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President Obama just went to Flanders Field in Belgium to pay homage to those who lost their lives in World War I.
But rather than use the occasion to point out the idiotic hideousness of that war, he whitewashed it, praising “the profound sacrifice they made so that we might stand here today.”
He saluted their “willingness to fight, and die, for the freedom that we enjoy as their heirs.”
But this was not a war for freedom. It was a triumph of nationalism, pitting one nation’s vanity against another. It was a war between empires for the spoils.
Historian Allen Ruff, who is studying the causes and effects of World War I, was not impressed with Obama’s speech. “With Both NATO and the European Union headquartered in Brussels,” Ruff says, “it would have been a true homage to the dead buried in Belgium a hundred years ago if Obama spoke out against all major power imperial ambition, the true cause of so much slaughter then and since, rather than mouthing some trite euphemisms about the honor of dying for ‘freedom.’ ”
But Obama insisted on repeating the very propaganda that fed that war. Without irony, he quoted the poem from John McRae that was used to encourage soldiers to sign up and civilians to pay for war bonds. Here’s the verse that Obama cited:
“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.”
Obama chose not to quote the great World War I poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed just days before the end of that most senseless slaughter. The title of his famous poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est” refers to the line that soldiers said on their way to the war, meaning, “How sweet and right it is to die for your country.”
Here is the second half of that poem, where Owen describes a soldier next to him dying from an attack of poison gas.
“In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
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,
Obscene as cancer, 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.
Yet there was delivering that “old lie” with “high zest,” and the obscenity of it should not escape us, even 100 years on.
For the soldiers Obama praised did not die for “freedom,” but for something much more base.
They died for the same reason U.S. soldiers died in the Iraq War. As Howard Zinn noted, ten years ago, “They died for the greed of the oil cartels, for the expansion of the American empire, for the political ambitions of the President. They died to cover up the theft of the nation’s wealth to pay for the machines of death.”
I only hope to live long enough to hear a U.S. President speak honestly about war. This one sure won’t.
Matthew Rothschild is senior editor of The Progressive magazine.