Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Horace and Wilfred

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.


Gurusharan said...

what a beautiful piece - do you always write so well?

Ditto said...

Great piece, Mitali. It goes to tell us how easy it is for everyone to talk and as difficult for everyone to act.

wellwisher said...

Very well written as usual.I have a few things to say to "ANONYMOUS "from your last article who claims to be the eternal optimist but every word of his/her???? comment was completely contrary to the claim.In fact trying to broadcast and bellow that he/she and his/her channel doing the coverage of the Mumbai attack had to rough it out: They were just doing their job even if in that situation for the first time.Well!! for the same reason they may have blundered on and off which is okay since we are mere mortals so mistakes happen:as long as it has been a learning experience for them.But if having to sleep on the street is such a hardship then imagine the plight of the hostages and the commandos who were battling it out every moment of the bloodbath.They are the true heroes.Trying to lash out at Mitali hardly speaks of optimism nor of mature journalism.For god sake at least have a positive attitude and respect each others professional space.Just a reminder: Mumbai attacks were not about you or your channel but something else.Just in case you missed the point.High handed points of view hardly compare to the bravery and loyalty of the armed forces.Go and find out what their families went through when the soldiers were battling it out. If you think sleeping on the streets some where close to the battle ground is the ultimate
heroic act think about those who never woke up to see the next moment.

dipali said...

So heartbreaking, and so true. War is a mug's game- truly no winners.

Manda said...

And the other snatch of poetry that is hanging around my head a lot these days is from Auden's 'September 1, 1939': I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in turn." Put that in your pipes and smoke it, nitwiterati.
What a great Stet!

bombaygirl said...