The War of Words

The War of Words

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 i


There is a simple ego in a lyric,
A strange one in war.
   –George Oppen

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.

Revulsion to war, of course, isn’t unique to twentieth-century poetry. In her provocative essay The Iliad or the Poem of Force, Simone Weil treats Homer’s epic as a tableau depicting the disasters and torments of battle. Weil argues that in passage after passage, Homer never tires of showing how the use of force reduces people to nameless things. It would not be difficult to elaborate Weil’s conceit by partitioning her tableau into panels and portraying in each images from more modern poems and plays. The panel devoted to The Iliad could be called Alienation. Another panel might be labeled Pity. It could depict scenes from George Gascoigne’s “The Fruites of Warre,” a series of poems about the horrors Gascoigne witnessed while soldiering for the English Army in the Netherlands in the 1570s: “I set aside to tell the restless toyle,/The mangled corps, the lamed limbes at last,/The shortned yeares by fret of fevers foyle,/The smoothest skinne with skabbes and skarres disgrast.” A third panel could be labeled Heroism: That Old Lie, and could portray the scene in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida when Achilles, aided by a heavily armed cohort, butchers the unarmed Hector and then commands his soldiers to declare “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain!”

If this tableau incorporated twentieth-century soldier poetry, its mood would turn elegiac. Although the soldier-poets of the First and Second World Wars were faced with an epic subject, they chose to write lyrics instead of long narrative poems. One reason they favored the lyric’s concentrated brevity is historical. Many nineteenth-century British and American poets were overwhelmed by the example of Wordsworth’s Prelude and Shelley’s odes, and their reaction was to retreat to a diminished lyric aesthetic. Because many soldier-poets were nurtured by this post-Romantic tradition, they lacked the sensibility and tool kit for writing epics. But soldier-poets also preferred the lyric for a more immediate reason: It was the best means for responding to how modern warfare industrialized death and cauterized grief. One of the British military’s innovations during the Great War was the Field Service Postcard, a form that the survivors of a battle mailed to relatives after having ticked off one of several responses (“I am quite well,” “I am being sent down to the base”). Soldiers completed this tidy form after enduring a battle in which thousands of people were killed, with many having been blown into bits that sunk into the muck of no man’s land. Faced with bureaucratic euphemisms and wholesale slaughter, soldier-poets used the lyric to reclaim the irreducibly private dimensions of death, loss and grief; the depth of feeling possible through the lyric’s first-person perspective was well suited to their elegiac needs.

Besides ushering in a generic shift to lyric, the soldier-poets of World War I created a distinctive ironic perspective on the horrors of modern war, Goldensohn says, and their awareness became the standard for British and American soldier-poets who fought in the century’s other wars. “Why are there no poets like Owen and Sassoon who lived with the fighting troops and wrote of their experiences while enduring them?” the British poet Keith Douglas wondered during the Second World War. Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden often built their poems around ironic contrasts between trench life and English pastoral scenes. Wilfred Owen also relied on irony, but his subject was different. Whether dwelling on a group of soldiers or a single soldier, Owen always displays, in Goldensohn’s words, a “brooding care for the dead, the mutilated, and the mutilated dead of war,” including the enemy. “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?” he asks in “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” “Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” Owen’s most searing riposte to those guns, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” features a haunting description of a gassed soldier’s dying convulsions–“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”–and ends with a caustic citation of a Horatian maxim, “Dulce et decorum est/Pro Patria mori” (roughly, “sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”). From Owen’s ironic deflation of patriotic blather like “dulce et decorum est” issues an alternative, heroic sense of compassion.

There are echoes of Owen’s sensibility in Randall Jarrell’s war poetry. A sergeant in the Army Air Force from 1943 to 1945, Jarrell trained pilots in celestial navigation at air bases in the United States. His poems about pilots, soldiers and prisoners have a broader social perspective than Owen’s, insofar as they grapple with the culpability of soldiers for war’s violence. But at their core is an Owenesque conceit: the soldier as a victim of a bullet, shell or the sadism of military life. Like Owen, Jarrell dwells on the fact that the soldiers are not men but boys, and that having arrived on the battlefield, they can do nothing but fight. A soldier is less a player than a pawn. Few of Jarrell’s war poems offer better portrayals of a soldier’s helplessness than “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Whether it’s journalism, fiction or poetry, writing about war is routinely prized for “combat gnosticism,” which is the notion that the ability to comprehend war requires a special knowledge possessed only by a battle-hardened elite. It was only this past May, not long after American tanks had rolled into Baghdad, that many reviewers were intoxicated by Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s memoir about his life as a Marine sniper during Gulf War I. Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, went so far as to call Jarhead one of the “best books ever written about military life.” An equally fervent belief in combat gnosticism has also fueled attacks on Swofford’s battle-hardened credentials. At, active and retired Marines have turned the consumer review page for Jarhead into a target range. One skeptical reader, a Korean War vet, is so repulsed by the book (“pure trash”) that after listing his many military citations and medals, he challenges Swofford to compare notes on casualties and combat.

Although some soldiers do witness or experience atrocities that many civilians will only know secondhand, combat gnosticism is a creaky standard for evaluating writing about war. I say “some soldiers” because not all enlisted personnel experience battle. There are now around 133,000 American soldiers in Iraq; of that number, around 56,000 are trained for combat, and only half that number, at the most, are on patrol at any one time. At the end of World War II, only 2 million of the 11 million people in the US Army were in combat divisions, and of that 2 million fewer than 700,000 served in infantry units. Flight instructor Jarrell was not among that 700,000, and so according to the standard of combat gnosticism, one must conclude that Jarrell’s poems about war are less convincing than those of Owen or Keith Douglas, who fought and died in combat–which is bogus.

Combat gnosticism is also a flawed standard because it conceals the extent to which soldier-poets are shaped by more than their exposure to battlefield calamities. The sensual style and sensibility of Owen’s war poetry, for instance, is latent in the sentimental homoerotic lyrics he wrote years before first setting foot in a trench in January 1917. As Fussell notes in The Great War and Modern Memory, Owen’s juvenilia shows that the poet learned from the traditions of Victorian homoerotic poetry how to notice boys; the muck and danger of the trenches heightened Owen’s sense of male fellowship and self-sacrifice and cleansed his rhetoric of cliché. During the war Owen continued to write in the mournful tone he had absorbed from reading A.E. Housman and John Addington Symonds before the war, but that tone was quickened by his delicate descriptions of wounded and dead lads. “Red lips are not so red/As the stained stones kissed by the English dead,” writes Owen in “Greater Love.” “Your slender attitude/Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed.”

Despite such gruesome images, Owen’s poems do not easily lend themselves to a pacifist or antiwar politics, or what Goldensohn calls “peace witness.” Not only did Owen disparage “washy pacifists” in the same breath that he condemned “whiskied prussianists” but he also sometimes employed the kind of heroic images that chateau generals used to stir up their troops before shipping them off to a certain death. In “Spring Offensive,” Owen writes of soldiers who “Leapt to swift unseen bullets or went up/On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge.” That last image recalls the ancient Greek ekpyrosis, which means to be consumed by a ball of fire in a moment of death and rebirth. The Greeks used ekpyrosis to describe battlefield heroes.

Jarrell’s reaction to the Second World War was as complicated as Owen’s was to the First. In his wartime poems and letters, Jarrell lambasted military and civilian institutions for making soldiers into the interchangeable cogs of a bloodthirsty war machine, but he didn’t confuse his antimilitarism with pacifism. In 1961, during a reading of “Eighth Air Force,” Jarrell had this to say about the bomber pilots who are the poem’s subject: “These people were our saviors. I mean if people like this hadn’t murdered other people and died, why, we would be under a Nazi government.” Jarrell essentially reprises Auden’s line in “Spain” about “necessary murder,” but without any breathless rhetoric. Like Auden, Jarrell refused to accept that the poison of war freed him from certain responsibilities, even if those responsibilities entailed supporting an antifascist war waged by a ruthless Allied bombing campaign.

In the second half of the twentieth century, according to Goldensohn, war poetry came to embody an “antiwar ideology.” This claim is confusing, not only because it’s at odds with Jarrell’s work but also because it conflates “antimilitaristic” and “antiwar,” as if demystifying military values like heroism and opposing the entire political and economic enterprise of warmaking were identical. Owen condemned the patriotism and nationalism of Britain’s military aristocracy, but his antimilitarism didn’t bleed into pacifism; instead, he redefined heroism as a daring form of compassion for wounded and dead soldiers. In fact, Goldensohn’s argument is often shaken by a collision between two elements: on the one hand, the recognition of the complexity of a poet’s political opinions about a particular war and, on the other hand, a determination to unite the soldier-poets she discusses under the banner of “an ideologically ungainly but persistent pacifism.” The second element often trumps the first, which is why at times Goldensohn seems to think that a war poem, having dismantled heroism and military glory, automatically becomes a monument to shame that induces in a reader feelings of moral inadequacy. It’s as if she wants to reveal that the bedrock of all twentieth-century soldier poetry is the polished and engraved black marble of the Vietnam memorial. Goldensohn could have bolstered her examination of antiwar and pacifist politics by widening her focus beyond soldier-poets and discussing the wartime poems of Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Lowell and William Stafford, all of whom were conscientious objectors during World War II. Given her strong views on pacifism, it’s odd that Goldensohn doesn’t discuss them.

In 1939, when she was writing her essay on The Iliad, Simone Weil was a committed pacifist. She was also a very selective reader of Homer’s epic. As Christopher Benfey observed recently in the New York Review of Books, Weil’s essay isolates The Iliad‘s scenes of combat horror and ignores all that occurs away from the battlefield: the embassies and negotiations, Helen’s ambiguous role–that is, the world of politics. Weil plunged into that world in 1941 when she repudiated her pacifism to work for Hitler’s destruction. That Weil changed her opinion about the use of force in no way diminishes her definition of force as something that bends every soldier (living or dead) to its will, reducing him or her to a thing. George Oppen proposes a similar definition of force in “Blood From the Stone,” a reflection on his combat experiences as an infantryman in the US Army’s 103rd Division during World War II:

And war.

More than we felt or saw.
There is a simple ego in a lyric,
A strange one in war.
To a body anything can happen,
Like a brick.
Too obvious to say.
But all horror came from it.

Like Owen and Oppen, the best British and American soldier-poets of the twentieth century defied war’s inexorable force by managing to represent it without sounding like a Field Service Postcard or a wartime editorial. “But all horror came from it.” These poets didn’t transcend their circumstances. Some lost limbs, others their minds or lives, but their tongues never stiffened into bricks.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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