If one buys the arguments of historians, this century did not really start until 1914, when the march toward rationalism (that commenced in the Enlightenment) and the long 19th century (which according to the same historians began in 1789) came to a screeching halt in the killing fields of Flanders. And if this century has been characterized by the re-embracing of delusional beliefs in gods and monsters, then I would argue that this century, this 20th century, continues, although I'm praying like hell that 2008 may be its end.
World War I has now been joined by several wars that had no moral justification, made no sense, and resulted in mass carnage. Americans have no idea the costs of WWI--after all, we joined the fray in 1917 and, because of strict press censorship and government crackdowns on dissidents (any of this sound familiar?)we stayed woefully uninformed--but the evidence of the complete waste of human life is evident in every memorial garden in every town square in Western Europe. An entire generation of men were wiped out in that war.
If WWI left us anything, it is great literature that was created in the midst of the dying. In Wilfred Owen's case, he wrote poems up until the moment of his death, which occurred several dozen hours before the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. (The REAL meaning of Veteran's Day.) Viet Nam, which perhaps is America's version of WWI, if not in terms of sheer numbers of casualties at least in terms of the psychic damage that the war inflicted on its veterans--and after campaign 2004, one wonders how many more years it will take us to recover from it--produced some incredibly fine novels.
But with the exception of the movie, Three Kings, I have yet to see great literature produced by those who fought in the Gulf War I. And I wonder why? Was it because there was so little hand-to-hand combat, so little contact with those that were slaughtered? Will Gulf War II be different? Is there, even as I write this, some soldier sitting in his or her bunk scribbling memories into prose or poetry that will bring this war home to us here?
Where are this war's poets?
So, after having seen the pictures this morning that are being posted from Fallujah, I went looking for Owen's most famous poem. Perhaps you've read it before. But it bears reading again. And again.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
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.