Monday, October 28, 2013

Wilfred Owen, pacifism, and Syria

[Originally posted at NOW]

To mark the one-hundredth year to have passed since the outbreak of World War 1, British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has rounded up ten other poets to highlight some of the finer literary produce from the front lines. It was of course inevitable that Wilfred Owen would crop up, and Duffy’s selection of his The Send-Off is certainly among the most arresting of the possibilities.

Coinciding, however, as the year 2013 does with the first use of chemical weapons in the 21st century, one can’t help thinking the more pertinent choice would have been Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est, his unforgettable recollection of the war’s infamous gassings that led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, intended to prevent humanity from ever again resorting to that low. The whole thing must be read in its entirety, but it’s the final lines that twist the gut tightest:

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.

Of course, anyone with access to YouTube today can hear “the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,” and it is this more than anything that will condemn this generation of world leaders for decades to come. Which begs the question: As much as Owen has deservedly become a symbol of anti-war movements, what would he make of “Hands Off Syria” and the rest of today’s pseudo-pacifists whose idea of moral courage is to wave portraits of the man responsible for East Ghouta?

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