This year marks the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I. More than sixteen million people, soldiers and civilians, died during the four year conflict that engulfed the globe. In all, the war resulted in almost 40 million military casualties: dead, wounded, and missing. Despite also being called the War to End All Wars, it did nothing of the kind, for out of the embers of the Great War roared the conflagration of World War II, the most devastating conflict in history.
This issue of Voices de la Luna explores the themes of war and violence on the one hand, and peace and reconciliation on the other. Our featured poet, Mobi Warren, shares poems inspired by current and recent conflicts, and our featured interviewee, Robert Flynn, reflects on how his experiences with wars in Korea and Vietnam influenced his thought and writing. Many individual contributions, both prose and poetry, also deal with themes of war and peace. Poets from the era of World War I, several of them soldiers in the conflict, share their poems on the pages that follow, and selected poets from other eras also weigh in on one of the most profound issues of our time, or any time.
The topic of war and peace has drawn the attention of many of the greatest minds in history, from the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, to Sun-tzu’s The Art of War, to Augustine’s musings on the notion of a just war (there is no such thing, IMHO), to the visionary writings and lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dag Hammarskjöld. Many of the world’s greatest religious texts also deal with the topic, often in surprising and ambiguous ways. One prophet in the Hebrew Bible instructs his listeners to beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, while another prophet urges just the opposite. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna instructs Arjuna, “Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle; show good will to all,” yet the entire story is set on a battlefield. The Quran contains both “sword verses” sanctioning armed conflict and “peace verses” advocating peaceful coexistence. Even the New Testament, which portrays Jesus as the Prince of Peace, ends with the image of war led by none other than Jesus himself.
Finally, war and peace have been the subjects of artistic and literary works from the earliest times to the present. The ancient Assyrians captured the Siege of Lachish in a large bas relief wall carving. Picasso modeled perhaps his most famous work, Guernica, after a battle in the Spanish Civil War. Authors like Tolstoy and Hemingway wrote extensively on the subject. And filmmaker Stanley Kubrick treated the subject in numerous films such as Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, and, most notably for the subject of the anniversary of World War I, Paths of Glory, whose title derives from this haunting verse from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
May the world never again be engulfed in war. Dona nobis pacem!
We must love one another or die. - W.H. Auden
a cloth bundle bobs over the spot where the refugee boat sank camphor leaks into the black water and carefully folded clothes faint like loosened limbs
cicadas clinging to shards of persimmon bark rattle a dirge a mass grave is found twelve and thirteen-year-old students executed one afternoon investigators find school notebooks scattered nearby neatly jotted notes from algebra class
no flowers left the old woman plants quilting needles on the bewildered graves of children the war severs all sense of direction yet overhead, as they have for centuries wild geese trace true north
In the late afternoon shadows, after I had swilled a couple of Shiner Bocks in the outdoor part of Harry’s Tinaja, he sat across from me at a table darkened with the thick, waxen residue of years of spilled beers. He swilled a Carta Blanca. His palm straw hat was even darker than the table, blackened with decades of sweat, his boots so worn I couldn’t figure how they stayed on his feet. When I spoke he nodded, slightly smiled, but never said a word. I thought he was mute. We alternated buying rounds of beer, mine Shiner Bock, his Carta Blanca. It was obvious he worked livestock, reeking as he did of the sweat and slobber of horses. His spurs, dark with tarnish, jangled as he made his way to the men’s room and soon returned for another beer. He walked with a hobbling gait, as if stepping down from a curb. As night fell, when my turn came to buy a round, he rose, leaned toward me, and rasped, “You know, Señor. We were the first cowboys.” Then left.
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.