And of the best, among them. But sweet and right it ain’t.
You walk among the dead of the Civil War, of World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq. Somewhere on the grounds a funeral is taking place (it has to be; 27 are conducted each day). Does it feel like a cemetery? More like an endless garden of mad, beautiful horror. It’s eerily quiet, overwhelmingly sad, the July heat close to 40 degrees drains your body, the sheer endlessness of graves drains your heart.
One point three million Americans have died in US’ wars since the birth of the nation. A quarter of those are interred on the 2.5 square kilometres of the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori says the inscription over the rear entrance to the Memorial Amphitheater. That’s latin, a line from the Roman poet Horace’s Odes, and it translates to “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” Well, it ain’t. Certainly not as a matter of course.
There are good causes and bad causes, but more often than not I hold with German playwright Bertolt Brecht: “It is sweeter and more fitting to live for one’s country.” Of course, that quote of Horace’s is a recurring theme in anti-war poetry. Wilfred Owen called it “the old lie.” And Ezra Pound wrote
“These fought, in any case, […]. Died some, pro patria, non “dulce” non “et decor” […] wastage as never before.”
Those lines are part of the much larger poem called Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, published in 1920, where especially parts IV and V mark Pound’s complete outrage at and disillusionment by World War 1. But these disillusioned laments are good parables for later wars of great tragedy as well.
It’s a beautiful, albeit chilling read.
Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920):
These fought, in any case,
and some believing,
pro domo, in any case . .
Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later . . .
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some, pro patria,
non “dulce” non “et decor”. . .
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.
Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
fair cheeks, and fine bodies;
fortitude as never before
frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
Read the complete poem at Project Gutenberg.