What does Owen mean by "the pity of war"?
Owen did not want to write poetry that glamorized war, or made it seem exciting and glorious, rife with opportunities for heroism. Regarding this subject matter, he famously declared, "the poetry is in the pity". His subjects are naive young men, not conventional heroes. They cry, sleep, jest, mourn, rage, and die. Even when the war is over, the survivors must deal with the aftermath of the conflict in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder or horrific injury (see "Disabled"). Owen's poems were not deeply personal though they drew from his personal experiences; instead, they create a universal sense of what war was like and what war could do to a person. It is certainly not pretty nor something a reader would think that they would want to experience. Owen's poetry evokes pity for wasted life.
Who does the enemy soldier in "Strange Meeting" represent?
In "Strange Meeting" a soldier finds himself in hell, having a conversation with another soldier who proclaims that he is "the enemy you killed". It is not that straightforward, however, for the "enemy" soldier is commonly assumed to be more than just a dead German boy - he is actually the speaker's doppelgänger, a manifestation of another version of himself. The soldier is confronted with his double because, dead, he can longer be a witness to the truth of war. The other soldier is also seen as the speaker's poetic self; atrocity has stripped the soldier of his means of expression. Finally, other critics have referred to the dead soldier as the speaker's primal self/unconscious, from which he has been estranged while fighting in the war. This mythological journey has many literary precedents, but Owen's subterranean descent is one of the most memorable.
Who does Owen direct his fury toward in his poems?
It would be a mistake to label Owen as merely an "angry poet", but there is no doubt that many of his poems are dripping with scorn and anger, albeit couched in beautiful turns of phrase and admirable rhythm and sound. First, Owen is angry with the rulers of Europe and the military leaders for beginning, promulgating, and continuing past reason the First World War. He is angry that they waste young men, feeding them with specious patriotism and lies and caring not a whit for their loss of innocence and loss of life. He is angry that young men can so easily lie about their ages and enlist. Secondly, he is frustrated by the women back at home. They prefer to live in ignorance and placidity, not wanting to confront the ghosts of those who die in order to maintain their comfort and obliviousness. He is also deeply critical of poets and politicians who proclaim that the war is glorious; for him, "Dulce et Decorum est" is "the old Lie". He is angry at other poets - Robert Graves, Jessie Pope - who do not want him to dwell on piteous things. He is angry at the Church for promoting the war. Owen's anger makes his poems vibrant and incisive.
How do the soldiers in Owen's poems cope with the war?
Owen's soldiers do the best they can with the terrors of war they experience on a daily basis. They perform the basic functions of existence, such as eating, fighting, and sleeping, but they have to deaden themselves to the world in order to cope with such an excess of fright, despair, and confusion. They try to excise compassion, imagination, and tears as they dull their emotions. They are able to laugh, but only because it prevents them from fully contemplating what they are involved in. They are able to take some solace in their companionship, and mourn as much as they can when a friend dies. Owen's soldiers are profoundly relatable in their youth, naiveté, and earthly concerns. The soldier in "Disabled" laments his lost legs and wonders how a girl will ever find him attractive. They do not seem to focus on the big picture of why or how the war started and the complex relationships between nation-states, but rather on their individual selves and how they can deal with the tragedies they have participated in.
What was Owen's goal with his poetry?
Owen wanted to make very clear to the world the reality of war. He did not want to paint it as a glorious and heroic endeavor; rather, he wanted to show that it was terrible and senseless. He wanted to reveal the human side of the fighting, not just talk ambiguously about "casualties". He wanted to humanize the soldiers and understand their plight. He did not want to apologize for revealing the pity of war, as he explained in "Apologia Pro Poemate Meo". It was important to him to be authentic and unsparing in his imagery, tone, and message. For him poetry was not a way to excise personal demons but a universalizing medium that imparted overarching themes and realities.
What do "Disabled" and "Dulce et Decorum est" suggest about why young men went to war?
Owen believes that young men went to war for reasons that were understandable, but it was unlikely that they would be able to deal with the atrocities they would witness and commit. In "Disabled" the boy goes to war for reasons that are seemingly superficial but also achingly resonant. He was a football hero and looked for similar success on the battlefield. He also dreamed of impressing a girl. His thoughts were on the glory and the camaraderie, not the "fears / Of fear". In "Dulce et Decorum est" the young men presumably join the war because their heads are filled with "the old Lie" that it is an honor to die for one's country. At school and church boys were told that it was their civic duty to fight and that they would gain honor and glory. Owen is understanding about the soldier in "Disabled", but he is certainly derisive and angry about the lies perpetuated by the authority figures alluded to in "Dulce".
Why has Owen's poetry sometimes been called by critics "full of echoes"?
The critic Paul Norgate remarks in an article about the Soldier Poets that Owen's poetry is "full of echoes." This refers to the fact that his poetry is heavily indebted to other poets, both of years past that he read and studied, and of his own day. While not derivative, Owen is certainly a poet's poet. Owen read the Romantics and the Victorians, including Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson. He read his fellow Georgian poets like Graves, Brooke, and Sassoon. He also alludes in many of his poems to classical literature and the Bible (see "Parable of the Old Man and the Young"). Norgate observes, "in Owen's war poetry, reference and allusion has almost always an ironizing function." What he means is that Owen is using those sources to critique war itself, or to critique some aspect of the original text. Thus, the line from Horace that lends itself to the title "Dulce et Decorum est" turns Horace's laudatory phrase into something ironic and false. Owen sought to expose and elevate the truth of soldiers' existence via modes and allusions to romantic poetry.
What is the tension between message and form in "Dulce et Decorum est"?
The structure of "Dulce" features a regular meter and rhyme, with two quatrains of rhymed iambic pentameter. The pararhyme that Owen was known for does not play a major role in this poem, which sticks to the largely traditional rhyme scheme. The message of Owen's poem, however, is not traditional. The glory of war is not emphasized; rather, it is the horror and irrationality of war that Owen aims to impart. As Andrew Williamson writes, "this verse form seems to stand at odds with the pandemonium that Owen's words describe." However, Owen's form isn't entirely traditional, for at certain points he breaks from it in simple yet impactful ways. This reinforces the instability of the action and boosts his message that war is terrible and incomprehensible.
How does Owen portray death in his poems?
It is not surprising that a war poet would depict death in his poems. For Owen, though, death is not necessarily a heroic event. It is an opportunity to come face-to-face with one's self and the opportunities one will now miss ("Strange Meeting"). It is painful, gross, ignoble, lingering ("Dulce et Decorum est"). It is absurd ("Apologia Pro Poemate Meo"). It is something that those on the home front want to ignore ("The Kind Ghosts"). It is a sudden and insensible end to a life, and a waste of those lived years ("Futility"). It is something that is maybe even preferable to a life after the war that is far less fulfilling than expected ("Disabled"). It is something that lacks ritual or glory or comfort or meaning ("Anthem for Doomed Youth"). It is something so commonplace that it is not worth shedding tears for ("Insensibility"). And finally, it is something done to young men by old men in order to play out their global games of pride and domination ("Parable of the Old Man and the Young").
How did Owen's life experiences influence his poetry?
That Owen's poetry derives from his own battlefield experiences is well-known to critics and readers alike. He wrote to his mother of his experiences and discussed what he had seen and done in the war with fellow soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon. "Dulce et Decorum est", for example, was based on a poison gas attack that Owen himself witnessed. His poetry also reflected other elements of his life, however. His religious upbringing manifests itself in his ruminations on the dangerous role of the Church in the war. His discomfort with women and the hint of his homosexuality can be seen in his poems excoriating women and lauding the relationships between men. His humanitarian leanings and compassion for the downtrodden can be observed in his deep sympathy for young, imperiled soldiers.
BAGHDAD — I long ago learned not to discuss war movies with soldiers. They tend to be detail-oriented and obsessed with authenticity. They frequently dismiss well-made, thought-provoking films because of some minor detail — the scope on a rifle is wrong, or the markings on a vehicle incorrect.
Last summer, I began to see rave reviews of “The Hurt Locker,” a movie about the Iraq war by Kathryn Bigelow. After a string of Iraq-related Hollywood flops, reviewers said this was the movie that finally brought home the reality and horror of Iraq. Soon I began to get e-mail from friends back in the states who loved the movie for its “realistic depiction” of the war. I’ve worked in Iraq over a six-year period, and they wanted to know what I thought.
Though I’m back in Iraq now, I put off seeing the movie, partly because I felt no need to be disturbed by memories that its graphic images would surely raise. But I mentioned the movie to a few soldiers. Predictably, none liked it. A group from the 2nd Infantry Division laughed uproariously, recalling the scene where a blood-soaked bullet jams a massive .50-caliber rifle. “A fifty cal? Blood would just lubricate it!”
Another soldier: “Remember the scene where the dude is running alone through Baghdad? Ridiculous!”
Finally, a few nights ago, I sat down to see “The Hurt Locker” for myself.
This time, the soldiers were right. The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect. This time, it’s not just minor details that are wrong.
If there is one rule with the military, it is that there is strength in numbers. No one soldier, no one vehicle, goes out alone. Ever. Four vehicles and a 20-man squad is the minimum that I have worked with in Iraq. A lone Humvee would not be allowed to clear the gate at any base in Iraq.
Yet, in scene after scene, the bomb disposal team, led by Staff Sgt. William James, appears to be fighting the war alone. They drive the streets of Baghdad, a three-man team in a lonely Humvee, with no back up. They single-handedly clear buildings, drive desert roads alone with no air cover and confront a truckload of potential enemy fighters — who turn out to be bizarre and incompetent British mercenaries. When the British are killed, the American explosive technicians turn out to be expert snipers and spotters as well.
In one sequence, Sergeant James sneaks away to a house he believes to be an insurgent base. Realizing he is mistaken, he then runs alone for what appears to be several miles through the labyrinthine streets of Baghdad to return to his base. Strangely, he encounters no U.S. checkpoints on the streets, though they were numerous in that period. And he returns, as if by magic, unscathed.
In 2004, with the insurgency in full swing, the chances of a U.S. soldier running through the streets of Baghdad and making it back to base were approximately zero.
The movie’s denouement — the explosive ordnance disposal (E.O.D.) team responds to a massive truck bomb in the Green Zone — is so completely wrong in every respect that it borders on farce. Insurgents did not operate freely in the Green Zone. They would never have kidnapped a soldier in an area with thousands of U.S. troops. And they would never have hung around an active investigation scene with their weapons. No American E.O.D. team in existence (or any other three-man squad) would go charging alone down dark alleyways when there are hundreds of infantrymen at hand.
These are mere details compared to the way Sergeant James repeatedly swaggers up to bombs. As Mark Boal, the screenwriter, well knows, many I.E.D.’s in Iraq are remotely detonated. Mr. Boal actually embedded with an E.O.D. team in Iraq, so he knows the chances of recklessly approaching even a single command-detonated bomb and surviving are quite small. Yet we are made to believe that Sergeant James has disabled over 800 bombs in this reckless, cowboy-like fashion.
More disturbing and implausible yet is the way the protagonist repeatedly endangers the lives of his team members. The soldiers I have worked with over the years are like brothers to one another. Never have I seen stronger bonds between men. Any soldier who routinely endangers his own life or those of his squad members would not be punched, as the movie’s star is in one scene. He would be demoted and kicked out of his unit.
“Our No. 1 job is protection of people and property,” said Rob Wagner, an E.O.D. team chief based in Diyala Province. “If we do our job the way it’s done in the movie, we would get people killed.”
Lt.j.g. Glenn Moffat, another member of the team, added, “We have to be level-headed and mature, to think things through — the opposite of the how it’s done in the movie.”
One of the greatest disservices of “The Hurt Locker” is the impression that soldiers in Iraq were masters of their destinies. If they snipped the right wire, made the right shot, cleared the right room, they would stay alive. In fact, the opposite was true. Certainly there were firefights, but the vast majority of U.S. deaths were from I.E.D.’s.
This is what was so absolutely terrifying about the war. A faceless enemy was catastrophically destroying U.S. vehicles every day with I.E.D.’s (and I can assure you the enemy did not stand in the open, as per several scenes in the movie). Regardless of your training, if you were in that vehicle when the button got pressed, you were dead.
I’ve covered a number of conflicts and Iraq was the least romantic, the one that looked the least like the war movies I grew up on. Yet Ms. Bigelow pulls one out for Hollywood. While many have praised the movie as anti-war, I believe — in a counter-intuitive way — that it glamorizes war. The Steely-Nerved-Protagonist Who Has Seen Too Much kills the bad guys in an action-packed setting and eventually signs up for more. His hard-drinking, P.T.S.D.-ravaged character becomes that much more romantic for his flaws.
I understand the argument that Ms. Bigelow and her team should be applauded for tackling certain issues and bringing the war home to Americans. Yet with so many scenes and details untrue, the actual war in Iraq becomes merely a dramatic jumping off point for the filmmakers.
E.O.D. teams are highly specialized. They do not fire sniper rifles, clear buildings full of insurgents, single-handedly engage a squad of enemy combatants or drive the streets of Iraq alone. What they do in reality is amazing enough: one of the most nerve-wracking and dangerous jobs on earth. It is done a disservice by this degree of dramatization.
When a filmmaker gets that many details wrong, it’s hard to believe she got the war right. “The Hurt Locker” is not a drama about a make-believe event. This is a movie about an ongoing war that has affected millions, in which 100,000 Americans are still serving. It deserves a minimal degree of historical accuracy and attention to detail.
Mr. Kamber is not the first to fault “The Hurt Locker” for its accuracy, as Melena Ryzik reported in “The Curious Case of the ‘Hurt Locker’ Attacks” on Carpetbagger. “I have no dog in this fight,” Mr. Kamber said about his own essay. “I’m not a Hollywood person. I don’t know anyone out there. And I’m glad movies about Iraq are getting made.”
Explosive Ordnance Disposal
A Perilous Search
Michael Kamber, the writer of this essay, was the videographer, photographer and co-producer of a 2009 video on the work of an explosive ordnance disposal team.