Some Poems Worth Your Time: “Dulce et Decorum est”--Wilfred Owen

Some Poems Worth Your Time: “Dulce et Decorum est”--Wilfred Owen

If you know Wilfred Owen’s poetry at all, it is probably for this poem, which confronts the idea
From Arlington Cemetery, Washington DC -- "Dulce..."
that war is in any way romantic with the specter of a grisly death as a result of a chlorine gas attack. Part of the power of the poem no doubt comes from our knowledge that Owen himself died as a soldier, just before the end of World War I. It’s not just that he can critique those who never fought because he was there—he actually died there, and the poem speaks to us from beyond the grave (as this poem was only published after his death).

Read the poem here.

The title comes from the Roman poet Horace, and it is the first part of the sentence, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country!

My experience says Owen's kind of cynicism is pretty common among soldiers. There is the thought that politicians and other would-be patriots send soldiers off to war, waving flags and shouting “hurrah,” but they leave the fighting to the likes of Owen. Of us.

In the movie Patton, when he is making his speech in front of the enormous American flag, Patton shows his knowledge of Horace’s words—and, like Owen, he refutes them. He tells his soldiers, “No bastard ever won a war dying for one’s country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for HIS country!” We soldiers know that we are the poor, dumb bastards who will do the dying.

When I was in Korea, it was common practice to stencil a motto of some sort on the windshield of one’s vehicle (my ride was a HMMWV—a “Humvee,” or in the commercial version, a Hummer). I asked my driver to stencil the title of this poem on the windshield, and so he did. DULCE ET DECORUM EST. In stenciled block letters.

It might not surprise you to learn that it bothered him. It bothered him because it was Latin. He didn’t know any Latin, and neither did any of his driver friends. And so it would have been confusing. Second, he didn’t know the poem. More confusion. And my explaining the context didn’t help, since he wasn’t comfortable with the cynicism.

“What do I tell people when they ask me what it means?” he asked me. It was a good question. It was an existential question, really. If this is what you think, then what are we doing here? To borrow from one of my favorite anti-war songs (“And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda’”), “I ask myself the same question.”

“Tell them it says, ‘How sweet it is!’ in Latin,” I offered. He thought about it, and he decided it might work as an explanation.

And so we drove around, training and inspecting, with our motto on the windshield. He grew used to it. And I relished the inside joke.

Later, on one of our many training exercises, I pulled up to a big meeting at the headquarters tent, and I met another West Pointer, who had read Owen’s poem in his cadet days. He grinned when he saw it and completed the quotation (as Owen does in the final line of the poem, where he calls it “the old lie”—the motto on the chapel at Sandhurst, Britain’s officer training school.)

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori!” he cried.  Yes, yes! I nodded. We no longer needed our West Point rings to know we were in the club. We shared this poem.

I saw him later, on another exercise. And this time, his vehicle had completed the motto: “PRO PATRIA MORI” it said. To die for one’s country.