War: Glory or Horror?
by
Perry Dantzler

From the earliest records of history, accounts of war have been portrayed as valiant acts of heroism. Children and adults alike have gathered together to hear tales of war and its glory. From the stories of Alexander the Great to recent-day movies like Saving Private Ryan, war has been praised and exalted with words such as bravery, honor, and freedom. However, Wilfred Owen’s poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" shows the ugly, horrible side of fighting. By use of gripping words and vivid descriptions, Owen paints incredible pictures of what World War I was really like. He tears away the glory and drama and reveals the real essence of fighting: fear, torture, and death. No longer are we left with good feelings and pretty phrases like "Liberty and justice for all!" Instead, our hearts grieve over what these soldiers had to suffer through. Every line of the poem rebuts the Roman poet Horace’s quotation: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori-–It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country." The poem employs three different devices that work together to refute the belief that war is heroic and glorious: the speaker’s descriptions, his similes, and his memories.

First, the narrator’s descriptions are clear and effective, leaving no dispute about what the soldiers had to endure with trenches and mustard gas. The poem does not use vague descriptions such as "It was terrible and horrible." Instead, the fifth and sixth lines read: "Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots / But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind." Right away, the reader can almost see the weary soldiers heading "towards [their] distant rest." They are so weary that some are sleeping while they walk. Many do not have boots, and their feet have been so severely cut that their blood has become their shoes. Then, "An ecstasy of fumbling / Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time / But someone still was yelling out and stumbling [. . .]. " Everyone has managed to put on his mask, except one unfortunate soldier. As the mustard gas seeps into his lungs, he begins to scream and jerk around, but it is too late for his companions to save him. "[W]atch the white eyes writing in his face / His hanging face / [. . .] at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs [. . .] / Of vile, incurable sores on the innocent tongue [. . .]. " Nowhere in the entire poem is there any mention of how wonderful and brave the soldiers feel at being given the chance to die for their country.

Second, striking similes are used throughout the whole poem. The speaker does not content himself with using age-old phrases or comparisons. His similes are unique and gripping. "Like old beggars under sacks," "like a man in fire or lime," and "like a devil’s sick of sin," help to add vivid mental pictures to the poem. The soldier’s uniforms are ripped and threadbare from all the fighting, and they are so exhausted that they bend over as they walk. The man that breathed the mustard gas is in such incredible pain that all he can do is jerk about as if he were on fire. After a while, the gas causes his face to sag until he resembles something from the horrors of hell. The speaker’s similes are ones that cause the reader to stop and just think about what is being described through the comparisons. The similes are what make the poem comprehensible to the reader. If the reader has never been to war or even seen pictures of war, he can imagine it better after reading the similes. Had Owen decided to leave out the similes or to use "very tired," instead of "drunk with fatigue," the poem would have undoubtedly lost its potency and emotion.

Last, the poem seems to be written by a soldier who is recollecting the war. Perhaps his children or grandchildren have begged for a story of the war, "ardent for some desperate glory." To them, war is a great and noble adventure that only heroes undertake. The children want blood and killing because they believe that that is the only way heroes are made. The speaker, the old soldier, seems to shake his head over their naVveté. His children might believe that "It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country." The soldier knows that is an old lie. He has been there; he has seen the horror and witnessed death in one of its worst forms. He has watched many good men die. The comrade who dies of the mustard gas in the poem haunts his dreams. The speaker sees the man "guttering, choking, drowning," and he can do nothing about it. In the poem, the speaker seems to be admonishing a friend, maybe one who has heard accounts of war and is retelling what he has heard. The friend enjoys spinning tales of war "with such high zest" that children are eager to hear more. Perhaps the friend ends all his stories with "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." The speaker rebuts his friend’s stories by telling one of his own, a real one that the speaker went through himself. For the speaker, war is, was, and always will be a terrible, terrible thing.

In conclusion, "Dulce et Decorum Est" is a magnificent tapestry of poetry. By the speaker’s descriptions, similes, and memories, Owen weaves reality and memories together to create a masterpiece. Through the speaker, Owen seems to express his grief over those who have died fighting. He sees no glory in men dying horrible deaths from mustard gas, writhing with pain and agony. No, he does not feel that it is sweet or becoming to die for one’s country. His opinion is expressed throughout the whole poem. Yet, his poem is not one of beauty. It has no pleasant words or pleasing sounds; it does not bring good feelings or happy smiles. But it is one of truth, the truth about war.

Perry Dantzler, then a freshman in Elementary Education, wrote this essay for Dr. Frank Beesley’s ENGL 1102 class during Fall 2001semester.