Teaching Wilfred Owen to Soldiers

The students he met at Fort Benning changed the way he looks at poetry and at life choices, writes H. William Rice.

November 11, 2011

When I entered graduate school, my goal was to become an English professor. I had loved literature from an early age, and teaching as a graduate student only deepened my resolve to be a professor. But the job market for humanities professors was wretched, and the gallows humor of my professors and other graduate students was enough to send me scurrying on my way. I finished my master’s degree and went to work for the Department of Pensions and Security, a part of the welfare program in the State of Alabama.

It was only later when I took on work as an adjunct that I cobbled together the courage to finish what I had started by getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor.  And the wherewithal came from an unexpected place: my students.

I signed on to teach general education classes as an adjunct at Troy University’s campus at Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of my students were soldiers. I brought to the class all of the assumptions that often afflict young, smartass humanities graduates. I was opening the eyes of the nearly blind. I certainly never expected my students to open my eyes. I didn’t even know how blind I was or how little I knew about literature or about teaching — about life itself.

Wilfred Owen’s "Dulce Et Decorum Est"  taught me to see my students in a new way. I had taught it many times as a teaching assistant, finding the anti-war theme of the poem one that resonated with me and the traditional undergraduates I taught. The narrator discovers what I supposed all of us in a post-Vietnam War America had learned: that Horace’s famous phrase "it is sweet and becoming to die for your country" (in Latin Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori) is a lie. Since Owen was a soldier who died in World War I, I thought the poem would be particularly interesting to my soldier students. But the single phrase “fitting the clumsy helmets [gas masks] on just in time” opened the poem in an unexpected way.

The narrator describes mustard gas canisters falling on his platoon as he and his comrades are marching. They struggle to get the "clumsy helmets on just in time." One in the group is not fast enough with the gas mask. Helplessly, the others watch him die. A private in the room stopped me on the word "clumsy."

"All soldiers complain about the gas masks," he said. "There’s not an easy way to put ‘em on, Sir." He then demonstrated the process of putting the mask on.  Looking around at the fatigues, I realized that I was the only one in the class who didn't personally know what it felt like to put on a gas mask. I had never even seen one except in movies.

When we got to the passage in the poem where Owen describes the soldier who dies — "guttering, choking, drowning" — because he doesn’t get the gas mask on in time, a sergeant raised his hand. "Mustard gas causes the lungs to produce fluid, Sir. This man is drowning on dry land." I then read aloud the narrator’s description of the body of his fallen comrade, thrown into the wagon as the platoon continues to march:  "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs." We were all suddenly inside the poem, living together the horror that Owen described.  It was 9:15 p.m. on an average Wednesday night.

I had gotten up at 6:00 a.m. to prepare for class. I had worked all day at my state job. Most of the soldiers had reported for drills at 5:00 a.m. Some of them had come from the field so late that they had not had time to put their weapons away. They lay on the floor near their desks. And yet at that moment, every eye in the room was focused hard and tight on the page. Through the power of Owen's words, brought to life by my students, we were living the poem together, caught in its deadly magic.

When we got to the end of the poem, I stumbled upon the most important surprise of the evening. Most of the soldiers in the room agreed with Owen: Horace did lie -- it is not "sweet and becoming" to die for one's country. Still, like Owen, they had taken that risk for the array of reasons that people do what they do. Some were there because their fathers and their father’s fathers had served and it was in their blood; some because they felt called to defend their country. But all of them had taken the oath to sacrifice themselves if the occasion arose. And yet as far as I could tell, nobody in the room disagreed with Owen. In fact, they had earned the right to agree with Owen in a way I never would: by taking the risk that their time of service would coincide with a war, that they too would be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.

I taught as an adjunct professor at Troy State at Fort Benning for three years. Some of my students were distracted and uninterested, just the way most college students sometimes are. But others were the smartest, most well-informed, most disciplined students I have ever taught. More important, they brought to the literature classroom an array of experiences that I had never had. For that reason, they taught me to teach literature. They also taught me about real-life choices, real-life risks, real-life consequences: the reality that stands behind works of great literature.

When it works the way it should, a beginning literature classroom is a place where teacher and student sit at the knee of the storyteller. And through the vehicle of the story, they help each other piece together the mystery of human existence. The teacher brings to the classroom a knowledge of literary form and history that the students most likely do not have. But the students will often have an array of experiences or reactions that the teacher can never guess or predict. This is particularly true in a class of nontraditional students. Again and again at the end of long, weary days, with the help of my soldier students, we summoned long-dead poets to life, brought fictional characters into flesh and blood, and pondered words that had rung in the ears of generations of men and women. And when I left the classroom, there was inside me a kind of awe. In part, it was for literature, which despite my years in school, I had never really understood before.  But another part of it was simply for the students. They gave so much of themselves to be there, and while there, they brought my classes to life.

The final gift I got from my students was the willingness to tread uncertainly into a profession that was at best a dare, given the bleak job prospects for English Ph.D.s in the 1980s. I did not take half the risk that my students did — the risk of dying in the midst of enemy fire. I did not take the risk that Wilfred Owen took. After writing some of the best war poetry we have and discovering just how much a wretched lie Horace had told, he was killed one week before World War I was over. He died on November 4, 1918, and his parents got the news of his death on November 11th as the armistice bells were tolling. But I did in those years find the courage to risk failure. I went back to school, earned a Ph. D. in English, and became a professor.

So what if there were no jobs?  So what if I finished a Ph. D. and had to go to work as a hack writer or a sales associate? It was worth the risk because of those classes and those students. And I knew then what I still know: that every day of my life, they and those like them took a much larger risk than I ever have.

I have never regretted my decision, nor have I ever forgotten the students who taught me how to make it. I will forever be in their debt.


H. William Rice is chair of English at Kennesaw State University.


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