Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dulce et decorum est...?

These are words of Horace, called an "old lie" by Wilfred Owen, a poet who knew war all too well. 

It's that time of the year when we ponder the fate and nature of those who have waged war, and are in a position to do so.  It seems fitting in an odd sort of way that November 11th is singled out for this purpose, the day on which the combat stage of what was once called the Great War ended.  That war it seems is no longer quite so "great" as we humans managed to engage in an even "greater" war within in a short time thereafter, and have been engaged in one war or another ever since, whether we call it such or not.

I am fascinated in some ways by the First World War.  It's a fascination with what I think is the extraordinarily terrible and stupid manner in which it was fought, at least on its western front.  That's not to say that other wars, ancient or modern, were not terrible and stupid.  William Tecumseh Sherman is credited with the assertion that "War is all hell" and is said to have been the first to have executed "total war" by marching his troops through the Confederacy, devastating every thing and person in their path.  That assertion is apparently accepted by most, but I wonder if most of us appreciate the significance of the word "all" in that statement.  I think Sherman meant to note that everything about war is hell, even those aspects of it we tend to glorify.

I think WWI was remarkable in its brutality and the manner in which it was waged.  The deadlock on the western front resulted in trench warfare, the use of artillery to such an extent it's likely it would have horrified even Napoleon, and such novelties as mining opposing trenches, i.e. digging under them and placing under them stupendous amounts of explosives, which when set off actually vaporized many of those above.  Tactics came to consist of hurling men at entrenched positions in the face of fire from machine guns and rifles.  The fate of soldiers in the last hours of that war strikes me as particularly tragic.  Commanders knew when the cease fire was to take place to the very minute, and some of them continued to send their men to death to the very end.  I find it difficult to conceive of anything so peculiarly cruel and futile.

I find myself wondering what a Stoic should think of war.  I confess I can't remember reading anything by Stoics such as Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius or Seneca addressing the subject in any detail.  Of course the Emperor was actively engaged in war while writing what we call his Meditations; we may infer, then, that he was willing to wage war in some circumstances.  I think we can conclude that Cicero felt it was justified in some cases as well.  The book Stoic Warriors by Nancy Sherman seems to claim that the Stoic philosophy is favored by our modern warriors.  I can see that certain aspects of Stoicism would be attractive to a soldier, but am not certain Stoicism can be said to be the path of a soldier.

I think we can at the least maintain that a Stoic would not engage in a war of aggression.  A Stoic would not be interested in obtaining territory, resources, slaves, or harming others due to hate or racism, nor would a Stoic feel it necessary that others live or think in particular ways and seek to compel them to do so.  The view that we should for the most part be indifferent to things which are not in our control would seem to render the notion of war irrelevant.  This is not even to mention the Stoic belief that we are equally citizens of the world (universe, I suppose) and united by the fact that we share in the Divine Reason.

Then there are the "Stoic martyrs" who refused to bow to the will of certain of the emperors and sought to do what they felt right in the face of death or banishment.  This is not an attitude one would think would be deemed useful to a soldier.  However, it's clear that Stoicism fosters a sense of duty, and in particular public duty.

If the nation of which the Stoic is a citizen is attacked, what would a Stoic do?  I think whether it was justly attacked would play some part in any decision.  But although we are to be indifferent to things beyond our control, I don't think a Stoic would refrain from defending others from harm, or stand idle while their lives and rights are threatened.

1 comment:

  1. I just finished reading Regeneration by Pat Barker, one of a trilogy about WWI. It is loosely based on historical incidents. Siegfried Sassoon did spend time at the Craiglockhart mental hospital being treated by a Dr. Rivers, who was intent (per his own military orders) on getting men back into service whenever possible. Sassoon, a decorated officer, has written and circulated his opinion that the war should end immediately because it is just such a stupid, pointless affair (not his words, exactly). Wilfred Owen makes a brief appearance at the hospital before he too is shipped back to the front where he is killed in action.

    Johnny Got his Gun is second up; Johnny is a WWI soldier who has lost all 4 limbs, his jaw, vocal cords, and eyes. This novel (also the film) is explicitly anti-war. Now reading The Beauty and The Sorrow by Peter Englund which is "an intimate history of WWI" -- meaning not about sex, but about the personal lives of a diverse group of people followed through diaries and letters. Fascism and national socialism following on the heels of WWI, then leading into WWII is a fascinating story, but the origin of WWI itself seems farcical in comparison.

    It was horrific, just as the American Civil War had established a new standard in horror. Better weapons, new devices, new strategies (like Sherman's March to the Sea, etc.) made it worse, especially with old strategies meeting new weapons turning battles into meat grinders. WWI seems to have involved some of the same things -- outmoded models of war, gallantry, and all that crap were wholly unsuited for ever more mechanized war. (Though there were still a lot of officers riding around on horses.)

    The thing about WWI, in particular, is that so many people apparently were not clear in their own minds as to what purpose was being served. It is surprising there was more philosophical, conscientious objection to WWI.