and do not understand sacrifice. The surge is still not working, but still the administration will send out its apologists and delusionists. Despite many a Lost Year in Iraq, there's still No End in Sight, and tragically, we're likely to write much the same things next year.

I've written it many times before, but I'll say it again: regardless of the rightness or mendacity of a given mission, a trooper's service can be honorable or even heroic. But their virtue does not necessarily ennoble the mission itself, nor does any heroism they show transfer to those making the decisions, no matter how many times those bold, intuitively brilliant, God-touched Deciders don a flight suit and show off their genitals.

Again, there is no poetry to war itself, but the depths of war (and WWI especially) have been explored by many superb poets. NPR also compared Tennyson and Owen's poems along with some others back in 2003. The website War Poetry features some pieces from the book Minds at War: The Poetry and Experience of the First World War. And although I've recommended it before, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry is outstanding. (Other recommendations are always welcome.)

Let's close with one more poem. To quote a previous post: There are many concepts, analogies and events Bush evidently doesn't understand, from (as a [then] recent post explored) Vietnam to World War I to a "Pyrrhic victory." But Pyrrhus at least saw the cost of war, and it doesn't take a Cassandra to see that while Bush thinks he's King Leonidas, in truth he's much more like vain Narcissus, petulant Ares, and Wilfred Owen's bloody Abram:

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old
By Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


Anonymous said...

"...it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country."

What a fool believes.

Mark Prime (tpm/Confession Zero) said...

There is no poetry to war itself.

A poem in and of itself...

Enough said...