In 1914, the Axis powers conceived WWI and gave birth to modern warfare. No longer would battles be fought at relatively close range. Now, entire communities could be obliterated without having to look a single inhabitant in the eye. The fact that it was less personal made it all the more brutal. The subsequent carnage shell-shocked the world, casting a long shadow over modern literature. Writing became a cathartic way for men and women to cope with the Armageddon of their era, and their work reflects the disillusionment of the time. Among these writers was an English poet and soldier named Wilfred Owen.
Owen served as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line.” After surviving three years of military service, he was killed in a trench in France at the age of twenty-five. A week after his death, his mother received the tragic telegram at what was literally the eleventh hour—just as the church bells announced the signing of the Armistice.
Owen’s poetry describes his military service in visceral terms that spare us no illusions. The final stanza of “Dolce et Decorum Est” reads:
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch his 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 frost-encrusted lips,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
The old Lie: Dolce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The Latin phrase has the musicality of a requiem, as if to eulogize the soldier’s death. Meaning, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” the words were written by the Roman poet Horace in an age when people believed them. But Owen means for us modern, “enlightened” folks to shake our heads over the idea of leading impressionable young men to the slaughter by telling them that their sacrifice makes them heroes.
It’s easy to be high-minded about battles you don’t have to fight, but Owen’s conclusion remains problematic for two reasons. First, it’s an insult to the intelligence of those who enlist to suggest that they’re unaware of the dangers this voluntary act of service entails. No man or woman, however young or impressionable, is naive enough to think that their death isn’t a real possibility of that losing a limb is the definition of a good time. Yet, something still prompts them to risk their lives, and it’s surely not Owen’s belief that their deaths would be meaningless.
Second, war hasn’t become more brutal because of an old “Lie” but because of a new one. The atomic bomb isn’t modern man’s only weapon of mass destruction or even his most deadly. He also teaches impressionable youths to understand reality in purely physical terms and to view anything beyond the five senses with suspicion. This weapon is known as philosophy, and when wielded in the wrong hands, it can be used to create creatures that another WWI lieutenant called “Men without Chests” (Lewis 25–26).
Unlike the modern idea of a purely material universe, Plato maintained that physical reality is merely a reflection or shadow of true Reality. Thus, a Spartan mother who bid her son to return “with his shield or on it” wasn’t wishing for the young man’s demise but instilling in him the kind of courage that suffers death more readily than defeat. Likewise, the Roman father who maintained that it was “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” wasn’t suggesting that death would be painless or pleasant but that courage, honor, and self-sacrifice were real virtues that reaped eternal rewards.
The Chestless Man can’t believe in eternal values because he doesn’t believe in eternity, and he’s encouraged to mistake this moral blindness for rationality. He’s taught that the world needs more love and peace and then instructed to think that these qualities are merely the result of good genes or a healthy digestive system.
And all the time . . . we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and expect to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (Lewis 26).
The Apostle Paul also referred to the deeper, hidden Reality beyond human existence when he used warfare as a metaphor of the Christian life.
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And tale the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:11–17).
This advice not only calls our attention to the true source of human struggle but also gives us the tools we need to endure it: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation. All of these characteristics reach their perfection in Christ, who said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).
At the end of the day, the sort of philosophies that scoff at duty, heroism, and patriotism don’t make the world a better place but merely a more trivial one.
Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: HarperCollins, 1974.