There is a simple ego in a lyric,
A strange one in war.
Many rhetorical bombshells were lobbed by British and American poets during the political turmoil of the 1930s, but few detonated as loudly as this cluster of words: “Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,/The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” These lines lines appear in W.H. Auden’s poem “Spain,” first published in 1937 as a pamphlet sold to support relief efforts for loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. A year later, George Orwell pounced on Auden. The reference to “necessary murder,” Orwell snarled, “could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men–I don’t mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore, I have some conception of what murder means–the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells. To me, murder is something to be avoided.”
Had Orwell been less eager to advertise his own credentials as a man of action, perhaps he would have considered the likelihood that Auden wasn’t trying to be callous or amoral. When Orwell read “necessary murder,” the adjective “necessary” reminded him of politically motivated killings, but Auden had something else in mind. As he explained late in his life, “Spain” was his attempt to say “what, surely, every decent person thinks if he finds himself unable to adopt the absolute pacifist position. (1) To kill another human being is always murder and should never be called anything else. (2) In a war, the members of two rival groups try to murder their opponents. (3) If there is such a thing as a just war, then murder can be necessary for the sake of justice.” When Auden used the word “murder” in “Spain,” he meant it to invoke men killed in battle (who also happen to bleed). Orwell concluded his harangue against Auden by observing that “so much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” There are lines in “Spain” that create the impression that Auden was playing with fire, and Auden himself threw some water on the poem by altering “necessary murder” to “fact of murder” when he revised “Spain” in 1939. Still, when Auden used the phrase “necessary murder,” he was emphasizing that no amount of humanitarian rhetoric can cloak the brutality of even a just war. Auden was stressing a moral difficulty of war, which is exactly what Orwell, in a fit of mulishness, claimed he had failed to do.
The arresting ways that such moral difficulties were explored by soldier-poets during the twentieth century are the subject of Lorrie Goldensohn’s Dismantling Glory. Focusing on lyric poems written by British and American poets who fought in the Great War, the Second World War and the Vietnam War, Goldensohn explains how the poems debunk the notion of honor–that it is noble to die, or murder, for one’s country–and in its place generate a stoic, skeptical, antiheroic sense of bravery. For anyone unacquainted with the history of war poetry in Britain and America during the twentieth century, Goldensohn’s book is a good introduction, although in scope and analysis it does not equal either of Paul Fussell’s landmark books, The Great War and Modern Memory and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. Goldensohn explains that she wanted to write about war poems of the twentieth century “because I believe that in spite of massive continuities in feeling and approach to war-making, many of these poems nonetheless can be seen as moving with conviction both direct and indirect towards peace witness.” Although some of the particulars are murky (what’s an indirect conviction?), Goldensohn’s thesis is clear: Despite the violence and bloodletting that so often floods back into them, soldier poems are pacifist in spirit. But this thesis is confounded by Goldensohn’s own readings of the poems. She offers the poems as medicine for a happier world, but their complexities and contradictions cannot be distilled into a tablespoon-sized dose.