Sunday, November 10, 2013

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.

"The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori." So finished Wilfred Owen his great poem about the horrors of war. It is, says Owen an "Old Lie" that it is "sweet and right to die for your country". The Latin quote is from Horace and it lies of the heart of the "Call to duty" that took men to die in the trenches or in countless conflicts before and since.

There was nothing sweet and very little right about the Great War - although the jury is out as to whether it was, from a British perspective, a "Just War". You picks your historian and takes your choice on that one. Was the threat to Britain from Germany in 1914 so great that it had to be met with force? That is a far from clear cut assertion. But for Owen, at least in his poem, the rights and wrongs don't matter. What mattered was that a friend died horribly his "white eyes writhing in his face". 

The "Glory of War" is an oxymoron and to glorify war is moronic. Remembrance Day does not do that. You'll probably hear the word "glory" today but I doubt that it will be triumphantly spoken. Not from the mouths of the marching veterans anyway. They'll be more likely to echo the words of Harry Patch who wrote at the age of 109 "It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it."

But then as we sombrely reflect on the loss of family and friends or of unknown ancestors do we buy another lie that they were all "heroes" and that everyone who puts on a uniform is the same? The problem with the assertion that every single one of our soldiers, sailors and airmen is or was a hero is twofold. It is patently untrue - as we were starkly reminded this week. And it denigrates the use of the word for those who genuinely were. 

In his wonderful children's book "The Butterfly Lion" Michael Morpurgo describes an act of heroism in the trenches for which the hero receives the Victoria Cross. It explains what being a hero really means far better than the battery of "Help for Heroes" bombast does. Wilfred Owen, Harry Patch and a million others did not see themselves to be heroes. They were there because they had to be, maybe partly out of duty but mostly because they were required to be. The "white feather" alternative was unappealing.

So let's keep the word "Hero" for the true heroes of war and not apply it indiscriminately to every man and woman who chooses the military as a career. And let's remember today not just the true heroes who did the extraordinary things that justified that name. Let's remember those who didn't want to be there, who had to be nevertheless, and who died anyway. Not heroes at all but innocent victims of countless leaders' failures to resolve differences peaceably.


At 4:46 pm , Blogger Paddy Crean said...

The chapel at Sandhurst has the 'old lie' carved over the entrance


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