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."

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