Trump, World War I and the Lessons of Poetry

This Latin inscription is carved on various war memorials, including the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater:


The words come from one of the Odes of the ancient Roman poet Horace:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidoque tergo.

In plain English: How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country: death pursues the man who flees, spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs of battle-shy youths.

Poets are all too human, and some of them are moral and political imbeciles. Some poets, however, are so deeply troubled by their times that that they both extend and challenge the culture they inherit. There were at least a dozen fine English poets during World War One, and some of them died in trenches and on battlefields.

Rupert Brooke, known as much for his beauty as his talent at that time, did not die in battle but on his way to battle. Virginia Woolf thought he had some sterling personal qualities. He was one of the late voices of the English Romantic tradition, though in a restricted and genteel register. There was never a trace of class consciousness in Brooke, except in the British manner from the top down. He was progressive in the sense that he would swim naked in English rivers. His most famous poem is titled The Soldier, a sonnet that opens with these lines:

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

Brooke died of blood poisoning from an insect bite. His body was taken from a military hospital ship and was buried on the Greek island of Skyros under a rock cairn. A later tomb was inscribed with this sonnet. His fellow officers went on to join the campaign at Gallipoli. I have a chapbook of Brooke’s “Nineteen Fourteen” war sonnets published shortly after his death, with a preface by Henry James, and these poems reflect both Brooke’s own idealism and the mood of early optimism in England that the war would to end all wars would not last long and would end in unalloyed glory. On Easter Day of 1915, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London read aloud The Soldier to his congregation.

Brooke died three weeks later. Winston Churchill wrote a memorial column for the London Times praising Brooke’s “classic symmetry of mind and body,” and added: “He was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable.” The British press largely censored the full horror that would soon unfold, until the worst battles and the mounting deaths could not get the full cosmetic treatment. Indeed, the Gallipoli campaign did not achieve its aims but cost so many lives that the public grew restless. This became known as The Great War, especially in Europe and most especially among the British Commonwealth nations. We tend to forget that the word great included the meaning of enormity, and the best English poets who endured battle were honest about the actual monstrosity of the trenches and mass slaughter.

One of the great histories of that war is Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory, and Fussell quite rightly wrote a t length on the lives and works of these poets. As Fussell noted, many British soldiers of all classes carried The Oxford Book of English Verse in their kits. And many really read the poems, because cheap printing and mass education had made a difference, and poetry was still widely enjoyed. Radio and movies were not yet the force they would soon become in conveying information and entertainment. And state propaganda, of course. Fussell also honestly explored the homoerotic ambience of much wartime comradeship. Some of these wartime poets were sexually ambiguous in their lives, including Owen, who showed no romantic interest in women. Rupert Brooke suffered one nervous breakdown, in part because he was troubled by his own sexuality, falling in love with a woman but also attracted to men.

Wilfred Owen only had a few poems published during his life and so he had nothing like Brooke’s fame at that time. In a trench in France, Owen had endured heavy bombardment, with the dismembered body of a friend and fellow officer nearby, and he had emerged unsteady on his feet. During 1917, he was allowed a brief period of recuperation from shell-shock at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, where he wrote some of his best poems, including Dulce Et Decorum Est. Owen went back to the frontline and was killed on November 4, 1918. His parents received news of his death on Armistice Day.

At Craiglockhart Hospital, Owen had met another fine enlisted poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged his work. Sassoon survived the war, despite being shot through the head, and arranged a posthumous publication of Owen’s poetry. The reading public was readier for his work after the war ended, and he had an immediate influence on the English poets of the 1930s. Among the English “war poets” of his generation, Owen is now widely regarded as the best of them all. Certainly among the most class conscious, but also the most distinct in his advancing poetic craft. His best poems do not just show promise but high and striking achievement. Owen had written a preface for his war poems in which he stated his aims:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

Owen fully intended to oppose a war in which he served and died as an officer, by all accounts with real courage and with warm respect from soldiers. He thought his voice as a former combatant would count more if he could survive to be a civilian again. In Dulce Et Decorum Est, Owen described a marching troop of exhausted soldiers who are surrounded by phosgene gas. Nothing quite like these lines had been written until Owen wrote them:   

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .

Not quite the cup of tea for Churchill or the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The same poem ends with these lines:

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.

No exact count of deaths related to World War One is possible (or indeed any exact count of deaths in any large war). But here is an estimate that tallies with current scholarship: “The total number of deaths includes from 9 to 11 million military personnel. The civilian death toll was about 8 million, including about 6 million due to war-related famine and disease.”


President Trump recently joined other state leaders in commemorating World War One at ceremonies in France. President Macron of France gave a speech declaring that nationalism is the opposite of patriotism. Except, of course, when nations are mobilized for war, and then the distinction often becomes a distinction without a difference.

Macron had suggested earlier that Marshal Petain, who had been among the leading French commanders during World War One, should be honored at the 100thanniversary memorial. Macron said history is complicated. So it is. There was an immediate public uproar, not least from French Jews who recall how the Vichy Regime led by Petain during World War Two was in full collaboration with the Nazi invaders, and rounded up French Jews for deportation and slaughter. Indeed, there is a photo of Petain and Hitler shaking hands and smiling. Petain considered himself both a nationalist and a patriot. De Gaulle at least had enough decency to be a nationalist and a patriot in exile, certainly not an active member of the French Resistance within France (much less of the left wing of that resistance), before he returned later to become head of state. Under great pressure, Macron spun on his heels and reversed himself.

Trump, who knows as much about history as he does about economics (namely, whatever his chosen inner circle tells him), graduated from the undergrad branch of Penn’s Wharton School of Finance. Howwe can only guess. But using plenty of his dad’s money, he began buying buildings in Philly while still a student, and was already bragging that he would become real estate royalty in New York. Trump never tires of telling his audiences that getting into Wharton is proof positive of his zooming intellect. And also that he’s really a self-made man. Well, that’s the art of his political deal, which others might simply call lying. He got a deferment from active service in the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese more justly call the American War) because, by his own account, he had bone spurs in one foot. He could not later recall which foot that had been.

As reported recently in The Washington Post, “Early Saturday, the White House announced Trump and the first lady had scuttled plans, because of bad weather, for their first stop in the weekend’s remembrance activities—a visit to the solemn Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, marking the ferocious Battle of Belleau Wood.”

Yes, the Commander-in-Chief could not face the wind and the rain to stand among so very many dead soldiers. Whatever we may think of warring states, or of various defenses of just wars (whether from Thomas Aquinas or current politicians), surely the whole point of the commemoration was at least to remember and mourn. Is Trump capable either of such memory or of such mourning? Not if he can be so inconvenienced by the weather.

On November 10, Slate published Matthew Dessem’s up to date rewrite of Wilfred Owen’s poem, under the same title of Dulce Et Decorum Est. A sly spin on Owen’s poem, of course, but also a sideways tribute, since Dessem took pains to follow the lines and rhyme scheme of the original. And a good deal of Owen’s aghast sensibility is conveyed even in this satire, as these passages show:

Rain! RAIN! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Snapping umbrellas open just in time,
But someone still was getting wet and stumbling
And grumb’ling like an old man past bedtime.—
Dim through the humid air and iPhone light,
As under a misting tent, I saw him frowning.

Dessem carries through to the end in fine style, altering just the last word of the quote from Horace:

If in some drizzly dreams, you too could float
Behind the limo that we threw him in,
And watch the raindrops drying on his coat;
His soggy face, like a waterlogged pumpkin;
If you could read, with every tweet, the pain
Come gargling through his slightly damp touch screen,
Obscene as Stormy, empty as the brain
Of a deplorable who votes to vent his spleen,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To presidents who look like they died yesterday,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria madescere.

In plain English: How sweet and honorable it is to get drenched for one’s country.