Some of the most eloquent and memorable opposition to war is expressed in poetry. World War I and the Vietnam War both produced compelling anti-war poetry, some written by soldiers who subsequently perished in combat. One haunting World War I poem, “In Flanders Field,” was composed by Joel McCrea in memory of a dear friend killed in the Second Battle of Ypres (1915). Here are its first two verses:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard among the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

“I Have a Rendezvous With Death” is another poignant World War I poem. It was written, with eerie premonition, by the American volunteer Alan Seeger three weeks before his 1916 death in the disastrous Somme offensive. Here is an extract from Seeger’s famous poem:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town
When Spring trips forth again this year
And I to my pledged word am true
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Much of the poetry coming from the Vietnam War concerns guilt about inflicting suffering and death upon innocents. An example of this is Bruce Weigl’s evocative “Song of Napalm,” a fragment of which follows:

Still I close my eyes and see the girl
Running from her village, napalm
Stuck to her dress like jelly,
Her hands reaching for the no one
Who waits in waves of heat before her.

And the girl runs only so far
As the napalm allows
Until her burning tendons and crackling
Muscles draw her up
Into that final position
Burning bodies so perfectly assume.
Nothing
Can change that;
She is burned behind my eyes.

Some of the most memorable poetry emerging from the Vietnam War came in the form of music. Many older readers will remember Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Here are two of its verses:

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young men gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young men gone?
Gone to soldiers everyone.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards everyone.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Perhaps my favorite anti-war poem is by the English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen who was killed exactly one week before the end of World War I. Owen’s poem has the Latin name “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” an expression taken from the Odes of the Roman writer Horace, which means, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” The poem describes the horrors of a gas attack and challenges this venerable dictum. The final eight lines are as follows:

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.


The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.

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