Wilfred Owen’s gut-socking words

Down in the lengthy Gallipoli discussion commenter Friendly Fire has posted a favorite poem of his, a rather thoughtful piece of war remembrance, “Poppies of war”, by E.M. Warnock.
I’ve always been struck by another British poet of World War 1, myself: Wilfred Owen. That site there says, rather coyly that:

    Owen was injured in March 1917 and sent home; he was fit for duty in August, 1918, and returned to the front. November 4, just seven days before the Armistice, he was caught in a German machine gun attack and killed. He was twenty-five when he died.
    The bells were ringing on November 11, 1918, in Shrewsbury to celebrate the Armistice when the doorbell rang at his parent’s home, bringing them the telegram telling them their son was dead.

Well, “injured” in 1917– yes. The guy had a raging case of shell shock. The condition that was later “discovered” by the Yanks as PTSD.
He was sent to the British military hospital at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, where numerous other shell-shocked British warrior-poets were also gathered. (Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, etc.)
The main doctor figure there who seemed vaguely to have an idea what was going on was Dr. William Rivers Rivers. If you haven’t read Pat Barker’s brilliant “Regeneration” trilogy of novels about that convergence of tortured souls, you should.
I seem to recall that in her account, even Rivers– the most humane of the docs there– was certain that the “best” thing for his patients was to get them back to the front. Something to do with “manhood”, as I recall? Of course, issues of homosexuality barely repressed or not repressed at all were enormous at Craiglockhart, as they were throughout the entire history of the British Empire…
By the way, that latter site I linked to is one I just discovered: “The Heritage of the Great War” a bilingual, Dutch-English site with material written by a Rob Ruggenberg. He even has a little slideshow of photos of the Gallipoli battles there…
Anyway, back to Wilfred Owen. Here’s the first of my picks for today:

    Parable of the Old Men and the Young
    So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
    And took the fire with him, and a knife.
    And as they sojourned both of them together,
    Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
    Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
    But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
    Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
    And builded parapets and trenches there,
    And stretch\ed forth the knife to slay his son.
    When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
    Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
    Neither do anything to him. Behold,
    A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
    Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
    But the old man would not so, but slew his son. . . .

Powerful, huh?
Now you’ll have to click on “continue” to read the next one:

    Mental Cases
    Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
    Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
    Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
    Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked?
    Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic,
    Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
    Ever from their hair and through their hand palms
    Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
    Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
    — These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
    Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
    Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
    Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
    Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
    Always they must see these things and hear them,
    Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
    Carnage incomparable and human squander
    Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
    Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
    Back into their brains, because on their sense
    Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
    Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh
    — Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
    Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
    — Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
    Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
    Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
    Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

Rob Ruggenberg writes on his site:

    British estimates are that shell shock in the Great War affected 7-10 percent of the officers and 3-4 percent of other ranks. By 1916, over 40% of the casualties in fighting zones were victims of shell shock and by the end of the war over 80,000 cases had passed through British Army medical facilities.
    The real figures however must be higher, as medical officers were told not to diagnose lower ranks as shell-shocked. Eventually the term became forbidden altogether. From June 1917 on they had to use NYD(N), short for Not Yet Diagnosed (?Nervousness).
    Other terms used were neurasthenia, nerve trouble, hysteria, battle fatigue and anxiety neurosis. The Germans called it Kriegsneurose, Granatshock or Granatfieber. The French had trouble nerveux, choq de guerre, choq traumatique or traumatisme de guerre, and the Belgian soldiers suffered from d’n klop or la kloppe. The Americans called it soldier’s heart and shell shock in the beginning, but later switched to neurasthenia, combat stress and combat exhaustion.
    The authorities first believed that shell shock was an excuse for cowardice. Why would one man break down and become a nervous wreck, while another soldier who had the same experience remained unaffected? They felt that harsh discipline and harsh therapy would cure and prevent more cases. It did not.
    The disease led to at least 200,000 discharges in the British army alone. A German military medical report talks about 613,047 cases of Kriegsneurose. In the short period the Americans fought they counted 70,000 – 100,000 soldiers with nerve problems and more than 40,000 of them had to be discharged.

      Suicides and Suffering

    In all armies shell shock also led to an unknown number of suicides, not to mention the innumerable soldiers who suffered the rest of their lives. In 1920 alone 50,000 British ex-soldiers were awarded a war-pension because of mental disorders…

So there we are. People have known about this, in a fairly scientific way, for more than 90 years now– and in many powerful anecdotal or narrative forms, since the dawn of human history… But still in the modern age, “old men” like Donald Rumsfeld can cavalierly send young men into war.
“Cakewalk”, indeed.
The casualties inside Iraq are horrendous: I have no doubt whatsoever about that. But the casualties of all sorts that the launching of this war has inflicted on American soldiers, their families, and society here will also be with us all for two or more generations to come.

9 thoughts on “Wilfred Owen’s gut-socking words

  1. Helena

    Jon, I honestly meant no offense to you, your wife, and all the other people who did so much thru your work on PTSD to re-connect US officials and US culture with the cultural heritage of the world community on post-trauma issues.
    Honestly, I’m really sorry to have hurt your feelings, as what y’all did was extremely important both for the people you immediately served and for the broader understanding of these issues in US society.
    Having said which, I will note that I have personally encountered more than a few US-trained therapists– maybe much less seasoned than you?– working out in the world in post-violence (and ongoing violence) situations who certainly don’t display the kind of cultural awareness that you have, but who breathlessly tell people in much more older, wiser cultures that “we have discovered this thing called PTSD and here’s how you can deal with it…”
    Maybe what the world needs is some kind of a broad, intercultural gathering in which the wisdom that exists on these issues in all cultrures can be shared and enriched, because in my experience everyone has a piece of the answer. The pieces that I encountered among, for example, the curandeiros and even just the ordinary regular folk in Mozambique often, quite honestly, seemed quite a bit larger than that held by many highly trained US therapists and psychologists.
    I totally don’t want to fight with you on this but deeply respect your wisdom and experience. Really, thanks for expressing yourself.

  2. helena

    Yankee, by the way, I never properly said ‘thanks’ for the really moving and informative comment you posted the other day on the Gallipoli discussion… And now, here’s another one!
    When I finish writing this book on Africa I’m working on, the A. P. Herbert book sounds really interesting.
    So thanks twice over, for both these comments, friend! And of course, for your blog.

  3. jon st

    Helena,
    Thank you for your kind and gracious reply. It was deeply appreciated. Consider the matter closed and forgotten. Let us both work together, each in our ways, to try and show the world, a world in full force denial, the permanent and deep costs of war. Not only, on the innocent civilians, and the environment, but on the warrior as well.
    Jon

  4. TomL

    If you haven’t already, listen to a recording of Benjamin Brittain’s *War Requiem*. In between the parts of the Latin requiem mass, sung by the choir, Brittain interspersed Owen’s poems sung by soloists — poems that comment on the subjects of the mass. The poem about Abraham and Isaac, for instance, is sung after the section of the mass that refers to Abraham and his seed.
    You are doing more good with this blog than you will ever know. Keep up the good work.

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