Sunday, November 12, 2006

"the old lie"

posted by k

The last verse of Wilfred Owen's poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est" deals with a soldier dying painfully as the result of a poison gas attack in World War I:

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.

When the vicar on Radio 4's Sunday Worship talks about "the supreme sacrifice" of soldiers, as he did today, he covers the reality of war with the romantic gloss of cliche.

Many of the soldiers who died in the numerous wars of the last hundred years showed immense courage and fought from principles which I share: opposition to fascism, defence of liberty, freedom from an invading army. Others fought because being a soldier guaranteed an income or because they were conscripted into the army and saw no alternative to fighting. Most deaths in war - of soldiers and others - are slow and painful.

Being a soldier is not about being willing to make "the supreme sacrifice" or being remembered in sanitised services of remembrance. Soldiers are trained to obey orders and to kill. Throughout the twentieth century soldiers - even Wilfred Owen - have taken souvenirs and trophies from the soldiers they have killed. Soldiers have shown immense generosity and thoughtfulness for others. Soldiers have also raped and tortured. The soldiers who behave well in some circumstances may behave badly in others.

The civilians who were hurt, abused and terrified in war have responded in different ways. Some have resolved to make a better world and others have hurt, abused and terrified others in their turn.

I would like to reflect on all those who died in wars whether soldiers or civilians. I would like to think of them them unglamorously and without cliche. They were human beings who faced appalling circumstances created by their fellow human beings.

British soldiers, sent to fight by their government, kill and are killed in war. Cliches like "the supreme sacrifice" hide reality and make it easier for the army to recruit children. Recruitment starts with children. Army recruiters go into state schools and talk to children who are 13 or 14. Recruiters tell children the army is a good career, which offers training and a trade. There's no mention of homeless ex-soldiers or post-traumatic stress disorder or the effect of years of institutional life. There's no mention of killing or dying, unless the children raise this in questions.

Mourning the soldiers and others killed in war is fitting. Glamourising and softening their deaths with cliche helps the recruiters in schools. Phrases like "the supreme sacrifice" don't reflect heroism accurately. They make it just a little easier to train obedient killers. They contribute to a climate in which atrocities and war crimes can ocur.

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