Friday, November 11, 2005

Armistice Day

On November 11, 1918, while the English church bells were ringing out in celebration of what would be known as Armistice Day, Wilfred Owen's parents received the news that their son had been killed in the war, in France, one week earlier. Owen wrote this poem in 1917; it was published in 1920, two years after his death.

Armistice Day was designated to honor the dead of "The Great War." Later, we decided that we liked war so much we'd have to start numbering the mega-wars of the 20th century. Today, of course, is "Veterans Day" (yes, officially spelled with no apostrophe in this post-literate age). The reason is clear. The dead of WWI don't vote, but lots of veterans do. And those to whom we give the power to designate "Days" are nothing if not vote-whores.

But let's hear from a veteran; let's hear from someone who knew war from firsthand experience:

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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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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,
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.

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God help us.

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