Wilfred Owen
Original publication: poetryfoundation.org

Dulce et Decorum Est (1917)

There is much talk these days about World War 3. This anxiety is a very well-justified reaction to loud saber-rattling. However, fear runs the risk of becoming nihilistic resignation. The uncritical adoption of an incorrect theory of social behaviour, even in protest, paradoxically only succeeds at smothering resistance.

People who believe war to be inevitable, when asked for justification, often argue that the wishes of elites are essentially unstoppable, and that sheepish and dopey masses will “as always” cluelessly and stupidly march into war without protest. What this condescending narrative fails to understand is the extent to which those masses historically, far from being deluded simpletons, were conscious adherents to an ideology of war and an economy of conquest. They defended their choices through a series of logical (or partially logical) explanations: war offered social mobility in an era without illusions, war promised land and industry, war would turn pampered boys into hardened men, etc. This is the theme of Domenico Losurdo’s Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West (1991), which studies the cult of death, and the role it played in revving up European society for two World Wars. It’s important to study and understand this cult concretely and not superficially, because only then can we properly compare and contrast it to our current situation.

Reading Wilfred Owen — the celebrated British poet-soldier who expressed bitter opposition to the confidently patriotic verse of his era, which incessantly argued that it was “sweet and honourable to die for one’s country” [Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori] — raises some important questions. Do we recognize the worldview that he wrote against in ours? Violence is very normalized in movies and television shows, yes, but is there any evidence that this translates to hunger for military glory? Miserable recruitment statistics do not suggest so. [1] If Western countries were invaded, one could easily imagine the rise of patriotic militias. However, could such a sentiment be roused among those being sent to die by the boatload in faraway lands, openly denounced as tyrannical invaders, on orders of governments that they themselves consider to be illegitimate? I’m skeptical. Any serious push to press unwilling, war-weary, and deeply disillusioned youths into battle should be expected to meet resistance. It might precipitate rebellion. And if these rebellions were organized, they wouldn’t merely jam any war effort: they could ignite a definitive socialist revolution. They have in the past.

So, either war is not inevitable, or the thwarting of the inevitable war presents an opportunity. In no scenario is resignation to cynicism and despair justified. Embracing cheap nihilism will always be a choice, but it’ll never be the wise one.
 — R. D.

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 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,
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.

  1. U.S. Army Times: “Army misses recruiting goal by 15,000 soldiers.” [web]