Dulce et decorum est

Engine room, Liberty Ship John W Brown 2012_284_4718-1024x677
Engine room of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown. Picture source: https://goo.gl/aT2YhF

I spent my last few years in the Navy working in cardiac catheterization labs, doing physiological monitoring–mostly hemodynamics and electrophysiology.  I started out on a ship, though–working in the engine room of a guided missile cruiser.  It was hot down there–the coolest that it got was under one of the giant air vents, where it was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius).

The good side of being on a naval vessel is visiting cool ports of call, seeing the sun and the moon both in the sky at sunrise after a midnight watch, eating roasted squid in Spain–stuff like that.  The bad side is the Navy’s equivalent of combat training.  At the time, that involved a few weeks in the Caribbean, doing “casualty drills” over, and over, and over again, until you could get them right over, and over, and over again.

When a ship is on the receiving end of a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack, you put on gas masks, and you shut its openings down completely while some guys put on serious protective gear, go up on the decks, and scrub down every inch of the vessel.  This takes a long time–my ship, the USS Biddle, was 547 feet (167 meters) long.

So, there you are down in the engine room.  The alarm for an NBC attack (nuclear/chemical/biological) is sounded.  You put on your gas mask and you shut off all of the ventilation–in a space where it was already 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the cool places.  Then you watch the temperature start to rise.

When you learn how to put on a gas mask, they teach you what to do if you vomit with the gas mask on.  (If you can think of a way to not end that sentence with a preposition, I’d love to hear about it.)  This is super-necessary, because one of the old dirty tricks of gas warfare is to mix in an emetic with the gas.  An emetic is something that makes you vomit–the idea is to get you vomiting in the hopes that you’ll rip your gas mask off, in which case you’re toast.  (To be toast explained in the English notes below.)  So, you know what to do if you vomit–but, there’s nothing to be done about what happens when you’re in a super-hot space with a gas mask on, which is that the parts around your eyes fill up with sweat to the point that you can’t see anymore.  We’d sit there, our eye ports filling up with sweat, and watch the thermometer go up, and up, and up.

The temperature in an unventilated engine room goes up fast.  Around 120-130 degrees, the air is so hot that it’s painful to breathe, and when I say painful, I mean really painful.  It’s very quickly so hot that they call it a day for the engineering spaces and let you take off your gas mask and open the ventilation again.  Now, as I said, it takes a long time to scrub down a ship–but, it was clear to everyone that there was no way that we were going to be able to survive that long with the ventilation shut down.  So much for What To Do In Case Of NBC Attack.

Today’s bow to National Poetry Month is about a gas attack.  It’s by Wilfred Owen, an Englishman who fought in the Great War.  You tend to think of poets as wispy, ethereal types who you wouldn’t want backing you up in a tight spot; Wilfred Owen is a pretty good counter-example to this widely-held prejudice.  He was one of the great poets of the First World War–the poem that you’ll find below was the first one I ever memorized that didn’t involve words that I don’t really dare to put on this blog.  He was also a gay man who wrote what appears to be a poem about anonymous sex–and a decorated military hero who volunteered to go to the front repeatedly, even after being wounded twice in artillery shellings.  He was awarded the Military Cross–here’s the text of the commendation:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.  (Copied from Wikipedia.)

Before the war, he spent several years teaching French and English in France.  He died there just days before the Armistice–in action.


by Wilfred Owen

blood-shod is an amazing neologism.  “To be shod” means something like “to have footgear (e.g. shoes, boots, and the like).”  Examples below in the English notes.

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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.

“…the white eyes writhing in his face…” Victim of gas attack by the Syrian government. Picture source: https://goo.gl/6nHTK6

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,
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.

You can find readings of this very famous poem here.

English notes

Examples of shod:

  • All horses’ hooves are healthier without shoes, and barefoot horses are healthier than shod horses.  (Source)
  • The foot evolved to function unshod. (Source)
  • Paul says in verse 15 that we are to have our feet “shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” (Source)

to be toast: to be in a bad situation, to be in trouble.



6 thoughts on “Dulce et decorum est”

  1. I don’t read a lot of poetry; perhaps I have a blind spot, but the meaning often eludes me. This is different, however, a sort of colourful and terrifying word picture that even this literal reader can’t miss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Meaning” may or may not be relevant–“the death of the author,” and all that. From my perspective, a poem either speaks to you, or it doesn’t–it’s not like that’s a moral judgement, either about you (me), or the poem.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The horrors of war are something one cannot even begin to truly imagine., despite the troves of art, literature and movies humankind thrives on. I close my eyes when it gets gory, yet in poetry form it becomes somehow surreal, though it does kill one’s soul. Your description of your Navy service impressed me. Vietnam?

    Liked by 1 person

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