Dispute over bleak message in new war poem

Dulce et Decorum Est: Around six million British soldiers fought in the First World War. Of these, 700,000 died.

Do we learn anything from history? As Remembrance Day approaches, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s new poem about the First World War suggests we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

On November 11, as politicians lay wreaths at the Cenotaph to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, thousands of Britons will gather at beaches across the country.

Into the sand, they will draw huge portraits of soldiers who died in the war. As the tide comes in, the waves will wash away their faces.

Director Danny Boyle, who is leading the Pages of the Sea project, asked the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, to write a poem for the occasion.

He thinks poetry should play a central role in the ceremony because during the war, poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon “reported, in the way that television does now, on experiences that were unimaginable to the people at home.”

Her sonnet describes the First World War as a “wound in time” that has not healed. It was “not the war to end all wars”, as many at the time had thought, but “death’s birthing place”.

“What happened next?” she asks. “War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.”

Indeed, images of war are ever-present on the news. A famine caused by the civil war in Yemen has killed 50,000 and left 16 million on the brink of starvation. More than 340,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.

But Journalist Charles Moore does not approve of Duffy’s message.

While “there is always war somewhere,” he writes, “the idea that ‘we learn nothing’ from what happened… is simply not true.”

Moore argues that institutions that emerged from both world wars — namely the UN Security Council and NATO — make “an enormous difference when disputes escalate” between countries.

Even the existence of nuclear weapons, humanity’s most destructive invention, has helped to ensure war will not again erupt on a global scale.

“Much more than with any other period in our history, we do remember,” he concludes.

Next week, Duffy’s words will echo around Britain’s coastline as the nation unites to mark 100 years since the guns fell silent. But for all of our remembering, do we learn anything from history?

Lest we forget

Of course, say some. The world wars have scarred our collective memory and we have put numerous international measures in place to ensure a comparable war never happens again. It is meaningless to say that “war” carries on without considering the context. There will always be exceptions, but the trend is towards less war. We are learning.

Don’t be so sure, respond others. The world feels more dangerous and unstable than it has in a long time. It’s not just elsewhere: the UK continues to sell weapons that are used by Saudi Arabia to inflict catastrophic misery on Yemeni civilians. We pay lip service to remembrance, but we have not learnt its lessons on tackling suffering.

You Decide

  1. Do we learn from history?
  2. Does the act of remembering itself do any good?

Activities

  1. Write your own poem to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. Read poems by famous war poets as inspiration. Try to include your own research about the war.
  2. Read our briefing on how the war ended in Become An Expert, and supplement your knowledge with your own research. Write a page explaining how and why the war ended.

Some People Say...

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Mark Twain

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has written a sonnet called “The Wound in Time” to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. It was written as part of director Danny Boyle’s Pages of the Sea project, which will see faces of soldiers drawn onto beaches across Britain. People will gather to say a final goodbye to them as the tide washes the images away.
What do we not know?
Whether we truly learn from history. Philosopher George Santanyana famously said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While war has been a constant in human history, the number of people killed in war has declined sharply since the end of the Second World War. However, numbers have been creeping up in recent years due to the sprawling conflict in Syria.

Word Watch

Cenotaph
A war memorial in Whitehall, London, where Remembrance Sunday ceremonies take place. Each year, the prime minister and other major politicians, along with members of the royal family, lay wreaths of poppies there.
Centenary
The 100th anniversary.
Poet laureate
A poet laureate is a poet officially appointed by a government who typically composes poems for special events and occasions. Carol Ann Duffy has been poet laureate since 2009.
Sonnet
A 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter, which means it contains five metric feet, or iambs, — five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables. William Shakespeare and the Italian poet Petrarch are among the foremost writers of sonnets.
Global scale
Charles Moore writes that “the threat of utter destruction all but abolishes the idea that any one country can win a big war”. This principle is known as “mutually assured destruction”.

Subjects

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