Friday, November 11, 2005

Eleventh hour of the eleventh day...

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I've never been very comfortable with the poem 'In Flanders Fields'. In my childhood we would recite it each November 11th, and go over in class the meaning of the verses. Like many war poems from that period, Flanders Fields is both a memorial and an exhortation. It speaks of the dead, touches upon what they have sacrificed, and ultimately urges the living to take up the cause and join the fight. Its final stanza is an exhortation to continue the war, lest the sacrifices of the dead be in vain.

I've come to dislike this poem over the years. As a youth, I had attended remembrance day assemblies at school, where officers who had in their lives never fired a shot in anger would stress that third stanza and speak of the importance of carrying on the good fight and the sacrifices for freedom... odd, considering that the Great War had little or nothing to do with freedom and high ideals, and far more to do with the byzantine diplomacy of the early 20th century.

There have been wars that have been necessary and unavoidable, but far too many have been fought over greed and stupidity... John McCrae's call to 'take up the quarrel with the foe' and 'to you from failing hands we throw the torch' sound similar to the excuses of Vietnam and Iraq, to fight on in a pointless cause so that the dead shall not die in vain. That second stanza, where the dead recount what they have lost: "felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved", is too often conveniantly forgotten.

I'll end with the sentiments of another First World War soldier, Wilfred Owen... and a poem that could almost be a reply to John McCrae.

Dulce et Decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.
Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

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.