Monday, November 11, 2013

For Armistice Day

World War I remains the greatest man-made tragedy in all of history: a brutal, pointless, utterly avoidable conflagration that ended a century of peace and destroyed the optimism and confidence that had created the modern free world. Twenty million died during the war proper, including most of the young men of France and Germany. Twenty million more died in the influenza plague that followed.

Fixated on symbolism, the Allied Powers demanded that the Germans sign the armistice agreement at exactly eleven o'clock on November 11, 1918: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One year later, the Treaty of Versailles that supposedly ended the war and established peace proved to be, in the words of General Ferdinand Foch, only "an armistice for twenty years." Perhaps it's for the best that no one remembers the "Great War" as a thing of patriotic glory.

Which is why, on this Armistice Day in the year of Our Lord 2013, I've decided to memorialize it with a poem few can bear to read, and which those who have read it can hardly bear to remember:

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 flound'ring 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.

-- Wilfred Owen, 1918 --

Pray for peace.

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