When Everyone Knew the Horror of Chemical Weapons


235px-Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920).jpgIn these times, it may be useful to some to go back and read the poems of Rupert Brooke, Ezra Pound, Wilfred Owen and others who captured and froze in time the horrors of chemical weapons in the world’s first great war.

Wilfred Owen died in November 1918, the last week of World War I. While the world seems to have developed a substantial degree of amnesia about gas attacks, poems such as the one that follows by Owen are a useful reminder of that time:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.

– Wilfred Owen, 1918

Part of the debate over President Obama’s effort to punish the Syrian
government for deploying chemical weapons against its own citizens is
the widespread ignorance today, in the United States and around the
world, about the difference between chemical and biological killing
methods and other more conventional weapons.

It’s worth taking a look back at that time nearly one hundred years ago.


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