‘The Old Lie’ Of War Once Again Takes The Nation’s Young

It has been a year since the United States launched its invasion of Iraq. To date, 12 young people of Wisconsin have perished there, one for each month of the war. All have been buried with the usual invocations to duty and honor, selfless service to the country in such words as "ultimate sacrifice" and "hero." But beneath the patriotic rhetoric : the conventional language of war we have turned to since the Greeks sailed to sack Troy : there is only, finally, the wounds that will not heal, the truth no lie can conceal.

The youngest of those 12 from Wisconsin who died in Iraq were women, both 19: Rachel Bosveld of Waupun and Nichole Frey of Lena. Barely old enough to vote, not old enough to drink legally, they found themselves ordered, under what we now know were false pretenses, to a foreign land where they were surrounded by men armed with assault weapons and bombs. Their deaths were too soon and too brutal.

They were murdered, as were many young women of Iraq, by the indiscriminate viciousness of battle. Yet while war destroys people, it is the survivors who struggle the most, those wounded physically and spiritually who must live on with the hellish consequences... We can debate forever the morality and necessity of war by throwing around the verbal ammunition: words like freedom, national defense, imperialism and revenge. But had I now a daughter or a son, I cannot imagine even my democratic right to write this essay above my desire for her or him to live as best she or he could. I could not say to my daughter or son, or any young person for that matter, "Give me liberty or give me your ultimate sacrifice."

Death is something we all will suffer; even the young can die. What seems to me worse than the death of a child is the idea of him or her having to partake in the butchery of war : the killing of other young men and women. Despite what appears so often these days in movies, on TV and in video games, the killing of another human being, no matter how "evil" he or she may be, is not a trivial or triumphant act. I can speak only from imagination, but the intentional taking of human life strikes me as so devastating and blasphemous that my own death at the hands of a killer seems preferable.

It is not the dying in war that drives so many soldiers insane. It is the killing and the having to kill. I do not wish killing on anyone, much less a son or daughter. Killing for ones country or any cause, is too great a sacrifice : or so we pacifists believe. Perhaps I find the deaths of Rachel and Nichole so moving because I almost, at age 18, became a soldier myself. I had joined ROTC at the university I was attending with some vague notion of becoming a fighter pilot : a job I thought would be exciting and brave.

I had to take a course called Military in Society of which I remember nothing. My college transcript records that I received a "B." As part of my training to be an officer, I went to a firing range once a week and learned to shoot a handgun. I became a decent shot and might have chosen a military career had my shyness not so often sent me to the refuge of the library where I discovered a fondness for books. There, behind thick stone walls, I became a reader of literature. I picked up Whitman and Tolstoy, and I began to think of what it means to be a man. My youthful models of manhood had been the typical ones: athletic prowess, physical strength, macho valor and institutional loyalty. My father had served in the Navy and went on to become a technical writer and then an aerospace executive.

Books however turned me inward and deepened my sympathies. I began to question all I had been taught in school and church. Had there been a war to fight in 1979, I may have joined it. As it was, I quit ROTC and the university and went home to Long Island to begin my halting career as a writer and teacher.

But for Rachel and Nichole it is too late. They will never know more than they knew when the explosion of war engulfed them. Their parents and friends will never know who they might have become. It is not too late for us survivors. We can still read, and we can still question what the English poet Wilfred Owen called "the old lie" in his poem Dulce et decorum est," referring to one of the Odes of Horace, who wrote "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," meaning "It is sweet and appropriate to die for ones country."

Owen, addressing a war-supporting friend of his, describes the death of a soldier by gas attack:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in

And watch the white eyes writhing on 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.

Wilfred Owen, this young poet, was killed on the western front in 1918. He was 21.

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