WE are approaching 11 November… in the UK it is known as Armistice or Remembrance Day.
Throughout the country people buy imitation red paper poppies to remember the soldiers from our side who have died in the many wars and armed conflicts since 1914.
For the millions of wearers of these poppies it is a good and noble cause to remember “those who died to protect our freedom”.
While I too mourn the loss of these soldiers’ lives, I also mourn the loss of the lives of soldiers from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Iraq, Argentina, North and South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Russia and many other countries.
And I mourn the 142 million innocent men, women and children killed in these wars.
I stand by the line from Wilfred Owen’s famous World War 1 poem: To children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.
To translate the Latin, the old lie is: It is sweet and right to die for your country.
I could have been drawn into a long discursive piece about the evil nature of any war and why I am a pacifist and wear a white poppy.
Instead I draw my poem Red or White together with my piece about Bob Dylan, by publishing, with permission, the words to Dylan’s song John Brown. Dylan was just 22 years old when he wrote this, which speaks volumes about his talent and his insight:
John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore
His mama sure was proud of him!
He stood straight and tall in his uniform and all
His mama’s face broke out all in a grin
“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
You make me proud to know you hold a gun
Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get
And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”
As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout
Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighborhood:
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know”
She made well sure her neighbors understood
She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile
As she showed them to the people from next door
And she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun
And these things you called a good old-fashioned war
Oh! Good old-fashioned war!
Then the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come
They ceased to come for about ten months or more
Then a letter finally came saying, “Go down and meet the train
Your son’s a-coming home from the war”
She smiled and went right down, she looked everywhere around
But she could not see her soldier son in sight
But as all the people passed, she saw her son at last
When she did she could hardly believe her eyes
Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
And he wore a metal brace around his waist
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know
While she couldn’t even recognize his face!
Oh! Lord! Not even recognize his face
“Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done
How is it you come to be this way?”
He tried his best to talk but his mouth could hardly move
And the mother had to turn her face away
“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war
You thought it was the best thing I could do?
I was on the battleground, you were home… acting proud
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”
“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”
Oh! Lord! Just like mine!
“And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink
That I was just a puppet in a play
And through the roar and smoke, this string is finally broke
And a cannonball blew my eyes away”
As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock
At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close
And he dropped his medals down into her hand.