Soldier to Poet (Part II)

One generally expects those in position to wage war to avoid it, to make damn sure that outcomes are worth more than the inordinate destruction we have got to expect.
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The views (and poetry) published here are those of Lt. Col. Edward Ledford - they do not reflect the policies of the U.S. Army or NATO.

CMD (Carol Muske-Dukes - addressing EL - Lt. Col. Edward Ledford, US Army, Kabul) -

Ed, the last time we exchanged thoughts about war and poetry in this "Soldier to Poet" forum, we touched on "epic" war poetry - "I sing of arms and the man," etc. Also, there's the famous line from Horace: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" - usually translated as, "It is sweet and right to die for one's country."

Surely you have considered the other side of this ode to honor and patriotism?

I'm assuming that you know the response to Horace of the World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, in his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

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 tired, outstripped
Five-Nines 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 flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .

Dim, through the misty panesand 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.

It's a ghastly powerhouse of a poem. I don't know how free you feel to comment - but if you can comment at all on this poem, perhaps you could address Owen's repudiation of Horace's vision as "the old lie"?

EL - (Lt. Col. Edward Ledford)

Carol - thanks for the note and for continuing the conversation.

It's sweet and fitting to die for one's country.
Yet death chases after the soldier who runs,
and it won't spare the cowardly back
or the limbs, of peace-loving young men.

(That's A. S. Kline's translation of the full stanza from Horace's ode.)

Personally, I cannot see it as sweet to die for one's country, nor fitting, though death in battle might be an unfortunate and unavoidable conclusion given certain circumstances.

Even given that set of strict circumstances, one dying in combat isn't sweet: it isn't pleasant; it is not beautiful; it is not something to celebrate, not something to encourage, though one can celebrate the degree of courage another might have demonstrated in combat before succumbing, or the love demonstrated among soldiers mourning the loss or sacrifice of one of their own on behalf of another.

Of course, Owen describes not so much combat that we generally imagine - where two forces are pitted one against the other with the opportunity for heroics - as much as he describes a wholesale, brutal, and grossly impersonal and lonely slaughter. All the courage in the world, all the skill in the world, all the intellect in the world will not save one from the mustard gas.

Here in Afghanistan, Owen's impersonal gas attacks are the Improvised Explosive Devices that kill and maim indiscriminately military or civilian, Afghan or coalition, man, women or child. They are brutal and impersonal in their employment, detonation, and aftermath. They exclude any concept of battle, especially any sort of face-to-face battle, between or among potential heroes. They do not present the opportunity for courage. At best, the IED as a weapon is a physical manifestation of grossest cowardice, isn't it?

Translate "Dulce et Decorum Est" to the 21st Century, and the soldiers are not trudging back through the mud, but riding back in Strykers or MRAPs - Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. They don't get hit by "Five-Nines that dropped behind" but hit by pressure-detonated mines.

So, Carol, I tend to agree with Owen's interpretation: that particular line from Horace's ode has little place in Owen's world, little place in our world - it is an artifact that cannot be imported fairly: in the day of IEDs, drone strikes, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle footage - which really puts distance between the two combatants - the context has changed too drastically.

Perhaps, Carol, the more relevant lines for today comes later in Horace's ode: "Virtue . . . / never / takes up the axes or puts them down / at the request of a changeable mob."


You seem sadly exact in making Improvised Explosive Devices the equivalent of mustard gas - as a diabolical and criminally brutal form of slaughter -operating outside the Geneva conventions and (as in WWI) ideals of a traditional battlefield.

But mustard gas was the product of military scientific research, a "weapon" created in a laboratory expressly to kill and to ensure horrifying death. Mustard gas was "outlawed" as inhumane - an "anti-personnel" chemical monstrous even in warfare. (Something like Dow Chemical's similar contribution on our own side in the Vietnam war - remember the photograph of the naked children, covered in napalm, running down the road with their skin burning off?)

There is no 'human" defense for guerilla attack explosive devices, suicide bombers, etc., who, as you say, "kill and maim indiscriminately" - soldiers, civilians, men, women, children.

Unfortunately, though, Horace's appeal to the nobility of the individual sacrifice for the fatherland - is still relevant. And not just because many join the military out of love for country and a willingness to die for that country - (though many join out of economic desperation, etc.), but because we still say that dying for one's country, if not sweet, is a good and heroic sacrifice. I agree with you, I don't think it's a good thing - it may be a heroic thing - but to lose one's life is not, in and of itself, "good".

It is the extremists who strap bombs to their bodies who say it is "sweet" to die, who believe that there will be a great reward, big-time blessing in the beyond, for those who make of their bodies incendiary devices.

This logic makes the purveyors of random violence, whom you compare to mustard gas - closer, in effect, to Horace's ideal of nearly-religious patriotism.

There used to be a 19th c. student drinking song which paraphrased Horace -"It is sweet and right to LIVE for one's country," they sang.

The "noble sacrifice" is what Wilfred Owen calls "the old lie". Here is the heroic sacrifice, he says - lying on the death cart, coughing up his insides in slow excruciating death. (Owen himself was on the front lines - he was killed a week before the Armistice in 1918, I believe.)

Owen would have said that any death, in any war - whether one is pitted against drone strikes or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - or Improvised Explosive Devices - is pointless because it was a casualty of the "old lie".

He probably would have said that "the distance" you refer to in today's warfare - was in fact the REAL equivalent of mustard gas. That chemical represented, in fact, just that exact distance that allows many to be killed by an indifferent brutally destructive force. It started in World War I - one's enemy was no longer a worthy combatant - rather an object, a statistic, protoplasm to be blown apart.

As for the quote from later lines in Horace - I don't know what to say. It seems to me that wars have been fought (and declared) by this country that have represented, if not the request of a "changeable mob" - perhaps the ambitions of the military/industrial complex - or global business interests.

And (in my opinion), we invaded a sovereign nation (Iraq) - at the whim of a president with his own personal "mob" of enablers and cronies without conscience. But that is my opinion.

EL -

Carol, you noted that "wars have been fought . . . by this country that have represented . . . the request of a 'changeable mob' . . . or global business interests."

Remember the Gulf of Tonkin: a misrepresentation, and not a very good one, that was the first step in the escalation of force culminating with all out war because some guy said, essentially, "I think someone shot a torpedo at us . . . yeah, I'm pretty sure . . . I'm thinking maybe it wasn't a torpedo. . . on second thought maybe it was a porpoise . . . ."

President Johnson: "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there." Easy mistake.
Remember the pre-emptive war doctrine to which you implicitly refer that President Bush announced at graduation of the United States Military Academy Class of 2002: ". . . our security will require," the President said, "all Americans to be . . . ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives."

President Bush did not say "may require," but "will require." Good speechwriters are not careless. Those words carry the heavy inevitability of a foregone future.

One generally expects those in position to wage war to avoid it, to make damn sure that outcomes are worth more than the inordinate destruction we have got to expect, and worth more than the lives - soldier and civilian - that will be destroyed for the cause (not to forget those permanently physically and psychologically maimed and scarred and disfigured, and the families of all of them).

In 2002, I recall perceiving among some offices a kind of yearning for war, a looking for a reason or excuse, as if war could be a panacea for our national wound. And when one excuse withered, another sprung up, at least equally as alarming, at least equally as assured as the one before. I shared with a colleague, "We're going to war with Iraq." He replied, "Yep, the train has left the station." Some just wanted a convincing reason. Not an actual, factual reason, just a convincing one.

Now, back to Horace for context of the line Owen imports. I'll be quick.

Horace does not encourage war. Indeed, he celebrates the discipline of soldiering and encourages an imposing military as a deterrent: "'Ah, don't let the inexperienced lover / provoke the lion that's dangerous to touch, whom a desire for blood sends raging / so swiftly through the core of destruction.'"

Horace recognizes, but does not encourage, the sometimes inevitable loss of life in war: for soldier, coward, and pacifist, alike, "death chases after the soldier who runs, / and it won't spare the cowardly back / . . . of peace-loving men." And we cannot discount the high bar he proposes for taking up or putting down axes. Horace does not seek war, does not encourage war, does not encourage one to die in battle for one's country. He even derides bloodshed: "Virtue . . . // scorns . . . / the bloodied earth."

In short, Horace encourages good service, and, then, given battle, advises courage when death approaches. Given the full context of the famous or infamous line, I cannot brand Homer's observation as a lie.

Do not miss my point: war is horrific, even the jus ad bellum, but human nature - the same humanity we otherwise embrace - sometimes makes war unavoidable. And if war is unavoidable, then so for some is death in combat.

But, as hard as it might to accept, given soldiers of an army defending an in fact greater good against attack and defeat by an in fact greater evil, the soldiers' deaths contributing to the defense of the greater good are of good value to efforts of the collective group.
But, Carol, I don't think Owen is wrong, either, especially given the context in which he presents the line. I think that if we take the line from the larger ode and transplant to Owen's world, Owen is right: Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori is a lie.

But I think we have to acknowledge it as an out-of-context lie.


Ed, I'm not so sure that Horace's true intentions are as important as Wilfred Owen's "marquee-ing" of the "Dulce" line for his own exhortatory purposes - but I think you are correct in not taking Horace's apparent bang-the-drum militarism too seriously. (And I think you are intuitively spot-on in pointing to the psychological significance of the schoolboy Owen passing beneath Horace's words writ in stone like a sentence of death for the young - his own "highlighting" of the words seem to re-create that "Abandon All Hope" archway.

Re Horace - of the three Odes of Horace's third book, the second is devoted to Virtus & Fides - and written seemingly to offer inspiration to the young. I believe that "virtus" in Horace's time almost always referred to the courage of a "top gun" - courage of a major warrior - "hardened" he says "by fierce campaigns", invasions, surges. His apparent celebration of this first-class fighting man (and others, I think, have translated "virtus" as "true manhood") seems to rise to the highest tribute in "Dulce et Decorum Est..."

Yet the poem seems to turn away at that moment - from that celebration of the soldier hero - and address notions of courage for the general populace - maybe even to address ideas of individual conscience. It has been noted by critics that there is some lack of energy in how Horace exhorts soldiers to war against the Parthians - the subtlety here, as you have hinted, may be that he seeks to remind us of the causes of war - rather than simply to extol its virtues.

Horace's thinking is often about the causes of war - about how war usually rises from avarice for riches and the will to power at any cost. So in some ways, yes, Wilfred Owen's exposing of the "Old Lie" echoes Horace's much subtler, more hidden, but no less searching indictment of mindless militarism.

It is also ironic that Wilfred Owen was creating his own "Soldier to Poet" communiqué with "Dulce". He originally addressed the poem "To a Poetess". There was a "poetess" named Jessie Pope who was, apparently, a kind of one woman recruiting force - she wrote verse singing the praises of war and urging young men to enlist.* Owen later removed the nod to her, but her knee-jerk unknowing "patriotism" inspired his desire to tear the veil away from the true picture of the battlefield - as an entire generation perished (fathers, sons, brothers, fiancés) in the throes of mechanized death - chlorine and mustard gas among the horrors.

I know that you have no desire to celebrate war on the face of it, like Owen's "poetess" - nor do I begin to presume to know the challenges or "virtus" of military life and warfare.

But I feel as if Horace and Wilfred Owen have "answered" the Jessie Popes of this world - those who would send our men and women to war without truly understanding the breadth of the personal sacrifice and the deadly costs.

*A sample of Ms. Pope's verse - from "Who's for the Game":

Who's for the game, the biggest that's played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who'll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he'd rather sit tight?

In another poem, "The Call" she sings out: "Who's for trenches, laddie?"

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