Friday, April 10, 2015

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Published in Paris in April of 1918 when masses of American troops were beginning to arrive in France and prepare for battle, Songs from the Trenches: The Soul of the A.E.F. (edited by Herbert Adams Gibbons) was a collection of poems "chosen from the thousand submitted in the New York Herald's Literary Competition.  The foreword of the book asserts that the poems were "a message from the American soldiers abroad to the home folks....Each writer speaks for thousands of his fellows."  

To Those Who Wait
(originally published under the title "The Boys Who Live in the Ground")

Some sing of the glory of war,
Of heroes who die in the fight;
Of the shock of the battle, the roar of the guns,
When the enemies clash by night.

Some mourn the savagery of war,
The shame and waste of it all;
And they pity the sinfulness of men
Who heard not the Master's call.

They may be right, and they may be wrong,
But what I'm going to sing
Is not the glory of the war—
But the weariness of the thing.

For most of the time there's nothing to do
But to sit and think of the past;
And one day comes and slowly dies—
Exactly like the last.

It's the waiting  seldom talked about 
Oh, it's rarely every told—
That most of the bravery at the front—
Is waiting in the cold.

It's not the dread of the shrapnel's whine
That sickens a fighting soul;
But the beast in us comes out at times
When we're waiting in a hole.

In a hole that's damp and full of rats
The poisoned thoughts will come;
And there are thoughts of long dread days,
Of love, and friends and home.

Just sitting and waiting and thinking
As the dreary days go by
Takes a different kind of courage
From marching out to die.  

And I often think when the thing is done,
And the praises are all passed around, 
If, with all their words, they'll say enough 
For the boys who lived in the ground. 
     --Donald Sherman White

The first two stanzas of White's poem assert that the real question isn't the character or meaning of the First World War.  It doesn't matter whether the war is gloriously heroic or savagely misguided and meaningless.  Instead, the poem sings "of the weariness of the thing," the numbing tedium of warfare and perhaps life itself, in all its stasis, boredom, and enforced inactivity.   

The poem whispers a seldom talked of truth:  mastering one's mind when "poisoned thoughts" fester and "the beast comes out at times" demands a "different kind of courage" than the bravery needed to charge enemy lines.  This poem isn't concerned with the soldiers who leap "over the top," but instead with the much more real "boys who live in the ground." Their enemy is not only the Germans, but the damp, the rats, and the endless circle of their own thoughts.  

What "sickens a fighting soul" isn't the whine of the shrapnel – death is ever present and these are men who have literally and repeatedly stared death in the face.  What saps their spirits is the paralysis that has been imposed on them: every man has surrendered control of himself to a larger force that demands endurance more often than gallantry.  

In an instant, the boredom vanishes?
Ironically, although many of the boys will die far too young, the poem says that these soldiers are plagued with far too much time, time given to recrimination and regret as they contemplate the past.  Waiting diminishes the men.  They are literally buried alive, asked to live a half-life of repeated postponements while they wait for the order to challenge death.  

Advertisements of the time promised to alleviate the boredom: the portable gramophone was offered as an answer to life's existential question.  

But something bigger is at work here, and White's poem is as relevant today as when it was written.  The poem doesn't merely address life in the trenches during the First World War: it continues to challenge modern readers, asking us to consider our own capacity to accept the tediousness of waiting and enforced inaction.    

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