Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day Post

Those of us who do not want to be associated with war expect at best to be endured by most people -- unless a war is under way. Then, if we are lucky, the civility of peacetime gives way to head-shaking and silence. Except in traditional peace churches or pacifist communities, friends and family regard conscientious objection to war as something of a character flaw.
Any national occasion will do for the celebration of wars and warriors. Memorial Day is especially poignant since it remembers specifically those who died in the course of military service.
This is not the time or place to argue constructive peaceful alternatives to war. It is a time to remember the price we have paid - and continue to pay - in the numbers of our children who die because we have not succeeded in figuring out an alternative to their sacrifice.

Here are poems for this day.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army...
McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" remains to this day one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915.

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Also from the first World War, another poem by Wilfred Owen.
The First World War, the war to end all wars, must have been horrible. A line from All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Maria Remarque has stuck in my mind...The direst cruelty is to use horses in war. We don't use horses any more. And by historic standards we even sacrifice fewer human lives, though a lot of non-combatants die in "collateral damage."
The title of this poem is from a line of Horace - "It is sweet and honourable to die for one's country."
Dulce Et Decorum Est.
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 disappointed shells 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 stumblingAnd floundering 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 estPro patria mori.
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Finally, an excerpt from George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell, a sub-piece from Man and Superman, Act III. Don Juan is arguing with the Devil about the nobility of mortals, and the Devil replies...
And is Man any the less destroying himself for all this boasted brain of his? Have you walked up and down upon the earth lately?
I have; and I have examined Man’s wonderful inventions. And I tell you that in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine.

The peasant I tempt to-day eats and drinks what was eaten and drunk by the peasants of ten thousand years ago; and the house he lives in has not altered as much in a thousand centuries as the fashion of a lady’s bonnet in a score of weeks. But when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanism that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies, and leaves the javelin, the arrow, the blowpipe of his fathers far behind.
In the arts of peace Man is a bungler. I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food. I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat. There is nothing in Man’s industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons.

This marvellous force of Life of which you boast is a force of Death: Man measures his strength by his destructiveness.
What is his religion? An excuse for hating me. What is his law? An excuse for hanging you. What is his morality? Gentility! An excuse for consuming without producing. What is his art? An excuse for gloating over pictures of slaughter. What are his politics? Either the worship of a despot because a despot can kill, or parliamentary cockfighting.
I spent an evening lately in a certain celebrated legislature, and heard the pot lecturing the kettle for its blackness, and ministers answering questions. When I left I chalked up on the door the old nursery saying “Ask no questions and you will be told no lies.” I bought a sixpenny family magazine, and found it full of pictures of young men shooting and stabbing one another.

I saw a man die: he was a London bricklayer’s laborer with seven children. He left seventeen pounds club money; and his wife spent it all on his funeral and went into the workhouse with the children next day. She would not have spent sevenpence on her children’s schooling: the law had to force her to let them be taught gratuitously; but on death she spent all she had. Their imagination glows, their energies rise up at the idea of death, these people: they love it; and the more horrible it is the more they enjoy it.

Hell is a place far above their comprehension: they derive their notion of it from two of the greatest fools that ever lived, an Italian [Dante] and an Englishman [Milton].
The Italian described it as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture. This ass, when he was not lying about me, was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street.
The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton believes that the whole of his silly story is in the Bible. What else he says I do not know; for it is all in a long poem which neither I nor anyone else ever succeeded in wading through. It is the same in everything.

The highest form of literature is the tragedy, a play in which everybody is murdered at the end. In the old chronicles you read of earthquakes and pestilences, and are told that these shewed the power and majesty of God and the littleness of Man. Nowadays the chronicles describe battles. In a battle two bodies of men shoot at one another with bullets and explosive shells until one body runs away, when the others chase the fugitives on horseback and cut them to pieces as they fly. And this, the chronicle concludes, shews the greatness and majesty of empires, and the littleness of the vanquished.
Over such battles the people run about the streets yelling with delight, and egg their Government on to spend hundreds of millions of money in the slaughter, whilst the strongest Ministers dare not spend an extra penny in the pound against the poverty and pestilence through which they themselves daily walk.

I could give you a thousand instances; but they all come to the same thing: the power that governs the earth is not the power of Life but of Death; and the inner need that has nerved Life to the effort of organising itself into the human being is not the need for higher life but for a more efficient engine of destruction.

The plague, the famine, the earthquake, the tempest were too spasmodic in their action; the tiger and crocodile were too easily satiated and not cruel enough: something more constantly, more ruthlessly, more ingeniously destructive was needed; and that something was Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair; of sword and gun and poison gas: above all, of justice, duty, patriotism, and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.
Nothing that I write on this Memorial Day can adequately describe the mixed feelings I have when I consider how many people die because of war. It is clear from any reading of history that waging war, as the Devil says above, is woven into the fabric of what it means to be human.
I use that image a lot because it allows for so much variety. Weaving involves combining woof and warp to create a finished fabric. In the case of rugs, multitudes of individual fragments are also knotted into the base to make the pile. In the same way that none of those individual fragments has any meaning away from the carpet, no individual person has much meaning in isolation from the human family.
We vote because we cannot all agree. If everyone were in agreement then voting would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, disagreements between nations cannot be resolved by voting, because nations claim "sovereignty," which is a way of announcing that no one can force them to do anything. Diplomacy with all its shortcomings is the only mechanism available, short of war, to deal with international conflict. That is the reason I will always argue in favor of diplomacy instead of war.
During times of war, like now, I want to be among those who seek resolution to the conflict by changing, not annihilating, those who choose to be our enemies. In biblical terms there is tension between justice and mercy. Those qualities are reflected in the human population by individuals who represent either one or the other. Very few people are capable of exibiting both, and I am not vain enough to think that I am among them. Given the choice, I choose to stand among those representing mercy.


Kobayashi Maru said...

As Victor Davis Hanson likes to say, human nature does not change, certainly not in a mere 5000 years. I.e., the warlike tendencies and potential for evil you cite are indeed woven into the fabric of humanity. We may have taken on a veneer of civilized behavior in certain quarters day to day but that is all.

That needn't be a reason for pessimism, but for realism: diplomacy without end will only embolden and empower cynical tyrants. I wish it were not so.

On a completely different topic, thank you again for your comments re. my brother. I find no way to contact you by e-mail on your blog. Please find me at and be in touch.

Anonymous said...