War. An atrocity present through the ages. A terrorizing force of destruction and devastation. A man’s fear when he signs his name to the draft. We face wars today, just as our ancestors faced the wars of their day. Some agree with the politics or beliefs behind the wars; some adamantly condemn the seemingly selfish and unnecessary combat. Just as we disagree about war today, people disagreed about the wars of the past, and, like they did with gender roles and marriage, writers turned to their work to share their opinions on war. This blog focuses on World War One (WWI), but writers expressed support or disagreement with virtually all the wars they faced.
Isaac Rosenberg, a poet who used scraps of paper in the trenches fighting the Germans, shares his opinions on WWI in his famous poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” (Greenblatt, 2019, p. 155). Throughout the poem, Rosenberg talks about a rat with “cosmopolitan sympathies” moving from one trench to the other—as if it were supporting both sides (Greenblatt, 2018, p.156). He points out that the soldiers the rat runs past are “less chanced than [it] for life,” as the bullets rain down around them (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 156). This line clearly shows the danger of being a soldier—a rat having more of a chance to live than you, even as it scurries from trench to trench through a battlefield being bombarded by shooting bullets. Rosenberg then questions the rat, asking, “What do you see in our eyes at the shrieking iron and flame hurled through still heavens? What quaver—what heart aghast?” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 156). To humans, war seems, perhaps, necessary, to get what we want or to help those suffering at the hands of our enemies. We aim and shoot at other humans as punishment for doing something we view as wrong or for simply standing in our way of our desires. But to rats, what does war seem? Rosenberg asking the rat what it sees as it is surrounded by gunfire and fighting is a very powerful way to convey his own ideas about war—that it causes unnecessary deaths and atrocities. To a rat, war is just humans killing each other for no reason known by the rat. Rosenberg’s question to the rat poses the question for us—why fight a war? Could we accomplish the goals of war without putting soldiers through the trauma and danger of war? Is war even necessary? As a soldier in the trenches, Rosenberg has a moving personal experience of the horrors of war, which he uses to write profound poetry before dying in battle in 1918 (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 155).
Wilfred Owen shares similar views of the war in his poem “Strange Meeting” after being sent to a hospital for being shell shocked from his time in action (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 161). Through “Strange Meeting,” Owen makes readers question the use of war as he tells the story of a soldier killing an enemy that is not portrayed as vile and repulsive in the poem as propaganda of the time would proclaim. “Strange Meeting” shows that war is more than the big picture of two countries fighting each other; it is also the smaller picture of individual, innocent soldiers facing death and imposing death for months. Owen shows “the pity of war” as he depicts a man forced to kill another innocent man simply for his country and allegiance (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 166). This poem poses the same question as Rosenberg’s—if war slaughters innocent people for the gain of a country, what is the point? Again, could we accomplish the goals of our wars without fighting? Is war worth the casualties, on both sides, or the injuries and trauma?
After reflecting on works from men directly involved in the risk of death, the trauma, and the horrendous sights of war, I urge you to think about their questions and their tragic stories. Should we continue using war to get what we want or to fight for those being harmed? Or should we agree with Rosenberg and Owen? Should we agree that war is senseless and pitiful? Should we agree that war is unnecessary and we could reach our goals without gunfire?
Greenblatt et. al., (Eds). (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.