First written in 2013. Today, once again, memories of my father, thanksgiving for the poetry of Wilfred Owen, thoughts of South Sudanese child soldiers just met, a world on desperate move; and memories of 11 November 1989 when El Salvador’s U.S.-funded so-called low-intensity conflict of assassination and disappearance escalated into the high-intensity conflict of atrocity, nightly bombardment, bodies and tanks in the street, when my heart and spirit broke, coming face to face with untested pacifism and the warrior within, accompanied by the music of Bruce Cockburn and his If-I-had-a-rocket-launcher Psalm 137.
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.
8 October 1917 – March, 1918
My remembering includes my father, Arlington Ward McKenna, a veteran of the Second World War, the jokes that substituted for stories never told; it includes three uncles with the Eagle Squadron and the RCAF; it includes my nephew, a reservist, trained and training in the 21st century art of war.
My remembering sounds dissonant as I refuse the overtures of the age-enfeebled, perhaps memory-wounded, veteran, selling poppies outside the grocery store – because, like the bumper-sticker reductionism of ‘Support our Troops’, it comes with an assumed narrative embedded in its red corolla: I celebrate the military, I endorse war, I understand the word ‘heroes’ to have only one meaning, I accept Vimy as our country’s rite of passage into adulthood; I accept the increasing presence of the military in Canadian public places where they didn’t use to belong;I buy into the xenophobic them/us necessary to whip up the appropriate emotions for patriotic war-mongering nations so well-modelled to the south of us; I agree to the ‘muscularising’, ‘punching-above-our-weight’, masculinising militarisation of our foreign policy and the theft from programmes of social integration that the procurement of ships and planes and helicopters and tanks represents.
I happened to catch part of today’s CBC ‘Cross-Country Checkup’ in which Rex Murphy betrayed with more than his usual alacrity his lack of any pretence at neutrality on this, as many, topic. One of his callers noted with satisfaction that ‘it took another war’ for Canadians to hold our troops in proper regard – and he gave thanks in particular to ‘9/11’ – that facilitated the lies of first Afghanistan and then Iraq and then all the others. That’s when I turned the radio off.
The church community of which I am a part makes generous space for dissident narratives on a day that has come to glorify, not regret or work to bring an end to, war. Wilfred Owen’s wrenching, retching, images were read out from the floor lectern that passes as a pulpit to a church in the round, many today bent over by ancient griefs of dead siblings and parents. Yes! there’s plenty of room to grieve, to weep; plenty of room to rail against the industrialised machinery of bayonet-thrust-and-twist to the killing-distance-safety of video-game warfare where so-called ‘collateral’ damage far outweighs the smartly surgical intentions of smart bombs and smart planes and smart killers. Rail against the profiteers who have turned an arms-length occasional pursuit deemed necessary by governments to the favoured commercial commodity of the global marketplace, indulging themselves and their political co-conspirators in the cyclical orgies of destruction-construction-destruction and persuading us of our fears that make possible yet more profit-making in the creation and vending of ‘security’ in all its new forms.
Oh God! How you must weep! how we have squandered the hearts and minds with which you have endowed humankind, bending and twisting the latter into hate-filled inventors of murder-machines and the former shrunken to the pale imitation of friendship that is the militarised misanthropy of comradeship.
The 11th day of November has other memories for me: sitting huddled in the darkness of a rooftop nook in the San Salvadoran barrio of San Jacinto, holding a tape recorder, shaking with fear, listening, narrating as I could the scene playing out above, below and to the north. Helicopter gunships, tracer fire, shells large and small hitting their targets, explosions, rat-a-tats of machine guns a block or two over, the more distant raging of fires in Soyapango, Mejicanos and Ciudad Delgado. And the days that followed. The six priests and their housekeepers brutally murdered. Tanks in the street; the bodies of mostly young men splayed where they fell or were dumped. And Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriya; Khartoum, Barrancabermeja, Pikit, Bukidnon, Santiago Atitlán, the Lempa, Acteal.
Wilfred Owen is regarded by many as the pre-eminent poet of the First World War, crafting verses in stark contrast to the confidently patriotic poetry of the war propagandists. With Futility and Anthem for a Doomed Youth, Owen elaborated on the blunt assessment with which he ends Dulce et decorum est: Pro patria mori: the Old Lie. How sweet and glorious it is… to die for country? No. It’s a Lie and an old one at that.
I’m glad for Wilfred Owen’s truth-telling on a high-holy day of re-branding in this country. I’m glad for time spent with those at the business end of our self-congratulatory violence; I’m glad for the women and children and men who have survived the slaughter of their compatriot hundreds of thousands. Today, right now, I’m glad for Ugandan hosts of 400,000 refugees, the South Sudanese and Sudanese amongst them who, despite heart- and gut-wrenching stories of their young lives spent as child soldiers, nurture a hope so at odds with their landscape. I’m glad for the space to rail against the Lie.