War Is a Lie, Part Two: Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori

This is the second installment in the War Is A lie series from Historydojo. To read the first installment, please begin here.

wilfred-owen-hires-croppedWilfred Owen understood war. 

His poem Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori was written about war, from a battlefield, by someone who would die soon after writing it.

Wilfred Owen understood war. He died just one week before the end of the First World War. His life is significant only because of the five poems he wrote. Each is a marker to a life so beautiful, a heart so piercing and a genius tragically lost. One five of his poems survive. He died at the age of twenty five. What he might have written had he lived another fifty years is forever lost to us. Because of war.

His poem Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori is a valuable historical document, describing the futility and finality of war. The title comes from the Latin, meaning,”It is good and proper to die for your country.” It was a pledge made by Roman legionnaires as they marched off to conquer. Their fight, of course, was much different from the industrialized killing that marked the fighting in World War One, and which ultimately took the life of Wilfred Owen.

The poem describes the beginning of a poison gas attack on the front lines:

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 gas-shells dropping softly behind.
The first stanza of the poem sets the scene of the war, illuminated by flares streaking
across the night sky, as the men march slowly through the mud to return to the barracks, which were not much different from the trenches.
Then suddenly there is a change of pace, as the next stanza begins with the terror of a gas attack.
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.
The gas has claimed a slow responder. Someone who did not get their mask on in time has breathed a lung full of chlorine of mustard gas. The effect of these gasses was to burn the skin and the lungs, initially making it hard to see and breathe, but scarring the tissue, creating puss that would ultimately drown the victim in their own bodily fluid.
Hardly a heroic death, nobly giving his all on the field of battle. It was a life lost not in nobility but randomly and without impact.
That is the truth of modern war. Loves are lost not in fight, but just lost, quickly and without purpose. Industrial death does not provide significance to each life lost. Industrial death provided just more death.
The victim is not gone, however, as modern war creates nightmares for the survivors, who can never unsee the deaths of their comrades. The post traumatic stress of living through war leaves men changed, unable to unsee what horrors they lived through on the battlefield.
gas victimIn 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 sends us this warning about war. “War is a lie” The old lie, he says, is that it is good and  proper to die for your country.
It is not true, says a soldier who soon after writing this poem became one who died for his country.
It is a voice from the grave, warning us that war is not what we think it is it is a warning about the old lie that war is good, war is for the brave, war brings out the best in everyone.
War is a lie. Spread the word.

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Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Source: Poems (Viking Press, 1921)

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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