The other day I met someone who had recently been in a car accident. She lifted her shawl casually to show me her arm, and the sight of her poor purpled, contused flesh from shoulder to elbow made my stomach turn. It’s true: the body revolts in adrenalized sympathy at the sight of violated flesh. It must be a self-preservation thing. Usually, when you’ve seen a few things like that, you go off the idea of seeing more.
So imagine my surprise when I came across a phrase in a newspaper article written by what we call a ‘senior journalist’ who, you’d think, might have seen a few stomach-turning things, even if only grinding poverty. It went something like: “I’d love for us to have a little war”, so it really stopped me in my tracks.
We’re hearing a lot of that these days in India, occasioned by our newfound passion for wounded indignation in the wake of the atrocities in Bombay. The people who say these sorts of things do so because they don’t actually have to go to war themselves, having cleverly arranged not to be in the armed forces or to live near our borders. They’ve got others to send to war while they spew fire and brimstone about The Enemy over dinner and a movie.
They must be thinking of the video game version of war, in which having opposable thumbs is the only qualification necessary to be on the battlefield. Some of them would faint at the sight of a blister; none of them is likely to ever have to get anywhere near a frontline; and pretty much the only thing they’ve ever shot is their mouth off. They’ve certainly never tried to imagine themselves in a conflict zone.
They possibly think that the clean-cut, whole, healthy young men and women in shiny uniforms look that way all through a war. It’s the same sordid disjunct between propaganda and reality in which the poet Wilfred Owen suffered and made his name. Owen, who fought in the trenches of the First World War, took the idea of the glory of war and destroyed it verse by verse, speaking as eloquently about mental as about physical trauma.
I have never been able to shake one poem of his that I read in elementary school. Speaking of a soldier who can’t put his gas mask on quickly enough, it’s a quiet little piece drenched in bitterness. An excerpt:
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.
The Latin line is taken from an ode by the ancient Roman poet Horace and the literal translation is, It is sweet and right to die for your country.
If you’re with Horace rather than with Owen, if you buy that line, then walk out the door, find the nearest recruitment centre, sign up, and prepare to die gloriously. Don’t send someone else instead.