Dulce et Decorum Est – Is it sweet and noble to die for one’s country? or just an old lie?

 

A tribute to Roman soldier poet Horace and British soldier poet Wilfred Owen

Dulce et decorum est Arlington

Horace’s Latin inscription, Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori, on the west pediment of amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery

On Memorial Day we remember those who died while serving their country, a holiday dating back to the Civil War, but with roots going even farther back than that.

The highest honor for a man was to die in battle for his country, or so it was believed throughout much of western history. Memorialized by Horace in his Odes, the saying is translated from Latin. The film 300 dramatizes the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) when Spartan King Leonidas fought against the Persian invasion of King Xerxes. Ephialtes betrayed the Spartans and Leonidas said to him, “May you live forever.” It was the ultimate curse, the horror of living a long life with the guilt of betrayal, knowing that others fought bravely and died for their country.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vrPY15CYqc

Video clip of Leonidas’ exchange with Ephialtes.

 

Literary References

Roman lyrical poet and soldier Horace wrote in 23 BC, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” The sentiment, “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country,” was the rallying cry for many entering into service for World War I.

British soldier and poet Wilfred Owen found the opposite to be true, describing in detail the horrors of trench and gas warfare. Both Horace and Owen served as officers fighting for their country, thousands of years apart.  Horace was defeated at the Battle of Phillipi in 42 BC but went on to become a statesman and the most notable lyrical poet of his time. Owen was shot and killed in France during his second deployment to the frontline in 1918. He was 25.

Today, much has changed with modern technology such as satellite positioning, drone capabilities, and smart missiles, but little has changed about human nature.  “Yet Death chases after the soldier who runs / And it won’t spare the cowardly back / or the limbs, of peace-loving young men.” (Horace)

Is it sweet and noble to die for one’s country? or just the old lie?  Read the poets’ own words.

 

THE OLD LIE

Dulce Et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen  1893 – 1918

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.

** Excellent LINK to War Poetry Website with notes on this “Best Known Poem of the First World War”

Sweet and Noble to Die for One’s Country

BkIII:II Dulce Et Decorum Est

Book 3:2 Odes, Horace  (23 BC)

Let the boy toughened by military service

learn how to make bitterest hardship his friend,

and as a horseman, with fearful lance,

go to vex the insolent Parthians,

spending his life in the open, in the heart

of dangerous action. And seeing him, from

the enemy’s walls, let the warring

tyrant’s wife, and her grown-up daughter, sigh:

‘Ah, don’t let the inexperienced lover

provoke the lion that’s dangerous to touch,

whom a desire for blood sends raging

so swiftly through the core of destruction.’

It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

Yet death chases after the soldier who runs,

and it won’t spare the cowardly back

or the limbs, of peace-loving young men.

Virtue, that’s ignorant of sordid defeat,

shines out with its honour unstained, and never

takes up the axes or puts them down

at the request of a changeable mob.

Virtue, that opens the heavens for those who

did not deserve to die, takes a road denied

to others, and scorns the vulgar crowd

and the bloodied earth, on ascending wings.

And there’s a true reward for loyal silence:

I forbid the man who divulged those secret

rites of Ceres, to exist beneath

the same roof as I, or untie with me

the fragile boat: often careless Jupiter

included the innocent with the guilty,

but lame-footed Punishment rarely

forgets the wicked man, despite his start.

** Poetry in Translation 

May 26, 2016

4 Comments

  1. Mark

    I like the comparison because I think both are true.

    There is such a thing as a good war, obviously World War II. I think it must be more difficult if you are part of the invading army seeking conquest and glory. A soldier dying for that is more of tragedy – used by those that would profit from his sacrifice. But dying in defense of freedom, trying to free the oppressed, defend your homeland, make your nation safer, that is noble. Fortunately, democracies don’t generally seek conquest and glory and America’s wars have been generally noble and just (maybe not the Spanish American War, though Spain did declare war on us) – jus ad bellum that we studied at West Point. I’m guessing the feeling is much different at a veteran’s cemetery in Germany from World War II. You mourn the loss and question the purpose.

    • mylinhshattan

      The individual soldier has little choice about the purpose of the very war in which he fights, invaders and defenders alike. Dying and suffering are horrific and Owen paid the ultimate price. Like your comment on WWII, let history decide whether the purpose and the cause were just. And elect leaders who, when absolutely necessary for the nation’s defense, commit forces only to just and noble causes.

  2. Dan

    I am moved to tears by the simple question asked by an aging Private Ryan: “Was I a good man?” History cannot decide such a question; the individual must. If too many men & women cannot answer affirmatively, their outcry shapes and then defines history.

    • mylinhshattan

      During trying times, I think of the good and inspiring people I’ve met and known, the things they’ve done in their lives, the things they do. Friends who inspire me and lift me up are numerous, especially among our crowd. The individual’s path to wisdom is through good and right actions. I believe that each one of us, in every moment of our existence, shapes and defines history.

      Dave Mathisen and his son Josh are heading in today and I’ll send along a photo of the “boys” to you. Dulce et decorum est – to see old friends.

About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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