"I Sing of Arms and the Man." (the Ghosts of War)

By Appleman, Philip | The Humanist, November-December 2001 | Go to article overview

"I Sing of Arms and the Man." (the Ghosts of War)


Appleman, Philip, The Humanist


It's easy to forget (and always sad to reflect) that male poets have traditionally been shills for the warriors: Homer marveling at Achilles' butchery; Vergil celebrating Aeneas (Arma virumque cano ...); Chaucer admiring his "verray parfit gentil knight"; Shakespeare's Henry V come to glory in an aggressive foreign war; Lovelace going off to battle singing, "I could not love thee, dear, so much,/Loved I not honour more"; Milton's heavenly heroes blasting the serried ranks of fallen angels with thunder, lightning, and sulphurous hail....

And so on, right down to A. E. Housman's penning--far too late in history to be credible--

   I did not lose my heart in summer's even,
   When roses to the moonlight burst apart.
   When plumes were underfoot and steel was flying,
   In blood and smoke and flame I lost my heart.
   I lost it to a soldier and a foeman,
   A chap who did not kill me--but he tried,
   Who took the sabre straight and took it striking,
   And laughed, and kissed his hand to me, and died.

Too late to be credible because Housman (1859-1936) lived to cross the line between those older poets, who could still pretend to believe in the noble and heroic swordsman, and the younger poets for whom the weapons of mass destruction had long since made mano a mano heroism all but irrelevant, replacing it with more and more impersonal and wholesale long-distance killing machines: the cannon, the bomber, the guided missile, the nuke.

Not to mention the poison gas, still in surreptitious stockpiles today, even though "outlawed." When the British poet and soldier Wilfred Owen, just before he was killed in action, looked about him at the trenches of World War I and wrote a poem about a gassed comrade, he incorporated a remark by the Roman poet Horace: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"--It is sweet and becoming to die for your country." The poem concluded:

   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.

That's a far cry from Housman's gallant handkisser, because--as warfare became ever less personal and ever more devastating; as the consciously targeted victims became the civilian populations as well as the armies; as the rationale for going to war became more arcane and disputable (shifting, say, from specific border disputes to slippery notions of "national honor")--the focus of poets' attention had long since switched from the swaggering warriors to their hapless victims.

Too late then to cheer the noble swordsman on the white horse. The democratic and humanistic notion that ordinary citizens should not be arbitrarily or whimsically dragooned as cannon fodder for the benefit of political, religious, or ethnic disputes gradually became one of our accepted truths, and so most wars became harder and harder to justify to "civilized" people. After the vast horror of World War I, only an overwhelmingly persuasive sanction could bring a whole nation together to support a major war.

Which is where I came in. In the fall of 1941, after two years of devastating war in Europe (and years more in Asia), U.S. citizens were seriously divided over our potential role in that conflict. Some were for armed intervention against Hitler, but many others were for neutrality and against any "foreign entanglements." On December 7 the Japanese effectively put an end to that argument. We may have known little or nothing about Hitler's death camps, and we may have been willing to deplore discreetly the distant Rape of Nanking, but we understood backstabbing well enough, and bombs sinking our battleships, and Americans killed in action--all in "peacetime."

So began our four years of the last "Good War. …

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