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War–What Is It Good For?

Today is Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or, in the U.S., Veteran’s Day. On this date in 1918, the guns of Europe went silent after four years of the most industrial, brutal, dehumanizing war ever fought. It was that war that ripped the guts out of Europe and left their world-dominating arrogance panting on the floor. War, obviously, was not the answer in 1918.

It seems that each great conflict produces great literature championing the idiocy of war. World War I gave us a bevy of poets: Sassoon, Owen, Brooke, and others. It inspired fiction by Hemingway. World War II produced novelists such as Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer. I suppose it is Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” that sums up the overall spirit of the war genre. After relating the horrors of a poison gas attack, Owen sums up the experience:

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.

The problem with the literature of war is that it is not nearly as univocal as it might seem. A recent discovery of war-time poems by Siegfried Sassoon reveals that he chronicled not only the bleak side but the noble side of the conflict. Willa Cather’s One of Ours proposes a sense of purpose to be found in war. The Red Badge of Courage, after exploring the vagaries and self-contradictions of the human mind, views war as a time for testing and accomplishment as well as for suffering and loss.

It might be argued that neither Cather nor Crane had fought in the war’s they described. This is true, but Cather had lived through hers. Her time in Europe had exposed her to the horrors that attended that conflict. Crane would, a few years later, witness battle during the Spanish-American War. He had interviewed veterans of the Civil War, describing not only the atrocities but the paralyzing fear that has to rear its head when the rifle shots begin flying past one’s head.

On this, the 93rd anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars, we can turn to literature to do for us what politicians and pundits will never do: provide the complicated, conflicted view of one of mankind’s messier endeavors. War is neither the unalloyed evil that the doves would suggest nor the purely noble quest of good against evil that the hawks might champion. Instead, it is a necessary part of humankind dealing with our pervasive sin nature.

Yes, war will one day end, but until then, for better and worse, it will remain with us.

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