bent double, like old beggars under sacks
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge
till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
and towards our distant rest began to trudge
–Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est
“How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country”– so Owen’s poem is titled. And in the next few stanzas he proceeds to rip the conceit apart. There is nothing sweet or honourable about dying. I first encountered this poem when I was thirteen, and I have never forgotten the imagery or his words. The poem came to me unbidden when I first picked up a copy of Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s Kamikaze Diaries. The tokkotai or special attack forces, ‘kamikaze pilots’ in Western terminology, were no less human or vulnerable than any other teenaged boy. It shook me when I first read her book, filled with the last words of these boys, and it still sends a shiver through me now.
What resides in the hearts of those who send young men to their death, and in their death mythologises them as dying for their country?