“Bent Double” and Alienated in World War I: A Comparative Evaluation of Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” is widely considered to be one of the finest poems to emerge from the First World War. The Great War—if any war can be defined by such an adjective—saw many poets enter the trenches of Europe, and many of these poets failed to emerge from their earthen embattlements. It is no accident that many of the great poems that originated from this period were written by men who fought on the front lines. For perhaps the first time in human history, the horrors of industrialized chemical warfare and mass-produced war machines were unleashed upon the battlefield. As factories churned out bombs, tanks, and guns, soldiers were attempting to manufacture a commodity of their very own—safety. Yet, because of the inherent dangers of being a soldier, particularly in an era of trench and chemical warfare, these soldiers were alienated from the very safety they were working toward ensuring to others.
Owen’s poem is a scathing rebuke against the many factions which influenced British youths to enlist in the trenches of Europe under the pretense of patriotic ideals. Many of these young men experienced the horror and despair which Owen describes in “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and many of these men and boys died on the field of battle. The Latin phrase, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which translates to “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” originates from the Roman poet Horace’s Odes (Owen 462; Abcarian 462). Horace’s work espouses the glory of dying in war for one’s country; however, Owen uses the same medium—poetry—to rebuke those who would encourage the young and the old to die on the field of battle in exchange for the empty promise of glory. Examining “Dulce et Decorum Est” through the literary theories of Deconstruction and Marxism allow the reader—whom Owen specifically addresses in the poem—to shrug off old concepts of myth which have no truth value, to examine class hierarchies unique to the First World War, and to realize the alienation of the soldier in the face of battle.
Horace was a Roman poet born in Italy in the year 65 BCE. Like Owen, Horace also served in the military, and he served under the command of Brutus, one of Julius Caesar’s assassins (“Horace”). While the Odes covers a variety of topics—including peace and the simple life—it has left a lasting legacy to art, literature, and even war propaganda with its discussion of patriotism (“Horace”). In the film Patton, George C. Scott, portraying General Patton, appears to paraphrase Horace—as well as put a “Patton-esque” spin on the quote—when he says, “… no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country” (IMDB). Horace’s words also found a home at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where they were inscribed on the wall of the chapel in 1913 (Dyer 199), and this simple Latin phrase very likely influenced many new officers emerging from the academy into the theater of the First World War (Dyer 199). As an influential poet from ancient times, Horace’s line has reached mythic proportions. Jacques Derrida, in his essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” speaks of the value of taking “old concepts” and “… treating them as tools which can still be of use. No longer is any truth-value applied to them; there is a readiness to abandon them if necessary if other instruments should appear more useful” (Derrida 4). Owen works to kill the concept Horace established in Odes by describing the horrors of war and then turning Horace’s own words against him. Through clever and emotive language, and the reversal of Horace’s declaration, Owen effectively “… destroy[s] the old machinery” (Derrida 4).
The images in “Dulce et Decorum Est” provides an immediate juxtaposition to the title which Owen chose, and his provocative language directly combats the pervasive concept of a sweet death in battle for the sake of one’s homeland. The speaker in the poem is unnamed, but—in describing the gas attack on young soldiers—he seems to be describing something Owen himself saw during World War I. In the lines “Bent double, like old beggars … / … coughing like hags …” (Owen 1-2), the speaker describes the men he marches with as tired and sick, appearing as much older than they are. Their movements are slow and tortuous as they “… limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; / Drunk with fatigue; [and] deaf …” (Owen 6-7). Here, the speaker describes his compatriots as lame, blind, and deaf; however, since the speaker himself is capable of seeing these horrors he must possess the ability to see. In addition, the gas attack warning—shouted by the speaker or possibly some other unnamed soldier—is sufficient to make all of the soldiers attempt to don their gas masks. Therefore, this blindness and deafness must be of a more figurative nature. The soldiers are marching toward their rest, and the horrors they have witnessed have caused them to be numb to the environment around them until their lives are immediately threatened. This is the reason they were “… deaf even to the hoots / Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind” (Owen 7-8)—Five-Nines referring to the 15cm. schwere Feldhaubitze, a World War I-era, German heavy artillery (Lovett).
The speaker shows the pain, drudgery, and horror of war with increasing tension until the poem reaches its conclusion, thereby fighting Horace’s concept of the joy of death in battle. War is not a sweet and fitting end for any person, despite Horace’s propaganda which rings with patriotic zeal. War, Owen asserts, is people killing and dying, being sick and wounded, and suffering as they watch their comrades likewise suffer and die. It is fitting, therefore, that when these soldiers’ lives are threatened, they are no longer “beggars” in the eyes of the speaker. The speaker, or one of his compatriots, addresses the soldiers with the warning, “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” (Owen 9). “Boys” has a much fonder connotation, and the soldiers’ movements become quick, furtive, and clumsy in their rush to don their protective masks. Yet, when one of the soldiers succumbs to mustard gas, the rest of the men must throw him in the back of a wagon.
As the speaker follows behind the wagon—painfully aware of his friend’s suffering—Owen full reveals the human toll of war and continues to decry Horace’s words. The speaker employs graphic imagery to describe a young man who is the victim of a mustard gas attack. The dead or dying soldier is grotesque to behold, and the visceral imagery continues the nightmare. The speaker describes the man’s face as “His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;” (Owen 20), and he describes the horrible gargling and foam coming from the soldier’s mouth. The surreal concept of a devil, in all its wickedness, growing tired of doing evil is an abiding image, and it is at a direct juxtaposition to the description of “… vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues” (Owen 23)—indeed, the speaker nearly inverts the descriptors.
War changes those who fight, those who die, and those who witness its brutality. Employing Derrida’s notion of freeplay, in which one has a “… field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble” of words (Derrida 7), changes the imagery and concepts in the poem. When the speaker implies that war changes men, it is an ever-shifting change based on external pressures and internal torments. By engaging in freeplay, Owen’s meaning is better understood throughout the poem. The speaker describes his comrades as “Bent double …” (Owen 1). While this could be a result of physical posture, Derrida encourages a change in perspective. It could just as easily be the speaker’s vision which is “doubled,” as in looking through a warped lens. Sight plays an important role in Owen’s poem—from the beginning when the speaker is viewing the soldiers marching, all the way to his distorted, pseudo-undersea view of his friend dying from mustard gas with the words, “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning” (Owen 13-14).
Further examining the link between freeplay and sight, one recognizes the different ways the speaker has seen the dead man throughout the poem. The shift between “beggar / hag / boy” and the juxtaposition of “devil / innocent” is a mark of the irreconcilable effect of war on the human psyche. From the first line, the speaker speaks with cynicism and a downtrodden tone, but when his comrades are threatened they are endeared again in his eyes—becoming as boys. Yet, as the speaker watches his friend’s twisted visage lurch about in the wagon, he is haunted by the memory of lost youth and friendship. The speaker finds no sweetness and no joy in war—no matter the cause.
To examine the hegemonic struggles and treatment of soldiers within a Marxist context, it first helps to better understand the historical context which surrounds the Great War. As World War I began, Britain began the fight with an all-volunteer force which was vastly outnumbered by their German foes. As Europe continued to be torn apart by the fighting, Britain moved to forced conscriptions, growing their army to over 6,000,000 troops (Winter 450).Volunteers were spurred toward service by movements such as the Order of the White Feather, who presented the aforementioned plumage as a means of public humiliation to young men whom they deemed cowards for not actively fighting in the trenches of Germany and France (Beckett). This tactic very likely increased volunteer rates, particularly among British youths.
It is difficult to quantify the number of those killed during World War I in order to make sense of the events from the perspective of social class—this is due, in part, to poor record-keeping as well as the nearly 100 years that have passed since 1918 and the end of the war. However, J. M. Winter, author of “Britain’s ‘Lost Generation’ of the First World War,” compiled extensive research on the topic of British death rates among troops and civilians, even separating according to class, occupation, and age. Winter found that of 5,280,109 British troops, ages 15-49, over 620,000 died (Winter 451). These casualties disproportionately affected the 15-19-year-old age group, which suffered 16 percent of casualties (Winter 451). The 20-24-year-old age group likewise suffered nearly 15 percent of all British casualties (Winter 451). In fact, ages 25-29, 30-34, and 35-39 each suffered a roughly 10 percent casualty rate (Winter 451). It is only the demographics from age 40 and over which seem to suffer a far lesser degree of casualties (Winter 451). Therefore, it seems that being young was a distinct disadvantage during the First World War—the younger and healthier a soldier was, the more likely he was to see combat. Britain saw a very equitable distribution of men joining the British forces across all labor fields and actually saw a disproportionate 40 percent volunteer rate from the entertainment and banking fields when compared to an average rate of between 20-to-30 percent across all other fields—including central government workers (Winter 454).
While age appears to be a class division which separates the social classes in terms of war casualties, a more appropriate example—while slightly related—might be that of officer rank. Unfortunately, official documents from the war made no effort to separate junior officer ranks from those of seniors on casualty reports and, therefore, lumped general officers with lieutenants (Winter 457). Still, common sense and the high rate of battlefield commissions among junior officers—which is when an enlisted soldier is promoted to junior officer to replace one who has been killed or wounded—give cause to believe that the high proportion of officer deaths were among the junior ranks (Winter 459). The fact that there is a lower casualty rate among those higher in age, who are the men that would tend to hold higher rank, also supports this notion. Given this information, it seems the class divisions of World War I favor the senior officer ranks—the men who give orders and send young men like Wilfred Owen to their deaths.
Casualty rates also varied greatly across different branches of service. The British Army suffered a disproportionate number of killed and wounded—13 percent and 30 percent respectively—while the Navy and Royal Air Force had killed and wounded rates at much less than 10 percent (Winter 451). What remains to be discovered—though it may never be, due to record-keeping—is whether or not social class, age, or labor field played a role in determining each man’s branch of service. Still, there is no doubt that the young man serving in the British Regular Army as an infantryman was most at risk during World War I’s years of trench and chemical warfare. This directly supports Owen’s vision of a war that disproportionately killed young men and boys who were spurred toward enlistment by external social pressures.
The four years of trench warfare and changing battlefield tactics from 1914-1918 may often be referred to as The Great War; however, many historians now give it the more appropriate moniker of “the chemist’s war,” due to the many developments in chemical warfare. These developments posed a dual risk to health and safety. The nature of gas warfare poses dangers to enemy and friendly soldiers alike. Gas canisters go astray or explode early; the wind can blow the toxic fumes back into a friendly position—no one on the battlefield was completely safe, whether soldier or civilian. Yet, there was a great risk for the workers who manufactured these gasses, as well. Guns, always capable of inflicting death and casualties, became mass produced and, in turn, capable of mass-producing death.
Soldiers, particularly enlisted men and junior officers on the front-lines of combat, were themselves producers of labor; however, their jobs were to kill the enemy and to take and hold ground. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, in their collection of essays and notes entitled The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 discusses the concept of alienation—when the worker is separated from the product of his labor. Marx and Engels say,
Labor’s realization is its objectification … So much does labor’s realization appear as a loss of reality that the worker loses reality to the point of starving to death. So much does the objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can get hold of only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions … All these consequences are contained in the definition that the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends on himself, the more powerful the alien objective world becomes which he creates over-against himself, the poorer he himself—his inner world—becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. (Marx and Engels 669-678)
So it is with war and the soldier, particularly in a time of trench and chemical warfare. The ideal realization of the soldier’s labor—its objectification—is safety for his homeland and people. The more a soldier fights, kills, and holds his ground—all the while, suffering through trench foot, PTSD, shell shock, sickness, and malnourishment—the more alien his own safety becomes. The soldier is alienated from the product of his labor—safety.
The speaker in “Dulce et Decorum Est” is quick to point out the dangers the soldiers face—all the factors that separate them from the safety they produce for others. They are weak, sick, and marching through muck while carrying heavy equipment (Owen 1-2). Meanwhile, the hurt and weary men ignore the dangers of the gas canisters launch from artillery cannons which seem too far away to do any harm—they are only thinking of the relief which awaits them at their “distant rest” (Owen 4-8). When the soldiers suffer a gas attack, one man is not able to don his protective mask in time. His friends are incapable of helping him—they are only able to provide safety to others through the lives they take. They are trained killers, not miracle workers.
In the final stanza, the speaker—to further clarify the alienation the soldier faces—actually addresses the reader as “you,” and thereby separates himself and his comrades from the reader of the poem (Owen 17). The soldier is the proletariat—the mass of youthful soldiers working and being alienated from their work. The intended readers are the bourgeois who profit from the soldiers’ violence and deaths, and they are distinct from the soldiers by their age, occupation, rank, or some combination of these factors. It is the speaker’s revolt against the class hierarchy which imposes the violence of war and the alienation of labor on men and boys. The speaker hopes to influence those—such as the Order of the White Feather—who would send children off to war chasing hopeless dreams of heroics and tell them of the true horrors of battle. The speaker details the shock and horror of mass-produced chemical weapons and the damage they do to a young man with lines such as “… the white eyes writhing in his face, / his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” (Owen 19-20). Finally, the speaker closes with a tragic callout to the shameless war propaganda of Horace’s Odes, and he is adamant when he professes that if the bourgeois suffered as his soldiers have, then they would not send children off to war with tales of dying for the fatherland.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of a Marxist reading of this work is the fact that the best and brightest of England volunteered to serve on the front lines and many failed to return home in 1918. This makes it difficult to take class hierarchy into account when examining the death rate from World War I. However, there is no denying the harsh realism as well as the moral and political message to those who used propaganda to influence the youth of Britain to fight and die as if it were some quest for glory. Regrettably, Wilfred Owen was among those killed in action, a mere seven days before the Armistice was signed (Barratt). The Deconstruction reading does not suffer this same weakness. Freeplay allows a new and ever-evolving insight into the work, and the poem fully aligns with the concept of throwing out old myths which hold no truth. This is what Horace’s quote from Odes had become in wartime Europe: cheap bravado to urge young men and boys to war. Owen destroys the old concept with his account—with his brutal imagery and stirring tribute to a generation.
Owen’s work combines stark visual imagery and important social and political insight into war. Combat is physically and mentally demanding, and the dangers can be both immediate and persistent. During the First World War, young men fought and died throughout Europe, and they watched as their friends fall in combat to horrible mass-produced war machines and chemicals never to rise again. As Owen kills the myth of Horace’s war propaganda through his first-hand knowledge of combat and insight into a soldier’s psyche, he also rebukes a modern generation willing to sell their children false visions of glory in battle.
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