On the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War I, with children dying in the streets of Gaza and the world still blowing up at discordantly frequent intervals, I was thumbing through a book of poems by Wilfred Owen.
Owen was born in 1893, and though he did not lead a charmed life, it was a stable, British middle class one. He had some schooling, including university, and his family moved about among various Shropshire towns, with one longish stopover near Liverpool, as relatives (with whom they lived) died or his dad moved from job to job. He was an evangelical -- not High Church -- Anglican, and though he took his faith seriously, he also criticized his church for failing to do more for the poor. According to at least one biography, he wanted to be a poet from the age of ten.
To say that Edwardian England glorified military service and patriotism at the turn of the 20th century would give understatement new meaning. At the time World War I began, however, Owen was working as a tutor in the Pyrenees in France and hardly noticed the war. He began to notice only because his mother sent him regular clipping from The Daily Mail, at which point guilt brought him home and into the service.
Though he liked the Army, he ultimately came to hate war.
Of which he saw a lot.
He was sent to the front on December 31, 1916. Within days, he witnessed gas attacks, the horrific stench of rotting flesh, frost bitten nights, and the constant, deafening din of heavy gun fire. During one battle, he was literally blown into the air by a trench mortar, suffered shell shock, and had to be sent back to a psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh to recover. After being re-certified for active duty, he voluntarily returned to the front in the fall of 1918. In October, he won the Military Cross for seizing a German machine gun and using it to kill a large number of enemy soldiers as part of a battle he later described as "savage hand to hand combat."
He came to understand that war changed those who fought it, those who suffered through it and, most obviously, those who died in it. Of himself, and his fellow soldiers, he wrote:
Merry it was to laugh there-
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.
In another poem, he spoke of soldiers' "senses . . . long since ironed", of their existence "among the dying unconcerned."
Nevertheless, he detested "washy pacifists." They never made a difference as far as he could tell. So, apparently in order to make one, to -- as he put it -- "usefully declare [his] principles" in the poetry of protest that became his voice, he returned in late 1918 to the war his injuries could have easily allowed him to avoid.
This time, however, his luck ran out. He was killed in action a mere week before war ended. His parents received the telegram notifying them of their son's death on November 11, Armistice Day.
This is his greatest poem -- "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.
The old lie -- that it is "sweet and honorable" to "die for one's country" -- is still being told in the Middle East. It is also still being told in the hawkish neo-con precincts of our own war exhausted polity. Sometimes it is packaged in religion, other times in an overblown sense of the rightness of one's cause (and the wrong-ness of the other guy's), still others in a xenophobic arrogance of asserted and exclusive greatness. In war itself, the lie disdains any legalistic effort at proportional response or any real effort to separate civilians from combatants.
Those who won't tell the lie are really the noble ones. In words spoken in eulogy of another dead soldier, this one slain on the battlefield of our own domestic turmoil in the '60s, the truly noble see "wrong and try to right it, suffering and try to heal it, war and try to stop it."
This year's nobility award must go to John Kerry.
Kerry has been criticized of late by almost everyone. In his multi-month quest earlier this year (and last) for an elusive peace deal in the Middle East, there were Israeli government officials calling him messianic, while their Arab counterparts just thought he was prejudiced. He nonetheless worked tirelessly to bring the parties together, and, as had President Clinton in the latter days of his own administration, got them a good deal of the way there. Also as had Clinton, however, he couldn't get them to do a deal.
Undeterred by this failure, Kerry then immediately sought to negotiate a cease-fire when the war in Gaza broke out last month. Again he was criticized, this time for being ineffective and beside the point. At the end of the day, however, the current cease-fire fell into place more or less along the lines that he and the Egyptians had been suggesting. At this writing, it is holding but still uncertain.
Peacekeeping may be a fool's errand in the Middle East but in truth it is still the only available option if all the warring parties are to survive, never mind prosper. Gaza is a quagmire of poverty and misery cut off from the rest of the world by virtue of blockades. It has no future if governed or controlled by the military wing of Hamas, just as the Irish of Northern Ireland had no future had they permitted themselves to be forever beholden to the bomb throwers in the IRA. Similarly, Israel cannot continue to be a democracy if it enforces a de facto apartheid on more than half the people who live there and commits itself -- however justified (and as a matter of self-defense, it is) -- to a permanent state of mobilization in the service of month long wars on the bad guys every once and awhile.
Neither side, moreover, can assume the mantle of nobility if -- wholly apart from any historic grievances -- one is using civilians as shields and the other is treating civilian deaths as the unavoidable consequence of its disproportional response to the threat at hand. This does not create moral equivalence. The sins are distinct, not equal, and either could (and should) resolve its own faults without insisting on a similar resolution by the other. In other words, Hamas could stop illegally shielding rockets in schools; in fact, it could simply stop firing rockets indiscriminately at Israel. And Israel could respond proportionally to the real -- though, in actuality, negligible -- threat Hamas' attacks create.
Meanwhile, the world could get back into the business of peace-keeping.
Which was John Kerry's unique insight over the course of the last year.
In its recent July 20 issue, The New Republic published an exhaustive account of Kerry's effort. Though the effort failed, Kerry's achievements need to be praised. First, he was able to actually get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to talk, crafting independent deals with both sides -- for the Israels, getting them to agree to free eighty prisoners in exchange for the Palestinians agreeing not to join any UN conventions, and, for the Palestinians, a reiteration of America's policy commitment to resolving the ultimate border between the two states based on the 1967 lines -- just to get the talks started. There then were nine months of dialogue in which all the usual players acted out -- Israeli refuseniks, apoplectic over the possibility of a Palestinian state and/or settlement closures, insulting and threatening Netanyahu, and Palestinian die-hards refusing to delay by a day or two the last tranche of prisoners to be exchanged so that Netanyahu could convince his Cabinet without bringing down his government.
When it was clear that the nine-month negotiating period would be insufficient, Kerry still refused to give up. He proposed instead a framework for continuation that included creative technological measures aimed at solving Israel's long term security concerns in the West Bank, and even a deal to release Jonathan Pollard. In the end, the framework proposal went nowhere as the Palestinians -- frustrated by the delay on the prisoners -- signed the UN conventions (which the framework proposal probably could have survived) and then announced a unity government with Hamas (which it clearly could not).
Kerry's insight was that he saw peace as the only option, even at a time when the world had more or less given up on the idea. Later, after the talks failed and the bombs and rockets flew from and into Gaza, Kerry still rose to the challenge.
He rejected the old lie.
He saw war...
And tried to stop it.