Monday, May 25, 2009

Dulce et decorum est

Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor all those in the nation's military who died on foreign fields. We need to believe that they did not die in vain; their sacrifice is part of the American soul. But we should also understand that national myths hide unpleasant realities.

A British soldier in the Great War, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action just hours before the Armistice, said it best in his great poem Dulce et decorum est. I've quoted it before on this blog, and I'll quote it again:

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.

There is nothing glorious about death in battle, and knowing this makes the loss of all these soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen we honor today even more tragic and profound.

The Latin is from Horace and means "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country."

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