War Requiem

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War — the cost of war — seems worth consideration on the occasion of Memorial Day 2010. Perhaps you have seen the movie Brothers. It will be in the same spirit, I hope, that I reflect a bit on the cost that any war brings, however necessary it might be. I will do this by quoting two poems and directing you to some wonderful music using poetry as text.

World War I,  “a war to end all wars” according to President Woodrow Wilson, generated lots of verse. British poets, in particular, found the pity in wartime, and as Wilfred Owen wrote, “the poetry is in the pity.” Owen fought and wrote about fighting, as in a letter to his mother just after his arrival in France:

“I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.”

The 25 year-old Owen was to die in battle just one week before the armistice on November 11, 1918.

When Benjamin Britten, the pacifist English composer, was commissioned to write music in honor of the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 (which had been destroyed in World War II), it was Owen’s World War I poetry and the Latin Mass for the Dead to which he turned. The piece, for large orchestra (with the addition of a chamber orchestra), three vocal soloists, and chorus, alternately rages against and laments the ravages of wartime.

The War Requiem ends with the Owen poem Strange Meeting, sung at the première by an English tenor and a German baritone, no coincidence as England and Germany fought against each other in both World Wars.

In this poem (excerpted below), the narrator finds himself in the bomb shelter and sleeping quarters below the trenches of the enemy, “down some profound dull tunnel,” as part of a night raid where he encounters dead and dying soldiers. There, he and his enemy recognize their shared human bond:

…Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell

“Strange friend, ” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “save the undone years, the hopelessness.
Whatever hope is yours, was my life also…
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled…

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…”

The English language changed because of World War I. Phrases and references to the word “trench” became part of common parlance, as in the phrase “in the trenches” which still refers to working at a hard, grinding task; and even the phrase “trench foot,” which led back to a type of frost bite common in the muddy, cold, wet, and verminous condition of those dark places inhabited by the warriors.

Or, how about “trench fever,” a bacterial infection associated with the lice that bred there. The expression “No Man’s Land,” plays back to the space between the trenches — between you and the enemy trench — which could be a few hundred yards. It was the place belonging to “no man” or side in the conflict, and it was the place where no man could easily survive. So too, when one army decided to launch an attack on the other, they had to go “over the top” of the trench and into hostile fire.

But it was to a much earlier use of the trench in warfare that the poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart would refer.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was born on 17 August 1888 in Wales, and fought as part of the British Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli on the Chersonese peninsula during World War I, not far from the site of the Trojan War.

Gallipoli was a disaster for the British. Shaw-Stewart was on three days leave from the front on the island of Imbros when he wrote the untitled poem that follows. It refers to the Trojan War as represented in The Iliad, so a little background is required to better understand it.

The war began soon after the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, but the wife of one of the Greek kings (Menelaus). The Greeks organized their own expeditionary force and followed Helen to Troy so they might retrieve her.

Many years into the conflict, Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, stopped fighting because the leader of the Greeks (Agamemnon) had taken away Achilles’ concubine. Achilles’ rage and his decision not to fight is called “The Wrath of Achilles.” In addition, Achilles knew if he returned to battle he would not survive the war. Despite this, he resumed the fight and turned its tide, with the goddess Athena beside him, both shouting in a trumpet-like, horror-inducing scream to make the Trojans flee.

Achilles and Athena stood at the ditch in front of the wall built by the Greeks to protect their ships. Achilles’ head was surrounded by an aura of flame created by the goddess (to which the poet refers in the heart breaking last stanza), so better to terrify the Trojans, who panicked and ran away.

Shaw-Stewart tells his own Illiad-like war story from the standpoint of his temporary leave from fighting:

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles ;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
Shells and hells for me.

O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese :
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not-
So much the happier I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Much like Achilles, Patrick Shaw-Stewart survived the Gallipoli campaign, but not the war.

He was 29 at the time of his death.

A World Without Heaven

What would a world be like without the “idea” of heaven? How would people behave? What would they live for?

Of course, it is not as if the world that we live in, where the notion of an afterlife or some form of continuing existence is prevalent, is perfect. No, there are lots of wars and disagreements in contemporary life. But perhaps we are able to escape a sense of desperation in the belief that modern medicine, prudent behavior, and the possibility of an afterlife will allow us to continue our existence for a while at least, and perhaps permanently.

The ancient, pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not so easily apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of a heaven of the type that Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as the Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited. So if we want to know how men live when the notion of heaven doesn’t exist, we might well look to these people.

Remember too, that the life of the pre-literate Greeks (the Greek alphabet is thought to have come into existence somewhere around 800 B.C.) was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American lived only about 50 years. The brevity of life was certainly known to the ancient Greeks.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated men. (And I speak of men, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged in that period, seen as having almost no function or status other than for sex, companionship, rearing children, and domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used. Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and very similar material things–the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) is another matter. What might glory have consisted of in a world without heaven? It took the form of a reputation or fame that continued beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. This was usually achieved by being a great hero or warrior. In war, then, one could hope to grasp both of these things: the honor that came with sacking cities and accumulating wealth, slaves, and sexual partners; and the glory of having the fearlessness, strength, and tenacity to carry out that accumulation via battle; sufficiently so that people would (sometimes literally) sing your praises after you were dead.

As I mentioned, today’s world doesn’t strike me as much different from yesterday’s on the point of achieving honor, although we are a little more discreet about our sexual conquests and have largely risen above keeping slaves. On the subject of glory, however, we seem to do everything we can to avoid death, which in the ancient Greek world was the only path to glory; a path that required both risking one’s own death on the battle field and inflicting it on others in the same place. So, whether you believe in heaven or not, it would seem that the “idea” of heaven has had some civilizing effect. There are, after all, more ways of getting to heaven in our cosmology than killing people, despite what some terrorist/martyrs might tell us.

To me what is important here, apart from the question of a civilizing effect of a particular religious concept, is the human need to conquer death as revealed in the heritage that the pre-literate Greeks have bequeathed us and, of course, in our own religious behavior. Both the ancient Greeks and most of us seem to hope that when we breathe our last, we are not finished forever. It is not a new idea, even if our solutions to the dilemma of mortality are (in part) different from those of our ancestors.

Unless, of course, you are such a brave soul that you have dispensed with the idea that you will live on in any form much beyond the time of your earthly demise: not in words or writings, not in great buildings that bear your name, not in photos or videos, not in businesses or charities or foundations that survive you, not in the students you have taught, not in your artistic creations or inventions, not in visits to your grave site, not in making the world a better place for those who succeed you; not in the biological output of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who continue your genetic line.

Clearly, it is pretty hard to give up the idea of glory, some sort of posterity–the hope for an afterlife–isn’t it?

(Footnote: this essay was prompted by rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey for the first time in many years, and by listening to the lecture series The Iliad of Homer by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland. This course and many others are offered by The Teaching Company. Professor Vandiver is a wonderful instructor and I have relied heavily on her discussion of honor and glory in the pre-literate Greek world in this essay. I can strongly recommend courses sold by The Teaching Company. I should say, however, that I am in no way affiliated with that organization or benefit from any purchases from them that you might make; I’m simply a satisfied customer).

Cigarette Smoking, Bull-Fighting, and the NFL

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What connects the words that make up the title you’ve just read? More than you might think. And they represent a dark-side to daily life in the USA and around the world.

Yet we tend not to think about them and it (that dark-side) very much.

The main link among the three is that they involve varying degrees of destructive behavior; indeed, they all risk a needless acceleration of death; an increase in the chance of an early demise for those who participate in the activities in question.

Smoke cigarettes and you roll the dice on emphysema, heart disease, cancer, and more; fight a bull and you just might not leave the stadium still breathing; play in the NFL (National Football League) and you increase your risk of dementia and a shortened life expectancy. All while the promoters of these actions and events make money.

Football, smoking, bull fighting, and (one might add) boxing have another thing in common. They are activities performed (or at least begun) when one is young; when one is in full leaf and flower, like a tree on a mid-spring day. And just as the tree cannot imagine (having no consciousness) that it will turn brown and dormant before the year ends, young people have difficulty really believing that they are mortal, and imagining a time when they could be enfeebled or worse.

Tears and strains, bumps and bruises, broken bones, and bouncing brains; bodies busted and bent.

That is what I am talking about.

According to the NFL players association, the average professional career lasts 3.5 years. No wonder that some say the letters NFL actually mean “Not For Long.” Certainly, many players are cut from the team for under-performance in an enormously competitive environment, but many leave because of injury. The average life-span of an ex-NFL player is 55 overall and only 52 for linemen. No doubt, this is partially due to factors beyond the punishment done to their bodies by the violence of contact, particularly weight and diet-related problems.

But do not dismiss the direct effect of that punishment on producing life that is diminished and shortened. A recent University of Michigan study of 1063 retired NFL players found dementia-related conditions at a rate five times higher than the national average for men 50 or older; in ex-NFL players 30 to 49, the rate of dementia-type conditions is 19 times higher than for other men in the same age group.

And what is the reaction of most of us to this? Perhaps we say, “that’s interesting, but it’s a free country and the smokers and the football players are free to take their chances.” And on Saturday or Sunday we cheer for the football teams and the young players, just as you might yell “ole'” at a bull-fight. No one does pep-rallies for smokers, of course, but we do not prevent their slow self-injury, even if we limit it to certain places and conditions.

Somehow, the bull fights seem a bit more honest to me. The injuries are plain to see. And, the bull will spill blood and die while we watch, unless it first injures the matador to the point of his own bloody and usually visible injury.

By comparison, we won’t see, for the most part, the smokers wheezing, or lying gray in ICU, holding on, if they can, to dear life; or the ex-football lineman (unless he is as famous as the boxer Muhammad Ali), rendered almost mute by the effects of repeated head injuries. We won’t be there for the knee and hip replacements; we won’t spell the over-taxed spouse who married the daring young athlete-hero in his prime, and now must change his diapers.

It’s only a short step from this to war, don’t you think? Again, it is the young who fight for us and who suffer for us, mostly out of our sight in a place far away.

Are we really so far removed from the days of gladiatorial combat in the Roman Coliseum? Dig not too far below the surface of civilization and you will find more than a little brutality. And, too often, if you look a bit more closely, there we are, the two of us, preparing a tail-gating party to witness the carnage, bundling up to sit in the stands, cheering it on.

Bull Fighter, the above image, is the work of Montyne. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons, where it was authored by Sterling Evans, originally from http://www.montyne.com/