The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum Est

Until the canes and coffins stop, essays on meter and imagery are banned, writes Wick Sloane.


November 10, 2009

Cane. Short haircut. Young. Here in a community college, that means “Veteran. Wounded.” I always introduce myself to see what help they need at school. Or perhaps what help I need, because I am so ashamed of what I, the people, have put these veterans through with little result or purpose.

One cane I’ll call Tony I’ve lost altogether. He wasn’t thirty years old. An improvised explosive devise, an IED, in Iraq had caused his wounds, he told me. Brain trauma, which showed in his speech and thinking. The limp was because the IED had broken his neck. In the fog of war, no one had discovered the fracture until he was in a hospital in Germany. Just the effort of walking left him sweating in the lobby. He had his veterans benefits paperwork. A colleague and I made sure he had what he needed and knew the right lines to register. I looked two days later. Tony wasn’t registered. I telephoned. He’d been mugged on the subway. I talked with his father. I offered to drive over and pick Tony up. We couldn’t get Tony back to school. He only wanted to go to community college for job training. Another cane is still in school.

For the sake of these canes, and the coffins, too, how about an assignment for us all this week? Let’s distribute at every meeting and every class we attend this week copies of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” (Click to download, or see below.) Ask two questions. Did Owen write this to train English majors? How can we prevent these scenes from ever happening again?

What is war but the petulant refusal to solve a problem by other means? Who’s accountable for a citizenry able to solve impossible problems? Colleges and universities? My teaching self keeps asking. Any gathering of one or more U.S. academic leaders is quick to proclaim that the U.S. has the finest higher education system in the world. Are we failing in classrooms if our graduates create a world of so many canes and coffins?

Fine to stop here if you’ll agree to read and assign to every student and friend in sight either Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming or Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, both by Jonathan Shay. A MacArthur Prize winner, Shay is a psychiatrist who works with combat veterans. My clumsy paraphrase of Shay’s argument: Combat is exponentially worse than anyone who hasn’t been there can imagine. We’d have to be crazy to think a society can train and send young people to kill and then expect those same young people to return to civilian life and live happily ever after.

With a trivial yet-4F childhood injury in my already charmed life, I absolved myself of any thought of war or military service when my turn came, in Vietnam. Through circumstance in recent years, I’ve met these Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in my classes and my office every day. Three friends have been at war. Two in Iraq. One in Afghanistan. I just never knew if the three would reply to the next e-mail. Those were friends. I cannot imagine what a family endures.

What little I really know of war I’ve learned over the past three years. Each semester, I’ve had at least one Iraq or Afghanistan veteran in a class or looking for help to apply to a four-year college. I wish, I wish Tony’s story were the exception. Twice I’ve been to events where the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School honor students who are veterans or in uniform. Sitting with these students, twice, I could only wonder why we, the people, were sending these thoughtful, intelligent and dedicated human beings to war. Ever. As a group, these were finer people than I’ve ever encountered in any job I’ve ever had. I can’t imagine any of them making the mistakes that are routine on Wall Street.

I’ve tried asking veterans if they feel that we, the people, truly understand our role in sending troops to war. The soldiers are not the ones to ask. They went because, in the U.S. system of government, we sent them through our representatives in Congress. Those against a war are as responsible as those in favor.

I turned instead to two friends in higher education, Jim Wright, a Marine who just retired as president of Dartmouth, and Linda Bilmes, a Kennedy School professor who is co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. Wright and James Selbe of the American Council on Education have for years been visiting military hospitals, to help wounded troops go on to college.

“We need to recognize the full costs of war when we agree to take on a war. And caring for the men and women who have served is a part of the cost,” Wright said. He was back from his 19th visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “This is our legacy and our responsibility.”

The Devil's Workshop
Highly Selective
Veterans Day Survey

Institution Current Undergraduate Veteran Enrollment
Yale 0
Princeton 0
Williams 0
Harvard 4
Dartmouth 16
Stanford 30
Bunker Hill
Community College

(c)Inside Higher Ed

Bilmes focused on where colleges and universities may have succeeded in research but failed in education, in teaching future leaders to analyze and to think through a problem. “Before the Iraq war we were told that it could cost $60 billion. The economics adviser, Lawrence Lindsay, was fired for suggesting that the cost could be as high as $200 billion,” Bilmes said. “We now know the war has already cost us $1 trillion and the long-term costs -- once you take veterans health care and disability compensation and economic costs into account -- will exceed $3 trillion. Why wasn't there any discussion of this beforehand?” As reported here in 2007, Bilmes herself suffered for trying to discuss the true costs ahead.

Back to Owen and the “blood shod,” the lame and the blind, “Drunk with fatigue” and the “the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” The traditional press may agonize over publishing images of the dead and wounded we, the people, sent to war. The Web is ahead of traditional media. In Google Images search “Iraq, wounded” to see the people Wright and Selbe champion. Wilfred Owen would recognize the scenes.

Even with the generous new (It’s about time) G.I. Bill, veterans struggle. I know the enlisted men and women, not the officers from the Kennedy School and HBS, whose readjustment is difficult enough. I wrote here about a former sniper, struggling to stay in school. He is okay for now. Barely. Enrollment in a third-tier state university by a veteran with Ivy League ability is survival, not victory.

IHE has also written about John Around Him, an Oglala Sioux who drove a tank in the Iraq war. John is beginning his second year at Dartmouth. With what I know now about enlisted veterans and the obstacles they face, a miracle is the only explanation I have for John’s success.

Another, wounded in Iraq but no cane, has vanished. He writes better than I do. Juggling school and family and work and slim finances was too much. Something always disrupted our agreement to visit the (heroic) Boston Veterans Center Friday afternoons. Part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Vet Centers, championed by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury, focus on combat veterans. (See Trudeau’s citations here.) Remember that most enlisted men and women started out in poverty and then return, carrying the trauma of war, to that same struggle. Poverty is difficult enough without PTSD.

Let’s hand out Owen’s poem this week and see what we can discover.


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
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.


Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He teaches at Bunker Hill Community College and is the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.


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