I have always been fascinated by war. I have read a great deal about it, and written a good deal about it. I view it not as an isolated phenomenon, a subject for scholarly study, but, rather, as an integral part of history, and as a revealer of human nature and the human spirit. For I have long believed that violence is a spiritual disease, and so these massive acts of violence have much to teach us, for better or worse, about the soul of man.
I have been particularly drawn to World War I, both for its unutterable vapidity and the scale of its human waste, but also because of what its horrors taught about man’s capacity for endurance, courage, sacrifice, and even poetry. World War I produced some extraordinary poetry, and lately I have been listening to a recording of “Poets of the Great War,” a truly beautiful and wonderful compendium of the best poetry that came out of that uniquely European cataclysm. And some of it is great indeed. My deepened appreciation for Wilfred Owen who was, I think, one of the finest poets of the twentieth century – indeed of any century – and my discovery of Richard Aldington, Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden, and a rediscovery of Siegfried Sassoon, have been a great gift of the experience.
One cannot listen to an anthology of such poetry without feeling that one has, in some sense, penetrated to the heart of the experience of war. From the poets' portrayal of the soldiers’ minds and souls, of their sufferings, sacrifices, and even of their shortcomings, one derives a portrait of humanity at the very edge of existence (Owen wrote in “Spring Offensive" that the soldiers knew “their feet had come to the end of the world"), seen in the lurid light of flares and artillery barrages and gas attacks and machine gun bursts. You cannot but take such insight to heart; you cannot help but be changed by it. By the time I reached the final poem, Laurence Binyon’s famous elegy, “For the Fallen,” accompanied as it was by the stately and powerful variation from Elgar’s “Enigma,” I was moved to tears.
But I was moved also to reflection. For you cannot, I think, look into other men’s hearts and souls (as poetry always compels you to do) without peering into your own. And what I saw, reflected in the shifting glow of that beautiful and melancholy, and at times terrifying verse, was my own experience of war.
When I was in college, our political leaders, in their monstrous wisdom, offered me the chance of war. In that case, it was the War in Vietnam. At eighteen I dutifully lined up with other youths of my era and registered for the draft. (I will never forget the young woman who took my information – a rather pretty, full-skirted girl name Julie Gueri, who, though I saw her only for minutes and never saw her again, proved to be one of the most important women in my life.) And then, as the prospect of war drew close, I did what I have always done, and which I continue to do: research. What I learned about the history of the West’s involvement in Southeast Asia, and in particular what the French and now my own nation had done there, troubled me to my soul. I came to the conclusion, as did millions of others, that the war was both illegal and immoral, and that I could have nothing to do with it, except to protest.
Meanwhile, friends from high school who were not astute enough in the ways of academia to gain the safety of college, were being swallowed up by the war. I followed the growing lists of the killed with morbid regularity, and I noted in my yearbook the name of each of my comrades who died. “Killed in Vietnam,” I wrote beneath their pictures, “July, 1969” or “December, 1970”, or “April, 1971.” And as the war wore on and the casualty lists lengthened, and my yearbook became littered with notes of their deaths, my doubts about our involvement turned to hatred, and my hatred, to a determination to do something to stop it. And so I became active in the anti-war movement, which was growing almost as fast as the war itself. I protested, organized sit-ins, marched on Washington several times, but was careful never to break the law, for I understood that breaking the law to oppose evil, while sometimes necessary, was simply not in my nature. My feeling was that law – sane, humane, democratic law – was, in an important sense, what we in the movement were hoping to preserve; that we were not just fighting against something horribly wasteful, but fighting for something vitally necessary.
However, war allows no reprieve for the young; it devours them as hungrily as a hurricane devours the trees. When, at last, I was drafted, a line was drawn – not by me, but by the government. It was my moment of decision – I was being forced to break the law – and though I agonized over it, my decision was never in doubt: I refused. (The rest of that story is not important now, though I will add that I did not, thank God, have to go to prison, though I suppose I was prepared to. Instead, I was ordered to teach mentally disturbed children for two years.) What matters now, and mattered to me then, was that I had hoped to live my life without committing any great evil, without murdering anyone, without ransoming my soul for some diktat or some benefit of power. And so I refused to participate in what I saw as the greatest corruption of power – an illegal and immoral war.
That I had to do so was as clear to me as the fact that I was born and had to live and must be a part of humanity. It was, I believed then and still believe, a question of saving my soul. For I felt with all the depth of my being that the life of my spirit was at risk, and that, if I made the wrong decision, I would lose my eternal identity forever. And so I refused the war for the sake of my immortal soul. It was with me as it had been with Hamlet when he said, “My fate cries out!” My soul was telling me that I had no choice but to say no.
But now, forty years later, listening to these poems which dramatize the sufferings and sacrifices of an entire generation of boys, and feeling the power of that poetry in my soul, I have wondered for the first time in those four decades whether I made the right decision. At the time, I saw it as my duty to try to save my school friends’ lives by stopping the war; now I wonder if my duty was not to have joined them in that war, and to have taken upon myself their sufferings and sacrifices.
Camus famously said that war teaches us to be losers; I think now that he was wrong. War teaches, or can teach us, what it means to be human, in all its strengths and weaknesses. I was offered the chance to learn those truths about myself, and I turned it down. I was offered my own war, and I refused it. What it may have taught me once and forever about myself I will never know. And I will never know exactly how my high school classmates, who did not refuse, lived and suffered and died. I will never know their sacrifices and their terrors and the comradeship that only war can engender. I will never know who they truly were.
In “For the Fallen,” Laurence Binyon writes: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old/Age cannot weary them, nor the years condemn/At the going down of the sun and in the morning/We will remember them.” And in a closing tribute to their immortality in death, Binyon compares them to the stars, saying: “As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust/Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain/As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness/To the end, to the end, they remain.”
I was one of those who were left, and now I am growing old. Age has most certainly wearied me, and the condemnation of the years is fast approaching. But I do remember those of my young friends who went to Southeast Asia in the Sixties and Seventies and did not return, and whose names I always touch when I visit the Wall in Washington. I remember them, if not every day, at least every time I look at my yearbook, or chat with a graying school chum on the phone. And in listening to these poems I cannot help but wonder whether it was not I who was lost in that terrible tempest of violence which swept through our young lives; and if it is not they, more so than I, who remain.