Every November 11, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” eats away at my mind. His poetry, and the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, capture in a unique way the panorama of war “sans propaganda.” Both poets, friends, were soldiers during WWI. Like many of Owen and Sassoon’s war poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est” is graphic, vile, and disturbing. It portrays a poison gas attack in vivid images and does not cosset its readers. Rather, it aims to portray the horror of war in a way that dispels the mythical “glory” that traditionally called youth to the battlefield. I would encourage you, on this November 11, to take some time to read through some of Owen and Sassoon’s other war poems.
I realize that there are many theological tangles regarding pacifism and “just war” – tangles too thick for me to unwind here (and too beyond my expertise for me to make the attempt). And, truth be told, my soul pulls both ways. But whatever you believe about war, we can all agree that it contains a base horror that is unmatched by any other human experience. And, as such, it is right and good that we take some time today to feel deeply for those who have experienced, and those who do experience, war as a daily reality – as soldiers and as civilians. And whether or not we believe there is ever a valid reason to go to war, we must keep faith with those who have been there by refusing the rose-coloured glasses that try to present war to us as “glorious.” The rough translation of the Latin phrase at the end of “Dulce et Decorum Est” is: “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” It’s taken from one of Horace’s Odes and its context is an exhortation to Roman citizens to gain military strength and skill for the glory of Rome.
Whatever your views on war, whatever your views on Remembrance Day, on poppies, on current political realities – I hope you take some time today to consider the depth of evil humanity is capable of. And I hope you take some time today to pray for those who have, who do, and who will experience that evil. And I hope you take some time today to pray “Come, Lord Jesus, Come” in the midst of that evil – because peace will not reign until Christ does. And we are all waiting, longing, praying – I hope – for peace.Dulce et Decorum Est
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I 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.
~Wilfred Owen (1890-1918)