Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
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.
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
Rome’s peasant poet, Horace, contemplated the prospect of death in war with rustically virtuous equanimity. Then chemical science turned 20th century battle into a killing field shrouded in poisonous clouds of mass slaughter. And, not long after, nuclear science produced the mushroom cloud that threatened to do the same for the entire world.
The prospect of death in war no longer resembles the manly, sporting contests of fortitude that to this day evoke sympathetic feelings of courage, triumph and all enduring will. “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” as the famous sports show blurb once put it. But for many, victory could not ennoble the agony depicted in firsthand accounts from the barbed, entrenched, deep catacombs of World War I. The gross, dehumanizing horrors of World War I were poignantly individualized in those experiences, and seared into the living memories of those whose patience lasted until the deadly thunder ceased. For them, the world’s once pastel, patriotic colors were forever darkened by the stark contrast between the almost jolly rituals of war’s beginnings and the grotesque reality revealed to the chosen acolytes of its inner sanctum long, long before it ends.
The threat of nuclear extinction erased the easy distinction between those acolytes and the general congregation of humanity. All now stand attendance in the antechamber of war’s probable inner circle (CEP) of sacrifice. All see themselves victims upon the altar. All stand in the zest removed foreshadowing that shows the sorry, sagging wrinkles of Wilfred Owen’s old, decrepit lie. John Lennon’s nihilistic anthem speaks the heart of many in the generations born and raised in that foreshadowing. In that world of grayed out colors, Horace’s rustic patriotism seems a harbinger of dead moon worlds in black and white, whereupon the heart longs for the rich, spring comfort of saturated color, wishing not at all to dwell upon the contrast, but only to be totally absorbed by life’s experience, undisturbed by guilty shadows or vigilant reflection.
Though Lennon’s song invites us to “imagine there’s no heaven”, it’s the contrast of heaven and hell that he really seeks to eliminate. For some, this is the anthem of the future, a future that, among other things, implies the end of these memorial days. For on this day we are invited to decorate the graves of those who died in war, especially remembering the ultimate sacrifice that proved beyond words the truth of their devotion, the gift beyond measure they were willing to bestow upon those who live after them. But if the only fruit of war is horror, and its only flower a bloom of stinking death, with what garlands shall we wreath the gravestones, with what words wax lyrical about the honorable extinction of lives, too filled with promise to be more than unfulfilled in hope?
Except we ignore or annihilate the significance of their sacrifice, we cannot truly remember them without remembering the good they stood and died for, or the evil that cost them their lives. But in the world of Lennon’s sensually triumphant nihilism, we are bidden not to look beyond sensation and the mere sentiment of our existence. We are therefore bidden not to reflect upon the meaning and the cause for which they sacrificed themselves, the standard by which they were bound to live and therefore bound to die if need be. We are forbidden to remember that not all such standards represent the same reverence for life, peace and the all sharing brotherhood of man Lennon dreamily contemplates.
Forces are now mightily at work in our world that pretend, perhaps even to themselves, that they are taking us to Lennon’s place beyond good and evil. It is a place where Presidents give press conferences without flags; where lands are shared without borders; where without the exercise of power, humankind has defeated the very idea of warfare; and where all the colors of the rainbow are maintained and celebrated, without difference, judgment or distinction.
There’s the rub. For where one color is not distinguished from another, there may be light but there is no rainbow. Where one place is not distinct from another, there may be land, but there is no place called home. Beyond good and evil, there may be pleasant and unpleasant things, but there is no reason to prefer one to the other, indeed no reason at all that is a ground for choice.
Peace there may be in the one, united world of Lennon’s vain imagining, but it is the peace of life without reason, without choice, without deliberate purpose, and therefore without the unique, individual conscience that is the hallmark of our humanity.
It took some decades after the Civil War before Americans contrived to designate one day on which to honor our war dead, regardless of which side they fought for. That reflected the moral reality from which John Lennon’s nihilism only seems to offer some escape. Can we really see a community in death of those who fought in defense of freedom, and those who fought for a union imposed by suppressing it? Can we really see a living community between those who died to end the blight of human slavery, and those who fought for the right to impose its chains upon their fellow men? Can the same flag that flew from the slave ship’s mast and Ft. Sumter’s battlements mean anything in common between a dedication to freedom that permits slavery and an opposition to slavery that demands the curtailment of freedom?
It can mean that both reject the vision of a world in which human being is lost in subjection to the materialistic currents of pleasure and unreflective passion. It can mean that both envision a world in which humanity still embraces the idea of freedom, for all the burdens of guilt and vigilance it imposes upon our primitive longing contentedly to bask like lizards in the simple sun of life’s sensations. It can mean that both insist on remembering the fallen and fallible champions in all our wars, and do so precisely because the truest protest against the gross, dehumanizing reality of war is to hold fast, in spite of it, to the responsibility for conscientious choice that is the inescapable fate of those willing to answer for the human vocation.
I admit that my Christian faith may give me greater equanimity as I do so. Why? Because it keeps from me the burden of believing that man must be the matter and maker of some paradise of his own creation. It’s easier to accept the human vocation once the carpenter’s son has stilled the false ambition to be among the masons of some new pyramid of Babel. I know that in God’s good time I will hear a voice I already know calling me by the name more truly my own than any other. Answering to that name, I will come into a place of peace beyond Lennon’s imagining or my own. And among others waiting to greet me, I will find and know again for the first time, the ones who lie no longer in the graves of honored dead because they were willing to die in a cause the Creator God has honored with the name of justice.