The National Catholic Review

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.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Gianna Gargan | 5/21/2004 - 7:38pm
Re:Your exquisite opening letter in this week America. (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori)

YES! "Of Many Things" we wonder and crave that words alone do not define. And, yet, in time, somewhere, somebody always succeeds.

Bereavement in their death to feel Whom We have never seen - A Vital Kinsmanship import Our Soul and theirs - between -

For Stranger-Strangers do not mourn- There be Immortal friends Whom Death see first -'tis news of this That paralyze Ourselves -

Who, vital only to Our Thought - Such Presence bear away In dying - 'tis as if Our Souls Absconded - suddendly - Emily Dickinson

(Rev.) Robert J. Thorsen | 2/9/2007 - 2:05pm
These are lonely times for liberals. “Compassion” has been redefined by a conservative president; the War Against Poverty has been replaced by a war against the poorly housed, the poorly educated, the poorly fed and the uninsured sick; the evil that is war is begetting its unbounded, evil behaviors; institutionalized Washingtonian hubris dismisses the wisdom of religious voices for peace. It is like a remaking of the Napoleonic tragedy after the principles of the Revolution were lost in the subsequent unslaked thirst for power. People who think they know “the truth” are always dangerous.

Therefore, when I read the Of Many Things column by Drew Christiansen, S.J., the editorial “Catholics and Politics 2004” and Raymond Aumack’s “The Jesuits Are Too Liberal,” I did not feel as lonely (5/24). There still are informed and articulate people who have the courage to speak to the awful mess we are in and a weekly magazine that has the courage to print their words.

Maria Leonard | 2/9/2007 - 3:39pm
I am writing from Jerusalem at the end of a three-month stay and want to thank Drew Christiansen, S.J., for his clear analysis of the position of Christians here in the Middle East, (“Shrouded in Mystery,” 5/24). A friend just said to me “It’s so complicated.” But that’s not an out. We must try to understand and find creative ways to improve a muddled situation. Even if Christians are under fire from some Arab or Muslim extremists, that fact can never allow us to respond in kind. We are all brothers and sisters under one God.

Susan O’Connell | 2/9/2007 - 1:57pm
I want to thank Drew Christiansen, S.J., for his recent Memorial Day reflection (5/24) and to tell him how much his words and thoughts resonated with my eighth-grade students at The American School in London. Though few of our students here at the A.S.L. are British, we are guests in a country that still reveres Wilfred Owen and the soldier poets of World War I. Every one of my students knows Dulce et Decorum Est, and “the old Lie” is hardly lost on these 13-year-olds, whose perceptions of America have been shaken both by the events themselves and by the BBC’s reports of the war during the past year and a half. However, Father Christiansen’s frustration at being denied the right to honor those who have lost their lives during the Iraq war is something our eighth graders here can understand, perhaps in a slightly different way.

We have just returned from a weeklong excursion visiting the American, British and Canadian landing beaches at Normandy. We laid a wreath at St. Laurent Cemetery; each student placed a poppy (the flower still worn on many a lapel each Remembrance Day) on the grave of a soldier from his or her home state. Our Israeli students walked tentatively around the teutonic crosses marking the German soldiers’ graves at LeCambe Cemetery, and a few kids became emotional reading the poetic inscriptions and viewing all the flowers that adorn the graves at the British cemetery.

Many of these young people had never seen or visited a cemetery. Many do not believe in God, let alone the Resurrection. For some of our 132 eighth graders, this was the first time they had ever experienced something sacred: consecrated ground, hallowed by the thousands of young men just a few years older than themselves, who gave their lives so that we might live. This did sink in, and it is comforting to know that even as the number of World War II veterans is thinning, there are young people who are still moved by their stories and their sacrifices. Perhaps this is the “anthem for doomed youth” our students will carry with them.

Gianna Gargan | 5/21/2004 - 7:38pm
Re:Your exquisite opening letter in this week America. (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori)

YES! "Of Many Things" we wonder and crave that words alone do not define. And, yet, in time, somewhere, somebody always succeeds.

Bereavement in their death to feel Whom We have never seen - A Vital Kinsmanship import Our Soul and theirs - between -

For Stranger-Strangers do not mourn- There be Immortal friends Whom Death see first -'tis news of this That paralyze Ourselves -

Who, vital only to Our Thought - Such Presence bear away In dying - 'tis as if Our Souls Absconded - suddendly - Emily Dickinson

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