Monday, November 26, 2007

War and Insanity 1

The Pity of War and the Philosophy of History

The great philosopher of history, historian and archaeologist Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) once remarked, “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history.” I cannot find whether R.G. spent any time in active service or combat during WW I but certainly he was an intelligence officer during the conflict. Certainly also, he would be familiar with the ravages wrought on humankind by modern warfare.

A perusal of such ravages, if “ravages” is not too tame a word, reveals that WW I witnessed between 13 and 15 million deaths; World War II, deaths of between 55 and 65 million; wars/conflicts between 1945 and 2000, deaths of 40 million and deaths under Mao are estimated between 16 million and 30 million. (These figures are given by Milton Leitenberg, of the Center for International and Security Studies in a survey published in 2003) R. G., who died at the early age of 54 in 1943, would not have been aware of the huge size of these numbers nor that further wars would wreak worse havoc than the First and Second World Wars.

It’s probably very hard for us who have never experienced the sheer violence, utter mayhem and wanton destruction of war to realize how horrific such events are in reality. We are left to read the written accounts of those who have actually witnessed and experienced these wars; to view documentaries; to peruse the histories; to read the novels and poems inspired by these dreadful occurrences and to reflect on “man’s inhumanity to man,” to quote an old phrase. One poem comes to mind – one by Wilfred Owen, which sums up the “pity of war” as he was to say himself of his own poems; or rather one which captures the first hand experience of one who was to perish himself at the Sambre-Oise Canal just a week before the war ended, ironically causing news of his death to reach home as the town's church bells declared peace.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
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...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in 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.

The biggest victims of war are surely children. What a price we pay for their tears.

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