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)