soldier crawling on hands and knees through a trench under a cloud of poisonous gas with dead soldiers in the foreground and background

Dulce et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen

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What is the central message of "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

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The central message of Owen's poem features a stinging rebuke of war.  The poem captures the innocence of soldiers who are put in harm's way without the faintest of idea that what they engage upon is the embodiment of futility and suffering.  The message of "Dulce  et Decorum Est" has value today for wars continue to be waged and young soldiers find themselves having to confront horrors that never leave them as a result.

The central message of the poem can be seen in the imagery that Owen uses to describe the soldier in World War I.  The mental picture of "old beggars under sacks" is matched with "coughing like hags" who trudge through sludge. The image of the soldier in World War I is far from the triumphant countenance that those of the propaganda machine wanted to paint.  From such illusion, this crushing reality has presented itself:

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 disappointed shells that dropped behind.

Soldiers who die without any acknowledgement "under a green sea" of nerve gas is the reality that soldiers face on the World War I battle fields.  This reality is far removed from the belief that dying for country is what young men who are patriotic must do.  It is a departure from the ministry of defense's call to young men that serving in the war represents the ultimate sense of good. Owen writes how these "dreams" have become replaced with the visions of dead men who are "guttering, choking, drowning."  The once mighty strength of the soldier has been reduced to a shell of humanity, where death is almost a welcome relief but one where pain and suffering must happen before liberation can take place.  Once the soldiers face this reality, there is nothing that can be done to alleviate their pain.  It is for this reason that the central message of the poem is revealed in the repudiation of the lie behind patriotism and sacrifices that young men are told to make without any acknowledgement of the infernal realities that await them:

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.

Owen's message is one that inverts Horace's "It is sweet and fitting to die for your country" and subverts the attempts that the World War I propaganda machine easily made to millions of young men without recognizing the challenges that existed in front of them when they registered for service.

This central message that rejects war and those in the position of power who so easily wage it has much in way of relevance to the modern setting.  This is a valuable message to humanity. It is not merely suggesting that war is awful and morally challenging.  Owen's message is that there is a deliberate attempt of those in the position of power to perpetuate myths of patriotism and nationalism that conceals the reality that soldiers face.  Owen's message speaks to the propaganda and government initiatives that further "the old lie." In a world where those in the position of power easily send others to die in battle without revealing the full extent of what will be faced, Owen's message is poignantly meaningful to the modern setting.  This message is a timeless one for as old people wage it and young people die in it, the cycle of silencing voice continues.  It is to this end that Owen wishes to illuminate a message that enhances voice and rejects the machinery that so easily advances deception at the cost of reality.

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