A poem for Veterans Day

The body of the Unknown Soldier chosen by Serg...

The body of the Unknown American Soldier chosen to represent the fallen in World War I is loaded on a train in France. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is my custom, each November 11th I honor the armistice by sharing a poem by a soldier of the Great War—World War I—the war that gave birth to this minor holiday, whether feast or fast I cannot tell.  In my country, the United States, it is, generally speaking, a day for hurrahs, for camouflage and crisp salutes, for sincere appreciation of the soldier and the veteran as patriots.  This is not a bad thing, of course, but it always feels to me incomplete—I think servicemen and servicewomen more than deserving of thanks and praise for their dedication.  But today, I think, should be about more than that.  It should be a day to reflect on the lasting sorrow of war, a day in which we resolve to do our part to blot out this human stain from the future of the earth.  In other lands more touched by World War I, November 11th is such a day—in Canada, with solemnity the wreaths are laid at cenotaphs, and newscasters talk in hushed voices about the Somme and Verdun, about those who fell in hope of a homecoming that was never realized.  I am sure similar public observance carries the day in England, in France, in Germany, and all the other nations who hoped in 1918 that humanity had purged its great blood-lust in one disastrous sacrifice of a generation of young men.  That hope may be foolish or vain, but some of us carry it still.  This is text from the War Requiem written by Benjamin Britten–it is adapted from a poem by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who died at the age of 25 on November 4th, 1918.  Had he lived one more week, he would have reached the war’s end.  How many others were slaughtered, just as needlessly?  This is an adaptation of his poem, “Parable of the Old Men and the Young”:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son,—
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

How many generations will be asked to learn this lesson?  And how many brave men and women, in faithful service to their country, have we sacrificed on an altar of our own choosing?

Rest eternal grant them, O God.  Let light perpetual shine upon them.

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7 comments on “A poem for Veterans Day

  1. SilverSeason says:

    I recently heard an interpretation of the terrible story of the sacrifice of Isaac which fits well with my own feelings about the story — and about war. In this interpretation, God spoke to Isaac directly when he told him to sacrifice his son. When the boy was bound on the altar, God did not intervene directly but sent an angel, a messenger. Further, God never speaks directly to Abraham again after this event. Why? Abraham failed the test. Traditionally the test has been seen as one of Abraham’s willingness to make such a great sacrifice if God demanded it. Instead the test was whether Abraham had the strength to refuse such an immoral demand.

    The poem says it.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      An interesting take, Nancy—I’d never noticed before some of the details you raise. It’s interesting, though….do you think it’s that God never speaks to Abraham again? Or is it that Abraham refuses to talk with him again? I wonder. The tale is rich with so much symbolism—I think of Leonard Cohen’s song “The Story of Isaac”, and Søren Kirkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”. To me it’s clear that the author(s) of Genesis don’t think Abraham failed the test, and I think “the angel of the Lord” is an ambiguous figure—from other passages in the Tanakh, I think there’s a suggestion that “the angel of the Lord” is not merely “an angel” but a figure more closely identified with the divine than that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see something meaningful in the way you’re approaching it. I wonder what Wilfred really made of the tale. Thanks for the thoughts you offer!

      • SilverSeason says:

        I owe this interpretation to a local rabbi who has been leading a course on “Biblical Mythology” (his title). He is a close reader who sees various interpretations not only for every word but for combinations and comparisons within the text. He is the one who says that in Genesis God never addresses Abraham directly again.

        Since I have always detested this story, I am particularly interested in the concept of a failed test. It has seemed to me that if God asks you to sacrifice your son you should question whether this is the God to worship, no matter what wonderful results he promises you.

        The poem’s twist on the situation is chilling: doing the wrong thing that God commands and then refusing to turn back from it. Why?

        • Nerija S. says:

          I remember, back in one of my high school Theology classes, hearing another interpretation — the teacher suggested that Abram may have been acting on what he thought God wanted him to do, based on what the local culture thought was the right way to please a deity, and when God intervened, it was to assure Abram that this wasn’t what He wanted.

  2. Nerija S. says:

    I honestly did not see that ending coming… I was reading the poem, thinking its point was going to be something hopeful, something about a future where we don’t sacrifice our children to war, thinking the tone even sounded cheery (“…When lo! an angel called him out of heaven…”). And then it’s like you blink and the hazy, dreamy image breaks, and you’re looking at the real world.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I totally agree, Nerija—the “twist” at the end is I think really revealing about what the war felt like. A violation of even the most basic human agreements with each other, and a sacrifice of youth by bitter and selfish old men.

  3. […] the day’s true meaning.  You can read them, if you like: 2010 is here, and 2011 is here, and last year’s entry here.  This year, all I can add is that the birth of a daughter enhances rather than diminishes all my […]

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