Friday, May 10, 2013

The Wisdom of World War One Poetry on a Random Friday For When American Foreign Policy Runs Amok

Earlier I mentioned The Hagakure. I have been fascinated by Edo era Japan and the samurai for many years following my discovery of Toshiro Mifune in high school.

Yes, one can move from a character actor playing in Japan's quintessential film genre to a more robust understanding of "real" history.

As I have written about before on We Are Respectable Negroes, my newest hobby interest is World War One. The failures of human beings, our hubris, and the many avoidable steps which led up to that conflagration are heart wrenching. The social history of the war in the United States, and how it is foundational for the study of race and ethnic formation in our national context, are compelling to me personally as a student of race and the reproduction of racial ideologies in the West.

Mass human misery in the face of industrial warfare is one of the dominant themes associated with World War One in the American and European popular imagination(s). World War One, as a (if not the) foundational event in the 20th century, also impacted quotidian politics, social life, and of course, language.

[My favorite colloquialism from World War One that survives into the present, most notably in commercial hip hop music, is the phrase "jump off."]

World War One was a global war of lost generations, shattered empires, and destroyed peoples.

Downton Abbey is a story about Britain at the nadir of her power when the killing fields of Europe would harvest and turn in to human compost whole generations of youth (and older citizens). The Great Gatsby is also a novel--and a new film--about the social disruptions, nihilism, and existential crises visited upon humankind by World War One.

Death and loss can create the circumstances for darkly beautiful poetry, art, and letters. The Hagakure is a source of wisdom. The following poems from World War One are also offering up guidance and wisdom this case cautionary tales about the empty idealism of chivalry when faced with the realities of impersonal mass murder and combat.

Essential texts such as The Face of Battle, BeowulfAgamemnon, A Helmet for My Pillow, The Son Also Rises, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Good War, and The Things They Carried try to make the incomprehensible more comprehensible for a layperson.

Likewise, the best poetry of World War One is challenging and subversive because it plays on the public's suppositions about war as a crucible for human courage by exposing the lie of war as being noble and just.

As the American public and its policy makers are further detached from the realities of war because of an all volunteer army that defuses collective responsibility and suffering, how communities from which the majority of soldiers are drawn are often geographically isolated, and the people are enamored with "bloodless" war because of the rise of drones and UAV's, they should revisit the biographies and poetry of World War One.

Thus, here are two classic poems:
In Flanders Field by John McCrae, May 1915 
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.
Glory of Women
You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.
You can't believe that British troops 'retire'
When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses--blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.


Bill the Lizard said...

The poetry of the First World War is both beautiful and disturbing. One of my favorites -

In Memoriam
by Ewart Alan Mackintosh (killed in action 21st November 1917 aged 24)

So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.

Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting,
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year get stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.

You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight -
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.

Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.

Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed “Don’t leave me, sir”,
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.

chauncey devega said...

A whole generation lost. What strikes me in the pageantry of the war at the beginning and how such notions and romanticism were for the most part quickly thrown away. Interesting, that sense of national pride and the war as a testing ground still persisted in how some armies continued to wear ethnic/national specific plumage, carried their own culturally specific weapons (the Africans fighting for the Brits and French on the West Front), and that the Brits and other Western Powers refused to use better armor and helmets because they would look "too much" like the Germans.

Shady Grady said...

What struck me is realizing that both Hitler and Tolkien fought at the Somme. How different history would have been if one had killed the other...

chauncey devega said...

I didn't know that Tolkien was there. What other famous what if's come out of that battle?

Shady Grady said...

CS Lewis was also there as was future British Chancellor of Exchequer and PM Harold MacMillen. If MacMillen had been killed instead of merely wounded, perhaps there's no Suez canal crisis. On the other hand a different PM may have fought against decolonization more fiercely.

Dena Shunra said...

Robert Frost captured all the pain of love and longing in his immortal "To E.T.", which he wrote for his friend Edward Thomas:

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First solider, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained--
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you--the other way.

How ever, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

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