Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Next War

Wilfred Owen
 One-hundred and twenty-two years ago today, on March 18th, 1893, British poet Wilfred Owen was born in Shropshire, England.  Perhaps the most admired poet of the First World War, Owen is best known for the poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est."

A less familiar poem "The Next War," was written at Craiglockhart Hospital, while he was a patient there being treated for shell shock.  Although the poem was revised by Owen in July of 1918, this is the version that was published in September of 1917 in The Hydra, Craiglockhart's magazine written and edited by patients.

The Next War, by Wilfred Owen

"War's a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true."
- Sassoon

Death Intoxicated, Percy Smith
Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death;
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, –
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, –
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against his powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death – for Life; not men –  for flags.
                         ------------

"Out there," on the Western Front, death is inconceivably different from anything that can be imagined by those at home in Britain.  On the battlefields, Death is no stranger.  He is an "old chum," with whom men join their voices when his shells sing "aloft."  He is the elderly, phlegmatic uncle who spits and coughs not mucous, but bullets and shrapnel.  He is the trusted servant who performs the most intimate of tasks, shaving men with his scythe, cutting short their beards and their lives.   He is ever-present in the bodies of unburied comrades who shore up the trench walls or who lie in No Man's Land as men eat from their mess-tins.  And as soldiers climb out of their trenches to go over the top, they walk up to Death "quite friendly," despite the "green thick odour of his breath."

Death is a regular member of the company, and the second stanza confidently proclaims that Death is not the enemy of the men who fight.  Who then is the enemy?  Who pays soldiers to submit to death rather than "kick against his powers"?  Who accepts soldiers' death as part of the cost of war?

Canadian Recruiting Poster
Owen's poem is a prophetic voice that warns "better men" of the future against those who will persuade them to fight "greater wars."  The poem warns soldiers against being duped by propaganda to think they are fighting a noble cause for Life, when they are actually only killing men "for flags" – in the service of national interests.

In October of 1917, Owen send a copy of the poem home to his mother.  He wrote that he had included it "to strike a note" and that he wanted his younger brother Colin (who was seventeen at the time) to "read, mark, learn etc it."

4 comments:

  1. Quite sincerely, I must say I don't like parties of soldiers parading under the Menin Gate (Ypres) a bit. I have a feeling that a subdued silence is more fitting there. As for the British schools, who have a visit to the Somme and the Ypres Salient as a fixture on the national curriculum, and an important share of the British public, I cannot escape feeling that there is often an undiputable nationalist(ic) undercurrent about their attitude when attending, say, the Last Post. British legislation stipulates that visits to the battlefields are a cornerstone in the education towards national identity and pride.
    One might even claim that the red poppy (symbol of the Royal British Legion) expresses that same bottomline.
    As far as I am concerned, remembrance ought to be an all-encompassing symbolical act. This means that a sense of forgiveness is vital when remembering. A few years ago, Chancellor Kohl (Germany) and President Mitterand (France) stood together hand in hand at the Memorial to the Fallen in Verdun (Fr.).
    It all goes to show that there are ways of remembering, and better ways of doing so.

    Wilfred O. pointed out a way in which to avoid future wars. Throughout all of our history, Flanders has got to know just how detrimental to humanity is the old flag-waving. Warring 'on Death' can never be an alternative to a humble and sincere struggle for peace.
    As Jacob Burckhardt once wrote: 'The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity.' And this is applicable to the sickening tyranny of the minds which keeps preceding warfare in our days.

    I for myself usually wear the white poppy of the PPU, the Peace Pledge Union. It is what you do when you are living on a former battlefield where they are uncovering war stuff and the remains of soldiers all of the time.

    Best regards from Flanders Fields,

    Chris

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    1. Thanks as always, Chris, for your thoughtful perspective and for sharing the experience of what it is like to live near the Menin Gate and the battlefields of Flanders. When did the white poppy get its start as a symbol of peace and an alternative to the red poppy?

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  2. The best start, I think, is offered by the PPU web site: http://www.ppu.org.uk/
    You can access it in several ways according to the points that interest you.
    From what I know, there were also these conscientious objectors (Methodists, Quakers,...) who did not shirk what they felt to be their duty to King and Country. They were given such 'jobs' as stretcher-bearers, medical staff members and the like.
    If my information is correct, the PPU proper started off their activities in 1933.
    To get back to Wilfred O., I have a feeling he was out to satirize the glib pro-war effort propaganda machine and to speak his mind in pretty much the same way as he did in his Dulce et Decorum. "All that a poet can do today is warn", he wrote in the Preface intended to precede the publication of a first poetry volume. However, he fell a victim to that war of wars barely one week before the Armistice. This gave his words additional prophetic value.

    By the way, it was his fellow soldier-poet Edmund Blunden who was instrumental in publicizing W.O.'s verse for the first time (much as he did in favour of that other poet-soldier Ivor Gurney).

    Thank you, Connie, for our fruitful exchanges of impressions and observations. It is heart-warming to find that these war poets can remain as inspiring today as they did a century ago. Keep up the good work!

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  3. Thanks, Chris, for this information and for all your support!

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