Dying for one’s country – is it ‘sweet and proper’?

Patriotic citizens of the past had no doubt that it was indeed very sweet to “die for one’s country”. There are many acres of soldiers’ graves in the north of France and in Flanders, also in Germany and many other countries, in fact, all over the world, on all continents, going back to World War One (1914-18).

guest column: Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

We are familiar with our National Heroes’ Acre and other shrines in the provinces and districts. Are we convinced that it is indeed “sweet” to die in a war?

Our war was relatively insignificant by world standards and the number of fatalities by comparison low. But can we say that 40 000 war victims is very few, indeed negligible? Numbers and statistics, if you consider the individuals, are by no means “just a few”, and so do not count, therefore, we can just forget them.

Whether there are huge crowds in uniform or only a small company, what counts is that the fallen soldiers were loved and embraced with tenderness by family and friends.
Fathers, husbands, brothers, colleagues and leaders in many acts of devastation, they are all terribly missed, and wives and daughters cry for them.

Our forebears, well-educated in ancient Latin poetry, will remember the famous line of the Roman poet Horatio,– “It is sweet and honourable to die for the fatherland.” Or in somewhat more contemporary language “It is sweet and proper (or right) to die for our country”. The war poet Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) contemplated the poem from many angles (eg Anthem for doomed Youth – poem from World War I, The old lie; Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori). His short verse can be used to justify what the leaders of nations do, that is give consolation to war widows and orphans.

Grey-haired army generals sitting in comfortable easy chairs give commands to young soldiers to put on uniforms, polish their guns and fight on battlefields, old and new, in defence of the “fatherland”. Psychologically, they have to accept the “old lie − it is sweet to die for your country”. Warriors/soldiers steeped in old traditions and ancient mores of violence and warfare will be scandalised by the “old lie” denouncing war as an evil or singing the praises of this evil, that is dying on a battlefield. Army leaders sit in luxury restaurants and read the columns of death notices. They survive, but their sons or grandsons, nephews and the sons of their neighbours and friends perish in hand to hand fighting in the battle zones, where young and inexperienced soldiers are sacrificed “for the fatherland”.

Horatio’s Latin verse is being quoted by those old men who remember their days in the war, Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori/It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”. It is easy to celebrate these heroes who have died for their fatherland , country, people and family, if you yourself are still alive, and others did the dying for you.
The Christian community honours martyrs and saints who have died for the church and their beloved Lord. We honour them as martyrs and as witnesses to the deep love of the Lord for us.
But most military men offer themselves because of hatred of the enemy. Many others serve in the army because they do so under pressure and giving way to threats, responding to hate speech and insults. War and violence are no means by which to restore peace and happiness.
The new American President demanded that his super-power country should produce many more weapons to defeat its countless enemies. But buying more arms, guns, and better and more sophisticated jetfighters does not put an end to war. In fact more guns feed greater conflicts, and make people’s hearts more bitter and fill them more deeply with the poison of fear and terror.

The famous line Dulce et Decorum est, popular with military romantics, is called by Wilfred Owen − he did not survive the World War One in which he fought − “the old lie”.

All this now raises the fantastic question, “Why do humans go to war at all? What is the origin of war? What causes war in the first place?”

Some war historians come to the conclusion that the battles and conflicts they describe were not necessary at all. There is always the alternative of dialogue and negotiations at a “round table. The ‘War of Liberation’ only broke out when all political attempts at solving the immense crisis were resolved.


I had a friend whose father had been in the army fighting the Russians in the Soviet union. Hundreds of thousands were either taken prisoners or badly injured, if not actually maimed to die of their wounds. But my friend‘s father had been very lucky, he suffered no permanent harm. Surprising to me, he came back from the war in Russia’s endless steppes full of enthusiasm for war, weapons and the military.

Karen Armstrong tries to answer the question why there is war, “War is an enticing elixir …it gives us a cause, it allows us to be noble. ……. men are driven to the battle fields by the …. tedium and pointlessness of ordinary domestic existence ….there is a taboo on killing our own kind…Still, we fight.” (Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood, Religion and the History of Violence, p8).

Armstrong says that there are mysteries to be resolved. “We find it astonishing that we are here at all and want to know why.” War and violence , why do we engage in them? “ We seek meaning in life. Our usual humdrum existence does not provide it. My friend’s father was a bookkeeper in a huge industrial complex. Those who are slaves of industry see nothing heroic in their daily labour. But war does, at least initially, ask for heroism before the glory and fame wear off.

Liberation of one’s country is another strong motive. Material gain may also attract others. Much of this is due to a very creative fantasy. There was a US soldier who had been in Vietnam. Among his comrades there “were conscientious objectors”. They refused to fight in what many regarded as a senseless war and went to prison for it.

At a press conference an ex-soldier showed the audience two severed heads of “enemies” which he held by the hair. Which demonstrates that warfare can dehumanise fighting men. They act as if carried away by an adrenalin high. So veterans miss the fighting, the excitement, the cause that makes them join the battlefield.

As to the enemy, we no longer recognise him as human, but as “monstrous” (Armstrong, Fields of Blood, p8). Ex-soldiers often fail to rejoin civil society , unable to adapt again to old , obsolete value systems. The New Testament rejects warfare and violence because it teaches peace and “love of the enemy” (Mt 5: 44). The early Christians refused to have anything to do with military service. Later an established Church accepted the “just (or justifiable) war” theory. A war of self-defence of a family or community became acceptable. War was gradually tolerated and became “normal”.

But peace activists question this pro-war stance. In view of the constant bloodbaths caused by terrorists, drug smugglers, human traffickers, and the ever increasing availability of guns in our world we should bar our youth and the criminal classes from access to these lethal instruments of death.

“Sweet and proper…” —- “The old lie” – There is a great contradiction. There is great sweetness in the old lie — false promises: you will have a popular role as a great hero very soon!

There are far too many excuses for having weapons and using them. There are violent habits in all of us and we all have to uproot them. My old World War II enthusiast was just too easily misled by “sweetness”. He could not see the barbarism and cruelty. We must walk with our children on straight paths. Dying for spouse, family, country must come, not from compulsion or force, but from self-giving love and a heart that acts in freedom. Who is blessed with such a Spirit?

 Fr Oskar Wermter SJ writes in his personal capacity

1 Comment

  1. Roman poet Horatio,- “It is sweet and honourable to die for the fatherland.”

    When nation has been asked to honour those who risk life and limb for freedom, liberty, justice, human rights, one-person one-vote, etc. and has done so. It is most disheartening to then find that yesteryear’s liberators have become today’s oppressors deny the ordinary man, woman and child their freedom, liberty, etc., etc.

    Zimbabwe has just gone through an election process and no one can ever claim the election was free, fair and credible. How can that be possible when the authorities failed to produce something as basic as a verified voters’ roll. The ruling elite claimed victory but cannot say who exactly voted for them!

    The nation endured so many hardship and so many lives were lost during the war of independence it is really depressing that by right another war should have started after independence because the overwhelming majority of our people never even tasted any of the things independence promised! Dying for common cause is one thing; dying for a tyrant and his cronies is a different proposition, it is a curse for which there can never be RIP!

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