War is Hell.
Sure, that's a cliché courtesy of William Tecumseh Sherman, but it's also a reality that a lot of soldiers throughout history have lived through. And it's a reality that a lot of the general public is sheltered from. Back home, there's usually a whole bunch of pomp and circumstance in wartime. There are funerals and prayers, parades and flag waving. There's a lot of talk about patriotism and glory. But, it's often completely detached from what's actually going on where the fighting is. And where the fighting is, things are a lot less glamorous.
Wilfred Owen, the poet behind "Anthem for Doomed Youth," was a young British officer in World War I. He entered the Great War full of enthusiasm and patriotic fervor, ready to fight and die for his country. But over time, after grueling months in the trenches, and through his encounter with Siegfried Sassoon (an older soldier and poet who was pretty cynical about the war) Owen came to realize that the realities of battle were far different from what he'd been led to believe. As in, they were much worse. Fortunately for us, this revolution in his thinking was also matched by big improvements in his writing.
With some help from Sassoon, Owen was soon writing brilliant, biting poems, including "Anthem for Doomed Youth," which was published posthumously in 1920. In Britain (and in much of the world), talk of the war was steeped in a jingoism that hid the realities of what was going on. (By the way, jingoism refers to the following attitude: "Our country is the greatest ever! Our enemies are vile and worthless! Let's go smash 'em good! Dying for your country is holy and glorious! Hurrah!") But "Anthem for Doomed Youth," along with Owen's other poems, brings the reader right into the normally hidden senselessness of this fighting, and the brutality, too. And the poems hold that horror-filled image up next to the more patriotic versions of war we get at home, so the reader could see how different, and how terrible, war truly is.
Owen died just days before the end of WWI, but in the fourteen months leading up to his death he produced a body of work that has come to be recognized as some of the best war poetry ever written. Of course, when we label Wilfred Owen a war poet, we shouldn't think of that as somehow diminishing the importance of his work ("Oh, he's just a war poet"). After all, the entire world he lived in was a world at war.
National security. Freedom. Democracy. These days, every fighting man and woman has his or her own reasons for joining the military, each of them as valid as the next. But it's hard for us folks at home to get a handle on how those ideals translate to the huge sacrifices they make or the horrors they endure once they find themselves in hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Back in the states, we still have our daily lives to contend with, and with all kinds of news stories competing for attention, it's easy for the terrible daily grind of battle to get lost in the shuffle. Research shows that our modern wars don't quite hold the nation's attention the way they used to.
Of course back in Wilfred Owen's day, war was much more all consuming. World War I required all kinds of sacrifices on the part of the general public, and battles were often fought in villages and on farms where everyday folks were just trying to get by. But even still, it's hard for the people not directly affected by battle zones and bombardments to understand just how difficult, how terrible, combat can be.
That's what Owen seeks to highlight in "Anthem for Doomed Youth." That no matter how much we memorialize, tribute, or honor the fallen, we can't ever really know what it was like for them in those horrible moments before death. "Anthem for Doomed Youth" strives to make it impossible for us to ignore those realities, and to realize that in the face of all that horror, our anthems might ring hollow, no matter how much we seek meaning in them.