The most painful episodes of twentieth century history are its wars. Starting with the losses of the First World War in 1914 the Second World War was even more catastrophic. Then followed the theatre of the Cold War, in which the American military intervened far and wide in the globe. Notable examples include the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The two works in discussion, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decrum Est” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” talk about two of the several wars of the recent century, namely the First World War and the Vietnam War. The political context, military strategy and technological aids employed in these two wars were quite different. Yet, their human tragedy remains the same. Separated by half a century, these two conflicts reflected the global geo-political power equations of their respective times. The two authors, far from glorifying war, present the realities of it in all its gory detail. Their works clearly suggest that futility and absurdity are the captions to the phenomenon of war. This view is in opposition to government/military propaganda, which would have its population believe that war is a noble of enterprise, undertaken to promote high values such as democracy, liberty, etc. There is even the preposterous propaganda slogan that ‘War is necessary to achieve peace’. The rest of this essay will flesh out the following thesis: Far from government rhetoric of the purpose and virtue of war, up-close observations of the actual theatre of war show how despairing, absurd and tragic the event is.
The poem ‘Dulce Et Decrum Est’ is the best known of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry, the opening lines of which portray the wretched travails of a soldier during the First World War: “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.” (Owen, 1917) There is a palpable atmosphere of gloom and hopelessness that faced soldiers of the First World War and Owen’s poem starkly captures this reality. The genius of Owen is his ability to create art out of this most despairing human experience. The fact that Owen himself succumbed in the war is a powerful testimony to the messages and sentiments expressed in the poem. To place it in historical context, the First World War is one of the major tragic events in twentieth century history. Referred to as the Great War, it accounted for great loss of lives and material resources. For example, the trauma suffered by soldiers is captured in these lines “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight/ he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” (Owen, 1917)
Dulce Et Decrum Est is remarkable in its ability to move the reader. It also excels in stunning and disturbing the reader’s preconceived notions of war. So, while the shockingly graphic elements in the poem sit uncomfortably in the reader’s mind, it is a sound method for condemning the atrocities of war. Owen’s works in general, including the poem in question, also concern themselves with what he saw as “poetry’s failure to render war’s actualities truthfully. In the draft preface written for a projected collection of his war poetry, Owen states, “All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful”. (Cyr, p.65) This is a veiled criticism of official government portrayal of war, which largely serves a propagandistic role. Having set the task of showing war it all its bitter reality, Owen also distinguishes between
“true Poets” and so-called poets who are not “truthful.” That these latter are targets for criticism is apparent in the brutal attack he makes on them in “Dulce et Decorum Est” and other poems, but he also employs more subtle methods (though subtlety is something for which Owen is seldom praised) that can be seen in his little-known sonnet “Hospital Barge.” (Cyr, p.65)
Owen’s exposition of the absurdity and sheer human calamity of the First World War has parallels to Tim O’Brien’s equally acclaimed work The Things They Carried, which is both the title of a short story as well as the title of his collected writings related to the Vietnam War. Just as Owen makes blatant the pain and suffering associated with war, The Things They Carried “does not even bother to ask after the possibility of spiritual progress through war.” (Vernon p.171) Drawing heavily from his own experiences as an American soldier in action during the Vietnam War, O’Brien’s sceptical view of noble intentions behind wars is captured in several of his stories in the collection. In one story titled Church, for example, the narrator asserts
“The moment for spiritual reckoning passes. In the morning the unit moves out, their bodies bathed in the church water and fed from the church garden, their guns cleaned by monks, their newly vitalized selves ready to waste gooks once again.” (Vernon, p.172)
The fact that O’Brien chose to have his work done in the fiction genre as opposed to a memoir or historical account is a veiled attack on government propaganda. It is a suggestion that official rhetoric can be far removed from ground realities and hence is pointless to document it faithfully. The Things They Carried thus
“repeatedly attests to the power of storytelling to transform events and to affirm a new kind of truth, one more spiritual than factual, while somehow in the process redeeming us and resurrecting the dead. Such language comes most strongly in the “The Lives of the Dead,” the book’s final story.” (Ricketts, p.42)
In conclusion, the political context and technological methods of the two wars in question are quite different. But what unites them is how the government, that of the United States in particular, had resorted to a public relations campaign of misinformation. By distorting the motivations for these wars, as well as by suppressing the great human suffering entailed by the wars, the involved governments have failed in their responsibilities. It is this failure that had necessitated the emergence of more truthful accounts of the two wars in the form of poetry and prose. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decrum Est and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried being stellar examples of this fact.
Cyr, Marc D. “Formal Subversion in Wilfred Owen’s “Hospital Barge””Style 1 (1994): 65. Print.
Ricketts, Harry. “The Power of War Poetry, from the Western Front to Helmand Province.”The Independent on Sunday (London, England) 3 Oct. 2010: 42.
Vernon, Alex. “Salvation, Storytelling, and Pilgrimage in Tim O’Brien’s the Things They Carried.”Mosaic (Winnipeg) 4 (2003): 171+. Print.
Owen, Wilfred, Dulce Et Decorum Est, first published in 1917, retrieved from http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Dulce.html on 29th November, 2012