Dulce et decorum
Remembrance Day in Commonwealth countries, Veteran’s Day here in the US. Ninety years ago, November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent for the first time in more than four years. In London, there was silence, and the bells rang, and people wept.
I was 13 when the first US combat troops landed in Vietnam. That war played in the background throughout the rest of my school years. I was a senior in high school one spring morning when my English teacher walked in and silently wrote four names on the board: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder. The invasion of Cambodia had set off protests across the country; at Kent State the National Guard responded by marching on the young crowd—two of those victims were not even a part of the demonstration—with fixed bayonets and bullets.
I can remember reading Wilfred Owen’s most famous Great War poem in high school, and clearly remember its failure to engage me. Why, I wonder? You’d have thought a person who watched television broadcasts of men her age slogging through rice paddies and planes dumping chemicals on the landscape would respond to phrases like “Men marched, asleep. Many had lost their boots…all went lame, all blind.” One would think that the ending might have spoken to her adolescent angst:
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 belief that it was “sweet and right to die for your country” defined attitudes in the Great War, and infused that horrific slaughter with its peculiar bittersweet quality.
But by the time Vietnam grew up across the sea, we at home saw the soldier as being one with the commander: Johnson made his war, the man in the uniform fought it, all was of a piece. When those boys came home, they were looked on with mistrust by civilians who had read about My Lai and daily atrocities.
We were angry, and had no energy left for pity, or even compassion. That attitude, thankfully, no longer exists. Even the most ardent anti-war voice will pause to speak a word of understanding for the actual soldier on the ground. Which is odd, when you stop to think that in 1968, most of our soldiers had been drafted.
That shift in attitude may have been why I wrote about Vietnam (in Keeping Watch, which happens to be the current book under discussion at the forum.) It was an incomplete and harsh understanding of that war, boiled down to a stark Them and Us, and the guilt of the self-righteous, stay-at-home civilian remained in my bones, growing like a cancer until I could bring it to light.
Remembrance Day. Spare a moment of silence for those who did not, those who will not, return.