Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day: sometimes war speaks for itself

I'm in the midst of marking essays and have no time to write a post, but I feel the need to do so anyway. It's Remembrance Day. 

We often hear people speak of "better and simpler times" in the past. I think those into vintage fashion are sometimes particularly guilty of glamourizing the past.

The truth is that no time in human history was ever better or simpler, not ever. Life has always been glorious and horrific, wondrous and terrible. 

And war has always been hell.

So I'm just going to post a few things that pretty much speak for themselves.

A Korean solider comforts his comrade. Considered the apex of masculinity, war can actually often break a man's spirit and take away whatever power (manly or otherwise) that he once had. This is beautifully illustrated in the following poem written during World War I by Wilfred Owen:

Dulce et Decorum Est (“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”  = “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”)
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out 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 gas-shells dropping softly 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 flound'ring 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
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. 

This amazing sequence is from the movie Gold Diggers of 1933. It is a powerful testament to the need to remember and support soldiers when they return from war, even during times of economic depression.


A teenage girl is raped by Nazis and left naked on the street. We now know that rape is an extremely common "tool" of war. It has always been so, since before Homer wrote of women as a prize of war in The Iliad, and probably always will be so. The powerful poem Tortures, gives me chills every time I read it. Given my own history of having become disabled as a result of severe abuse, this is my favourite poem: 

Tortures by Wislawa Szymborska

Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain;
it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
it has thin skin, and the blood is just beneath it;
an adequate supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
In tortures, all this is taken into account. 

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just as they were, only the earth has grown smaller,
and what happens sounds as if it's happening in the next room. 

Nothing has changed. 
It's just that there are more people,
and beside the old offences new ones have sprung -
real, make-believe, short-lived, and non-existent.
But the howl with which the body answers to them,
was, is and ever will be a cry of innocence
according to the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed. 
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of hands to shield the head remains the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs fail, it falls, its knees jack-knife,
it bruises, swells, dribbles and bleeds. 

Nothing has changed. 
Except for the course of rivers,
the lines of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid those landscapes roams the soul,
disappears, returns, draws nearer, moves away,
a stranger to itself, elusive, 
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.

A fifteen year old, German, child soldier, is captured by the Allies during World War II. The problem of child soldiers has not gone away. As we all know, it is going on right now in Africa, and this short poem is about that:  

The soldiers are children and the monkey’s young.
He clings to my leg, heart against calf—
a throat filling, refilling with blood.
Last week, the children ate his mother—
dashed her head against the breadfruit.
A young girl soldier laughs,
tears the baby from my leg
and hurls him toward the tree.
See, she says, you have to be rough.
When she was taken, the girl’s
heart, too, pulsed in her throat.

And, finally, this is an image of extraordinary human tenderness in the midst of terrifying human cruelty. We are all capable of both -- tenderness and cruelty -- and it has always been so. There was never a better and simpler time.


  1. Bloodflowers
    (November 11th) by John Miller.

    Bloodflowers bloom,
    in fields far away,
    forlorn symbol of the slaughter,
    we remember today.

    Senseless waste and sacrifice,
    blood spilled in vain,
    a whole generation,
    so brutally slain.

    The cannon fell silent,
    on this day long ago,
    this war to end all wars,
    so little did they know .....

    Dedicated to all those who have served in war, and those currently serving.