Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. "It is a beautiful honor to die for one’s country.” In this famous line, the Roman poet Horace gave lasting expression to an ideal of republican virtue inherited from an age when citizen soldiers defended their homeland against its enemies. Even Horace was harking back to a time before great generals, like Caesar and Pompey, made Rome their plaything and Augustus turned the republic into an empire.
In the midst of the Great War, the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen gave Horace’s line a subversive new meaning. In a poem that depicts the hideous savagery of a gas attack, Owen offered his judgment about the glories of war. They are “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/ pro patria mori,” he wrote. In World War I the beastly reality of trench warfare undid noble sentiments of heroic death. For my own generation, Owen’s wartime nightmare came home in Vietnam. War’s reality was seen in daily body counts, in vivid photos of napalmed children and suspected Viet Cong assassinated on the street, and especially in film clips of coffins being received home with honor.
When after 9/11, The New York Times published short obituaries of those who had died in the attack on the World Trade Center’s twin towers, I would read them each day as an act of devotion. Now at the end of the PBS “Newshour,” when the photos and names of the fallen are displayed, I fall silent, pause in my multitasking, give the display reverential attention and mourn for the loss of men and women I have never known.
So when I learned this month of the Pentagon’s dismissal of a photographer for distributing photos of flag-draped coffins and the Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s refusal to carry Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” broadcast remembering all the U. S. war dead, I was annoyed. Now, as I write, I am angry. I felt that the authors and advocates of the war in Iraq had sought to deprive the nation and myself of our right to mourn the fallen. They had attempted to prevent us from fulfilling our duty to honor those who have given their lives in this tragic war. There is something perverse in asking young people to be ready to die for their country and then declaring their obsequies private, family matters. A fundamental bond between the people and their military has been severed.
In Britain, the dead return home to military honors. Last summer the royal family, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the families of the deceased joined in a national service of mourning at Saint Paul’s Cathedral for the United Kingdom’s war dead. In the United States, President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have yet to attend a funeral, greet the returning coffins at Dover Air Force Base or join in any memorial service. This icy, though studied, indifference is more corrosive of genuine patriotism than any public dissent over the war. Like the devolution of the Roman legions into the tools of ambitious generals, unhonored death turns the military from citizen soldiers into poorly paid private contractors to the patrons of war.
This Memorial Day let us remember the Americans killed in this war. Let us honor them in our hearts and in our prayers. Let us honor them with public ceremony, laying wreaths and planting graveside flags. And as we re-establish the natural ties that bind us to our nation’s lost youth, bonds so coldly cut by our national leaders, let us remember as well the common humanity of the Iraqi war dead. More than 10,000 civilians have died there. (The Pentagon neither keeps records of the civilians who have died in the campaign to liberate Iraq nor ventures estimates of the number of the enemy killed in combat.) All war, as Pope John Paul II has repeatedly said, “is a defeat for humanity.”
And when Memorial Day is past, we must ask our leaders why they have been so cold to the loss of those whom they sent to war. Do they fear that if we honestly tally up the human cost of war, we will understand they have renewed what Wilfred Owen called “The old Lie”? Even if that were so, we bear a natural duty to mourn the deaths and honor the sacrifices of the slain. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.