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Sunday, November 11, 2012

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month

It's Remembrance Day, or, as it's called in the country I've adopted, Veterans Day. I ask cynically: do people actually remember what they're supposed to memorialize on this particular day? I wonder. Of course, the date comes from World War I, the Great War that unfortunately didn't teach humankind that world wars are to be avoided, and a war that so few people seem to know anything about anymore, perhaps because there is hardly anyone left alive who truly remembers it. (We lost another one this week. Goodbye, Elliot Carter.)

I'm no World War I expert either, but for some inexplicable reason, I've always been very emotionally affected by tales of combat experience in WWI, even as I have to keep relearning what happened before and after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand because I forget the precise politics of it all. Being Australian probably has something to do with it; thanks to the cruel and/or clueless leadership of British officers, Australian troops were slaughtered in horrific numbers in the First World War. A 65% mortality rate meant that more Australian troops died in WWI than in WWII, even though the latter was a lot closer to home. The Australian equivalent to Memorial Day, ANZAC Day, commemorates the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April, 1915, when thousands and thousands of Australians in miserable trenches were sent in wave after wave over the top to be senselessly mowed down in an instant by Turkish machine guns. ANZAC Day seems to get taken a lot more seriously than an excuse to go bargain shopping at tacky sales events.

Anyway, for no reason that I can fathom, World War I has been on my mind of late. I read this poem again a couple of weeks ago; I first heard it sometime in high school, when it made a deep impression on me, and I spent hours trying to find it before the internet existed. I often choke up or weep when I read it. I can't think of anything more appropriate today. The Latin is from Horace and translates to: "It is sweet and right to die for your 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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 stumbling,
And flound'ring 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 est
Pro patria mori

Wilfred Owen
8 October 1917 - March, 1918
I don't think we realize today how terrible an invention trench warfare was. From what I can tell, the shell shock of soldiers returning from the trenches was worse and more widely inflicted than the combat PTSD suffered in WWII or Vietnam. It has to be seen to be believed. What is shown in the video below was not at all uncommon; there are plenty more gut-wrenching videos of shell shock victims available if you search.

I suppose I should mention: in honor of this particular Veterans Day, What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach? the piece I wrote that set the words of WWII veteran Phillip Spooner is being performed in by the St. Louis Chamber Chorus and, on Wednesday, by the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble at Indiana University.
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