“Arms and the man, I sing…” opens Virgil’s Aeneid.
This poem creates the model of the heroic figure using his battle skills to escape destruction, woo lovelies, and ultimately, found an Empire (well, found the blood line who later found an empire). In this heroic world, war is not about horror, blood, and loss – instead it’s about gaining honor, renown, and legacy.
It’s important to remember that the poets telling these epic stories, whether known or unknown, are hirelings of the ruling classes. It’s also important to notice a gradual shift as these stories evolve through history. From snatching triumph from the ashes (literally) of defeat as Aeneas does, heroes defined by their prowess in battle either become super-human (Beowulf) or tragic (Roland, Siegfried) or both (Arthur).
And it all makes for marvelous poetry. But it has given us a horribly inaccurate set of ideas about war.
One has only to think about how real poets in real wars (Richard Lovelace, quoted below, fought in the English Civil War on the side of the Royalists) embrace and espouse the ideals of Virgil’s hero:
TELL me not (Sweet) I am unkinde,
That from the Nunnerie
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet minde,
To Warre and Armes I flie.
Lovelace’s poem ends with restatement of the ideal supposedly inspiring men to leave home and comfort for war :
I could not love thee (Deare) so much,
Lov’d I not Honour more.
But this is warfare as epic and honor for the ruling classes. There is no consideration of the underclasses, those who fought in wars at the behest of kings, queens, or other rulers. For commoners, war has always been a matter of survival more than honor or glory. Yet even commoners can feel a love of king and country – and join in the crusades of their rulers. And they can fight as their “betters” fight – with the chance to face their antagonists personally and prove their heroism.
The mechanization of war begins in earnest with the invention of firearms. And what had made war heroic for everyone, whether king or peasant – Mano a Mano combat in which one proved one’s heroism face to face with one’s enemy – becomes not a test of a man’s strength and bravery against another’s strength and bravery in a matter of honor; it becomes instead a matter of which man is the better technician with his particular piece of technology. War becomes a matter of committing mayhem on an anonymous foe while serving as the anonymous foe upon whom the other seeks to commit mayhem in return.
One poet who considers this change is Thomas Hardy. Already a renowned novelist, after Jude the Obscure Hardy abandoned the novel and focused his attention on writing poetry. In one of his best poems, “The Man He Killed,” Hardy explores how this “anonymity” of modern warfare can come to haunt the simple soldier doing his duty:
â€œHad he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
â€œBut ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
â€œI shot him dead becauseâ€”
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
Thatâ€™s clear enough; although
â€œHe thought heâ€™d â€™list, perhaps,
Off-hand likeâ€”just as Iâ€”
Was out of workâ€”had sold his trapsâ€”
No other reason why.
â€œYes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
Youâ€™d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.â€
Hardy’s plaint – told in the vernacular of a simple English villager who tries to come to terms with his role in war while contemplating his own conscience prickings – reflects both that murderous anonymity wrought by technology and the long held sense of ordinary people everywhere that war is a matter of survival. The simple puzzlement he feels over how decisions he made for practical reasons (joining the army for economic gain, for example) lead him to a profound moral and philosophical dilemma gives the poem a haunting power.
Wilfred Owen, a brilliant soldier-poet who died a week before the armistice that ended World War I, goes much further in his contemplation of the meaning of war – and of its horror in his shocking and insightful “Dulce et Decorum Est”:
Bent double, like of old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
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 floundâ€™ring like a man in fire or limeâ€¦
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 sonic 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 devilâ€™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 talk with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
This isn’t war for glory or honor – this is technology used to commit wholesale murder on exhausted, disheartened humans. Owen, a member of the officer corps, struggled to find honor in his role as a leader of troops and in the mechanized mayhem of World War I’s battles and the psychological pressure of trench life. An educated, literate man (he’d served as a teacher of French for the Berlitz Schools) inspired to write poetry by a comrade in arms, fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, Owen used his poetry to try to come to terms with the anonymity of modern warfare.
But the question haunted him – how does one justify slaughter on a vast scale to settle political, religious, and territorial disagreements? As this poem shows, he believed it could not be for platitudes – like the absurdity of the poet Horace’s claim in the poem’s closing lines – which translates as “sweet and proper is it to die for one’s country.”
Tragically, Owen died before he found an answer to his question, his death a waste of a great talent.
But we have his poetry. And Hardy’s. Perhaps they can help us find answers.