Panama…then Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq again, Afganistan–right or wrong, for causes both just and cynical, we’ve been in an exhausting, nearly constant state of war, however distant and vaguely defined, since I graduated from High School in the 1980’s–and that was just a few deep breaths after the war in Viet Nam/ Cambodia/ Laos that defined my father and his generation. It seems fitting to start out a series of my favorite poems with war theme.
I’ve thought of no other poem more than this one over the past two decades, which speaks volumes for Wilfred Owen, who wrote from a foxhole in World War I–the “War To End All Wars.” In the age of biological weapons, this piece resounds like the deepest church bells on a cold, crisp night.
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 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.