The language of war


A little more than 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Horace (65 BCE-8 BCE) wrote: “Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori. It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Much of modern English literature is a refutation of Horace’s words.

During World War I, the English poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) wrote “Dulce et Decorum Est” – an ironically titled poem: there is nothing “sweet and fitting” in being a foot soldier in the British army during the so-called “Great War.”  Owen underscores the soul-destroying daily drudgery: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge.”

The majority of his 28-line poem describes the terror of a gas attack and the horrific fate of an unnamed soldier who fails to get his gas mask on in time: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight/He plunges at me guttering, choking, drowning…

“If you could hear at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs…”

In his concluding lines, Owen damns Horace’s ode to patriotism unto death. Those who have experienced the guts and gore of war “would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory, /The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.” 

Another deep irony regarding this poem: Owen was killed in battle at Sambre-Oise Canal in France on Nov. 4, 1918, just one week before the Armistice.

While Owen focuses his poem on the anonymous victim of a World War I gas attack, Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) devotes five lines of verse, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” to the fate of an anonymous World War II soldier, whose duty was to fire explosive shells at enemy aircraft from a cannon housed in a plexiglass turret mounted on the underbelly of an American bomber. Though he was not a pilot, Jarrell served in the American Army Air Corps – which later became the United States Air Force – during the Second World War.  His first-hand knowledge of these bombers enabled him to write with such striking and unnerving precision.  The imagined nameless gunner speaks of his own death: “Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life/I woke to black flack and the nightmare fighters. /When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” Both Owen and Jarrell issue the same warning:  Do not “prettify” the ugliness of war.  Do not use abstract words to erase the carnage of specificity.

Of course, war is hell. But sometimes, the refusal to go to war against an enemy who presents a clear and present danger leads to a different kind of hell: the hell of subjugation.  If the United States did not fight and win the war against the Nazis and Fascists in Europe and the Imperialists in Japan, we could well be living as slaves under a tyrannical government. If Israel did not fight and win the War of Liberation in 1948, the Six-Day War in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, there could well be no Israel today. That is to say, there are times when it is altogether sweet and fitting to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah.”

The age-old tension between the hell of war and the hell caused by not going to war against threatening enemies is reflected in the words of our Tanakh, our Hebrew Bible. On one hand, we have the well-known words of the prophet Isaiah (2:4), literally written in stone on a park wall across First Avenue from the United Nations building: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

On the other hand, we have the less well-known words of the prophet Joel (3:10): “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior.’ ” Add to this some troubling words in the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:3): in offering their thanks to God for saving them from Pharaoh’s army, the Israelites proclaim: “Adonai ish milchamah, Adonai is a man of war.”  While these words need to be understood within the context of our people’s great escape from Egypt, they nevertheless come dangerously close to the often-destructive sentiment, “God is on our side.”

The profound ethical and emotional paradoxes found everywhere in the waging of war are expressed with great sensitivity in what many think is the oldest poem in the Hebrew language, the “Song of Deborah” 12th Century BCE, (Judges 5).  On many levels, the poem is the celebration of the military victory of the Israelites over the Canaanite King Jabin and Sisera, the commander of his army. During the course of the poem, we learn that Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, “[m]ost blessed of women,” lures Sisera into her tent, gives him milk when he asks for water, covers him with a rug. As soon as Sisera falls asleep, she drives a tent peg through his head: “she crushed his head,/she shattered and pierced his temple.”

While “The Song of Deborah” celebrates the leadership of the judge and prophetess Deborah, and the daring of Jael, the author concludes by drawing attention to a third woman, the mother of Sisera, who is waiting for her son to return, not knowing that he lies dead by the hand of Jael: “out of the window she peered, /the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: /Why is his chariot so long in coming?” (Judges 5:28)  The author of this ancient poem remains unknown. Whoever he (or she) was, he (or she) understood that even the greatest triumphs of war are darkened by the tears of bereaved mothers.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at