Remember Wilfred Owen - doomed soldier who exposed war horrors and patriotism lie

In the madness that was World War I, his death was merely one more statistic. But for literature, it was a tragedy.

 |  6-minute read |   16-12-2016
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This past month, if one were to go by the statements of the powers-that-be, we have all tasted what it is to be a soldier. We have been told to stand in a bank queue uncomplainingly as it is akin to emulating the fine example of the selfless soldier-sentinel standing guard at the border.

No soldier has spoken thus. Only the netas have. It is perhaps time to cast a closer look at what the soldier himself has to say. Perhaps those who claim to speak for the soldier need to step aside and let one such soldier speak for himself, share his view on war, glory and his experience of the nuts-and-bolts of soldiering.

On November 4, 1918, a 25-year-old man, a decorated soldier named Wilfred Owen died while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors in France. News of his death reached his parents on November 11, the day World War I formally ended - Armistice Day. In the madness that was World War I, Owen’s death was merely one more statistic. But for literature, it was a tragedy, the loss of a distinct voice that had articulated clearly sentiments that had only been whispered earlier.

Owen, it transpired was no fan of the war and certainly did not buy the patriotic drivel that was being dished out to a gullible public. Drivel that justified sending to the frontlines some of the world’s youngest and finest. In 1917, a year before his death while recovering from shell-shock at a medical facility in Edinburgh, he had written these searing lines in the poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

At a time when the war machine was calling for greater and greater sacrifice dangling the carrot of eternal glory, Owen in two lines dismissed it. The haunting image of dying like cattle in the middle of a noisy battle was the brutal reality of war. To stretch his metaphor further, soldiers were akin to cattle fodder. There was no glory in their moment of passing. It was a sudden, lonely and anonymous happening. Going further, he spoke of no

…voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

A bugle in the heat of the battle-day signalled the coming of more and more shells. All the mourning that the soldier got, were the bombs going off, "demented choirs" in Owen’s telling, at the time of his falling.

Even while the overwhelmed state denies the soldier his due, Owen speaks of how his fellow soldiers attempt to. In the poem, Futility, he says:

Move him into the sun—

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields half-sown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

This stanza tells of nights spent in the open, waking to the morning sun and the grim rigours of the day ahead. But for the dead soldier, the sun would awaken him no more. His comrades put out the soldier who died in the shelling the previous night in the morning sun hoping to bring him to life. It’s as suggested by the title, an exercise in futility. The soldier’s death itself is.

Owen’s most celebrated poem was Dulce et Decorum Est. The title is taken from the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The full saying reads: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori (it is sweet and right to die for your country). It is an honour to fight and die for your country.

The poem begins with a description of war’s crushing reality for the soldier.

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.

As the soldiers plod on wearily, aware of the imminent possibility of death at every turn, there is a poison gas attack. Poison gas attacks were among the most cruel at the nadir of the war’s tactics. Both sides - the Allies and the Central Powers - were equally guilty of resorting to it. Owen then pictures the scene of a compatriot falling victim to the gas as he could not wear his gas mask in time. It was a scene that haunted him thereafter.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

So taken aback was Owen at his experience of war, that he concluded the poem thus:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum estPro patria mori.

Owen was stating his opposition to the constant glorification of the martyrdom and sacrifice that was drowning the voices urging the government in England then to seek peace. Soldiers are not vehicles for your publicity-seeking is the underlying tone of this fine poem.

Wilfred Owen was one of the finest war poets to emerge from the debris of World War I. Instead of walking the well-trodden path of blind patriotic fervour, he chose to air his ambivalent attitudes. That did not take away from the praise that the soldier ought to receive for his duty. What it actually questioned was the deceit of the people in power.

To lionise the soldier is the de facto position of the modern nation-state. With internal and external "enemies" forever looking to bring the nation to heel, it is only the warm fuzz of security that a standing army generates, that permit the nation and its denizens to breathe easy. Or so we are constantly reminded.

In India, many seem to have completely bought into this over the last couple of years. To criticise a governmental decision to use the Army is taken to mean criticism of the Army itself and an insult to the soldier. And that will not be brooked.

The Army, in the telling of the great government publicity machine, is big and pure and such a shining example of selflessness and service that we are enjoined to seek inspiration from it for all our actions. We are told to be like the soldier who uncomplainingly does his duty.

We should choose to emulate the soldier. A soldier named Wilfred Owen.

Also read: Hyper patriotism biggest dishonour for Indian Army

Writer

Karthik Venkatesh Karthik Venkatesh

The writer works as an editor with a publisher.

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