Sunday Pages: "In Flanders Fields" and "Anthem for Doomed Youth"
Poems of the Great War by John McCrae and Wilfred Owen
Despite so much bad stuff happening all around, I have been feeling all week that the tide is turning, that the pendulum is swinging back in the right direction, that the dark planets have gone direct, that the MAGA spell of mass delusion has begun to wear off. Then I woke up this morning and read Heather Cox Richardson’s most recent “Letters from an American,” which begins: “We are in what feels like a moment of paradigm shift.”
The situation in Ukraine is a horror. Russia has committed atrocities and will continue to do so. But in Putin’s act of selfish, needless aggression, the battle lines have been drawn so neatly, it might as well be the end of a Marvel movie. The free world has gathered, led by Joe Biden (despite ridiculous GOP claims of his “weakness”), to thwart the invasion.
This week, I have watched as people around the globe have finally realized that the thug dictator I’ve been writing about for five and a half years—the sicko Trump cozied up to, the twerp he fluffed in Helsinki, the madman he defends to this day—is indeed a clear and present danger. I have watched as the Ukrainian people, paragons of courage, have stood up to Putin—led by their president, who has become, in wartime, an international hero and legend.
How apt that CPAC, the political conference of Trump delusionists, took place the same night that Kyiv was being shelled by Russian forces. MAGA has always operated in an alternative reality; as I wrote in a November 2019 piece about Ukraine, “the GOP have gone to Orwellian lengths to convince us that black is white, war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, Russia is Ukraine, Hunter Biden is Don Junior, and so on.” In five days, President Biden quietly undid four years of Trump damage to NATO and the Western alliances, and all the DFG can do is call Putin “smart” and Biden and NATO leaders “dumb” in front of a crowd of MAGA zombies who think Kimberly Guilfoyle is worth cheering for.
There is no more equivocation, no more enabling the Trumpist herd. You’re either with Ukraine and the free world, or you’re with Russia and the dictators. And, like, most Russians aren’t even with Russia. We outnumber them. Significantly. Republicans must choose.
Let us hope that Richardson is right, that this is the beginning of a paradigm shift. Between new variants and climate change, the fate of humankind really is at stake.
For “Sunday Pages,” I’m sharing two poems written by soldier-poets of the Great War, both of whom died in 1918. The first, by John McCrae, was composed early in the war. It became the most popular poem in the world, a distinction it held for many years; an 85-year-old colleague recalls having to memorize it in high school, and I only know about it from him.
The McCrae poem calls to mind the position of the unshakeable Ukrainians fighting the invading force:
In Flanders Fields
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 amid 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.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The plight of the Russian soldiers, meanwhile—for whom I have some sympathy, as they are basically canon fodder to Putin, who lied to them about the purpose of the war, and who could care less if they live or die—is best summed up in the work of Wilfred Owen, written later in the war that would claim his life, when all illusions had melted away:
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
In Ukraine itself, there is already a war poem. It was written by a soldier on Snake Island, who died immediately after giving it voice. In English, it is five words long, and it perfectly captures the free world’s attitude towards Putin:
Go fuck yourself.
Photo credit: LX 121. Remembrance Day at the John McCrae House (birthplace, museum, & memorial) in Guelph, Ontario Canada.
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Wow, really great, Greg. I'm shattered by what you wrote.