On Friday, as Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel was being grilled by Senator John McCain over his reservations about the Iraq War, I was teaching the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen for my 20th Century Literature Survey. There are some interesting similarities in how the two view war.
Hagel volunteered to be a ground soldier in Vietnam—he did it to be close to his brother—and was twice wounded, the second time while pulling his brother from a burning truck. In an interview with the Library of Congress in 2002, Hagel reflected on the first incident in ways that Owen would have seconded:
I had been hit with shrapnel and burnt my face up and down. Both eardrums… were blown out as well. And until we could secure the area, they couldn’t bring any choppers in to get the wounded out…
I remember [waiting for the medevac and] thinking to myself, you know, if I ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, call upon to settle a dispute.…
The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it—people just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it. There’s no glory, only suffering in war.
There are comparable passages in Owen’s poetry, most notably in “Dulce and Decorum Est.” The title is the first half of a famous Latin quotation, “Sweet and fitting it is,” which concludes, “ pro patria mori/to die for one’s country.” After seeing a victim of a poison gas attack, Owen declares this to be a lie:
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.
In the preface to his poems, which appeared after he died in the last week of the war, Owen writes,
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honor, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
I don’t know how effective a Secretary of Defense Hagel will be, but I like how he thinks of the young men and women who would be impacted by any decision to go to war. (I feel the same about John Kerry, our new Secretary of State and also a decorated Vietnam vet.) The Bush/Cheney administration and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed practically eager to invade Iraq, and I see Senator McCain urging additional wars with Iran, Syria, and anything that Israel’s hardline president wants to drag us into. Far better to have a man that talks as Hagel did in response to a question about his service in Vietnam, which he used to defend his opposition to the Iraqi surge:
I saw the consequences, the suffering and horror of war. I did question the surge. It wasn’t an aberration to me ever. I always ask the question, “Is this going to be worth the sacrifice?” Because there will be sacrifice.
In the surge case in Iraq, we lost almost 1,200 dead Americans during that surge, and thousands of wounded. Now was it required? Was it necessary? Sen. McCain has his own opinion on that, shared by others. I’m not sure. I’m not that certain it was required. It doesn’t mean I’m right, it doesn’t mean I didn’t make wrong votes, but that is what guides me when you ask me the question about my time in Vietnam.
Maybe we can actually have a Secretary of Defense who is committed to peace, one who can do what is promised in Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting”: