We cannot consider war without bringing up lies–they go with the embattled territory. Lies run through its history like an evil river as mainly older men send the young to their deaths on what are mostly false pretexts. Lies are repeated; they fuel the fury.
A recent production by the Theater of War of Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, which was first performed in 409 BCE, reminded me how far back the lies go. The performance group uses extracts from Philoctetes and Sophocles’ play Ajax “as a means of discussing both the physical and mental trauma of military conflict and its lasting impact upon both veterans and surviving civilians.” The performances also highlight the lies that form the foundation for war.
Among the most searing and brilliant lines of anti-war poetry appear in the final stanza of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est,” his graphic response to seeing a fellow soldier dying from mustard gas in World War I:
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.
When Kenneth Graham, my eighth-grade English teacher, told the class what those final Latin words meant, I felt my cheeks redden with knowledge: “sweet and decorous is it / to die for one’s country.” That was the “old Lie”—maybe even the oldest lie, with its capital L.
I was reminded of the poem while watching the movie Benediction recently, the story of Owen’s friend and fellow World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon. One of the most memorable scenes in the film features the recitation of another of Owen’s anti-war poems, “Disabled,” a portrait of a legless, armless vet in a “wheeled chair” who questions his decision to enlist:
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
“Dulce et Decorum est” left an enduring impression. While attending the Hampton Day School, an alternative educational institution set in the potato fields of Bridgehampton, New York, I returned to my anti-war studies, fueled by the Vietnam War. I strung together a reading list that included Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939), and Joseph Heller’s play We Bombed in New Haven (1967), three different perspectives on war featuring horror, shame, and dark humor.
All three books have staying power. A stunning and brutally vivid new film version of All Quiet on the Western Front came out last year; Johnny Got His Gun inspired plays and movies–and the song “One” by Metallica–and Heller’s drama finds new audiences from time to time, especially among college students.
Trumbo’s book affected me the most. The story of an American soldier who loses his limbs and face in a World War I battle but is kept alive despite his desire to die struck me as the ultimate existential experience. In one scene a group of Army officials comes to the man’s hospital room to pin a medal on his chest. When he squirms and shakes in an attempt to get them to leave, the nurse gives him a sedative.
The recent death of Charles Simic led me into a deep dive of his poetry. I had forgotten his anti-war writings; born in Belgrade in 1938, he had spent his youth in war. Among other poems I found “Dance of the Macabre Mice,” from his 2008 collection That Little Something. Here’s the second stanza with its reference to “bird-sweet deceits, the deep-throated lies”:
The mortuaries are being scrubbed clean.
Soon they’ll be full of grim young men laid out in rows.
Already the crowd gurgles with delight
At the bird-sweet deceits, the deep-throated lies
About our coming battles and victories.
Much anti-war writing reflects the truth of war—that’s the power of All Quiet, whose author was a veteran of World War I. Indeed, the real prompt for this scattershot rumination is a remarkable new translation by Alfred Nicol of Julien Vocance’s One Hundred Visions of War (Wiseblood Books). Vocance, the pseudonym the writer Joseph Seguin adopted, served in the French infantry in World War I where he lost an eye in the trenches of Champagne in the northeast of France.
Vocance’s one hundred haiku provide “discrete imagistic moments” as Dana Gioia calls them in his excellent introduction; they also, in translator Nicol’s words, “depict the horror and brutality of armed conflict, as seen from the trenches”—unprecedented subjects for this poetic form borrowed from Japan. Here are a few examples:
Fireworks fill the sky.
Yet another sacrilege
over these mass graves.
You’ll later regret
this missed opportunity—
to die in your sleep.
the maimed, the consul’s wife left.
Now, maybe, we’ll eat.
For my father Jack Little’s fiftieth reunion at Dartmouth, he and his classmates of the class of 1940 produced a “War Diary” featuring accounts of their experience in World War II. Until I read his entry, I had not known a lot about my father’s experience, which included taking part in the invasion of Sicily and witnessing the worst “friendly fire” accident of the war, when the eighty-second Airborne Division, flying in low from Malta and North Africa, were mistaken for German bombers.
Dad inscribed his copy of the War Diary, “To Carlo with love—‘ain’t gonna study war no more.’” The quotation comes from an African-American spiritual made famous by Pete Seeger during Vietnam War protests. My father tried to connect with his five anti-war children in the 1960s by mowing the word “Love” in the tall grass at our home in Water Mill, New York.
I recently learned about Canadian-born singer Carole Feraci, a member of the Ray Conniff Singers, who on 28 January 1972, interrupted a gala event at the White House to demand that President Nixon “stop bombing human beings, animals, and vegetation.” She went on: “You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare drop another bomb. Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg.”
In a recent interview about that event, Feraci was asked what compelled her to make her statement. Part of her response: “It was just one lie after another.”
Image at top: Alan Magee, Portrait of Wilfred Owen, 1992, digital photo montage (photo: courtesy of the artist).
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