Monday, January 01, 2007

About Half-Right

As the U.S. military death toll in Iraq reached 3,000, Time magazine marked the event in its usual way, publishing a short essay that attempts to take measure of that grim milestone, with the obligatory, literary reference thrown in for good measure.

Reading the magazine's effort to make sense of all of this, I'd say their essayist, Nathan Thornburgh, gets it about half-right. Given the nation's current mood, he calculates that the number of military deaths in Iraq is unbearable, yet (when compared to previous military operations) "a mere pittance."

We've made the same observation before. All Americans should grieve for those who have fallen in the War on Terror, and never forget their sacrifice in securing our freedom. Yet, for all the sorrow produced by a single casualty in Iraq or Afghanistan, there is--as Mr. Thornburgh notes--the sobering reminder that we have paid a much steeper price in human treasure during previous wars. Three thousand dead in Iraq, as tragic as that number is, represents less than half the number of Americans who died in a single year in Vietnam, a conflict that claimed the the lives of 58,000 military personnel. Put another way, our number of combat deaths in Iraq after three years is only one-third the number that died in a single day at Antietam, in 1862. That doesn't mitgate or lessen our recent losses, but it does place them in a meaningful, historical context.

As for the literay reference, Thornburgh states the obvious: conflicts which often inspire poets have also consumed them, sometimes in startling numbers. He notes the tragic death of Wilfred Owen, the British poet who served--and wrote--during World War I. Owen was killed one week before the Armistice in 1918, leading a charge against a German position. As Thornburgh reminds us, Owen "never saw his verse published in a book...war can make poets and it can kill them, one by one."

On the surface, it's difficult to argue that point. Jon Stallworthy's Great Poets of World War I recounts the writings and lives of 12 writers who served in that conflict, including Owen, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden. Of the 12, only five survived the war, and many in that latter group--including Sassoon--remained haunted by the experience until the end of their lives. While some of the War Poets' work is idealistic, even patriotic, even idealistic (Brooke's "The Soldier" comes to mind), other examples are decidely anti-war, typlified by the last verse of Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est: ("Sweet and honorable it is, to die for the Fatherland)"

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.

Thornburgh doesn't mention Owen's most famous poem in his essay, but it's clearly the reference he had in mind: the senlessness of war; the waste, the largely unrealized potential of an artist like Owen, sacrificed for dubious purposes just days before the guns fell silent.

And, once again, he gets it about half-right. If the output of war is typically measured in lives cut short and dashed dreams, then it is also marked by those who come to terms with the experience and weave it into art that illuminates, transforms and inspires.

C. S. Lewis also served in the trenches of World War I. He was wounded in the Battle of Arras (1917) , one of 150,000 British casualties in that bloody engagement. Lewis emerged from the war a committed atheist, an outlook he maintained until 1931, when he converted to Christianity. Ten years later, during the dark days of World War II, Lewis accepted an invitation from the BBC to give radio talks on the relevance of faith, particularly during times of crisis. The result was a series of broadcasts that riveted the nation, providing a desperately needed measure of hope to the beleaguered British people. Lewis's wartime BBC broadcasts became the foundation for Mere Christianity, the most important defense of the faith written during the 20th Century.

While the carnage of war robs us of men like Wilfred Owen, it also shapes men like C.S. Lewis, whose contributions as a writer and Christian apologist will be felt for centuries to come. Incidentally, the title of his first talk, delivered on August 16, 1941, was: "Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe." It's a message as timely (and relevant) today as it was 65 years ago, although the folks at Time would probably disagree.

1 comment:

Manny C said...

Interestingly, C.S. Lewis was not a pacifist by any stretch of the imagination. In an essay, an excerpt of which is found on my old blog,, and published in he gives reasons for why he is not a pacifist.