Skip to content

They shall not grow old

by davesandel on March 11th, 2019

They shall not grow old

Monday, March 11, 2019

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me.

– From Matthew 25

In a faceoff with Jesus, who among us would be so foolish as to cast the first stone? What business could I possibly have in killing another? But if I were hauled before the Roman tribune, could he say about me, “I find no fault in him?”

Saturday night at the Art Theater, hunkered down cozy in my seat, I was quickly surrounded by World War I, and I surrendered to it. The narrators of They Shall Not Grow Old DID, after all, grow old, but most of their friends in uniform did not. These survivors, more than a hundred of them, had much to say about their war.

Their outdoor, bed-less brotherhood was built on contrasts of boredom and terror, singing and silence, sunshine and drenching rain, bright spring flowers and thick, sucking mud. A million of them died, facing death together as if they knew anything about it. The war wore on far longer than either side expected, and soldiers discovered their commonality and shared mutual respect. Captured, they were mostly given food and drink, clothing and compassion. Jesus was everywhere then, in those trenches.

They left Britain to cheers of crowds but returned to unintended misunderstanding. How could anyone know what they’d been through together? There are poems, there are songs.

Some men could shrug off the constant threat of death and sing, laughing:

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parley vous?

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parley vous?

She got the palm and the croix de guerre,

For washin’ soldiers’ underwear,

Hinky-dinky, parlez vous?

Others could not. Richard Burton’s reading of the poetry of Wilfred Owen settled on my soul forty years ago; it sits there still. A bit of Lt. Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth:”

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns …

No mockeries now for them; no prayers, no bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

Wilfred Owen was wounded in 1917 and spent time in an Edinburgh hospital. As he recovered, he might have remembered the words of Jesus to Peter he had known from childhood:  “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

The poet-soldier returned to the Western Front after fourteen months. He took part in heavy fighting and was awarded the Military Cross. He wrote to his mother, “I came out again in order to help these boys; directly, by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.”

Helping his men get across the Sambre Canal in northern France, Lt. Owen was killed, exactly one week before the November 1918 armistice. His poetry survived. He wrote of misplaced glory:

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 …

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon …

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

Were my grandfathers in this “war to end all wars?” I don’t think so; as farmers they were needed at home. My father was born in 1922, just in time for WW II; he enlisted in 1943 and went to fight in the Philippines. He returned home to an adoring, grateful America.

My friends and classmates, some of them, fought in our generation’s war: Vietnam. Some of them were killed, and some of them came home to the same misunderstanding that met the veterans of World War I. Napalm and jungle ambushes replaced the horror of trenches and mud. How could any of us, safe at home, possibly understand? For so many of these soldiers, night sweats and terrors really never end.

Of course we are never called to repay evil with evil. Still, Jesus’ non-violence and compassion toward the stranger get lost so quickly when we feel threatened. Our evil is never as bad as the other guy’s.

But every day, in my own life, I have another chance to turn that around. Jesus’ words alternately haunt me and inspire me. “I was hungry, and you gave me food.”

Jesus, you wrote something in the sand that day when the woman was thrown in front of you. What were you writing, as her accusers became more and more uncomfortable with your silence? Let me too, be quiet, before my words betray me. Help me see my own sin more clearly than that of others. Please, Lord, let me see your eyes in the faces of my enemy and fall on my own face, loved and loving.

*           *           *

The Latin phrase “Dulce et decorum est” was written by Horace and means, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

The story of Jesus and the accused woman is found in John 8.

Poems are from Complete Poems of Wilfred Owen, 1920

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: