In Honor of National Poetry Month: War Poems

By Charlton “Chuck” Stanley

I first became interested in war poems when I discovered the work of Wilfred Owen. He was killed exactly one week before the Armistice was signed in November 1918. That first poem of his I read was Anthem for a Doomed Youth.

Some of the best poetry to come out of war was from World War I, although great poetry has come from almost all wars. Poets who were there do not romanticize it. Like all poets, Wilfred Owen, Seigfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke spoke the truth. The unvarnished hard truth, because they had been there and seen war.  It is no accident that almost all “war poems” are anti-war.

Many literature and military experts alike regard Wilfred Owen as the best of the WW-I poets, although this is an arguable distinction.

More over the flip.

Anthem for a Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

One of the greatest single poems to come out of WW-I was penned by Lt. Col. John McRae, MD. He wrote In Flanders Fields. The video presentation below conveys far more than anything I can write.

What war poem or song speaks to you?

About Chuck Stanley

Dr. Charlton (Chuck) Stanley is a board certified forensic psychologist, with interests in aviation psychology, peace officer selection and training, ethics and communication skills.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, War, World History, World War I and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to In Honor of National Poetry Month: War Poems

  1. Joy of Fishes says:

    Chuck, this epitaph speaks to me:

    When you go home, tell them of us and say
    For their tomorrow, we gave our today.

    ~ John Maxwell Edmonds

  2. Julie says:

    All of the WWI poets were superb. My favorite WWII poem is “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee.

  3. John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was only 19 when he was killed in an accident while flying a Spitfire. For you, Julie. The narration is by the elderly Spitfire pilot shown at the beginning of the video. The old man flew west himself on 13 August 2012.

  4. Elaine M. says:


    Here’s one of my favorite videos from The Favorite Poem Project–Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen:

  5. Elaine,
    Thanks. I started to post the text of Owen’s “other best poem,” but hoped someone else would. That is a good one. One that comes from the Vietnam war was written by Col. Dick Jonas, a fighter pilot and singer/songwriter. His song, Will There Be a Tomorrow is evocative of the poignant poems and songs of WW-I

  6. Elaine M. says:


    Here’s another poem from the Favorite Poem Project. It’s about visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The poem is “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa.

  7. Julie says:

    Thank you, Dr. Stanley. That was heartbreakingly lovely. When Neil Armstrong died, someone quoted that poem in his memory. He certainly “slipped the surly bonds of earth” in his career.

  8. Dead Metaphors

    We serve as a symbol to shield those who screw us
    The clueless, crass cretins who crap on our creed
    We perform the foul deeds they can only do through us
    Then lay ourselves down in the dark while we bleed

    Through cheap Sunday slogans they sought to imbue us
    With lust for limp legacy laughably lean
    Yet the Pyrrhic parade only served to undo us
    We die now for duty, not “honor” obscene

    We carried out plans that the lunatics drew us
    Their oil-spotted, fly paper, domino dream
    Then we fought for the leftover bones that they threw us
    While carpetbag contractors cleaned up the cream

    We stood at attention so they could review us
    Like bugs on display in a cage made of glass
    We hurried, then waited, so they could subdue us
    Yet somewhere inside something said: “kiss my ass.”

    We did the George Custer scene Rumsfeld gave to us
    We took ourselves targets to arrows and bows
    While the brass punched their tickets, the Indians slew us
    A “strategy” ranking with History’s lows

    When veterans balked they contrived to pooh-pooh us
    With sneers at our “syndrome” of Vietnam sick
    When that didn’t work they set out to voodoo us
    With sewer boat slanderers paid to be slick

    The wad-shooting gambler comes once more to woo us
    His PR team planning precise photo ops
    For to sell his used war he’ll have need to construe us
    As witless weak wallpaper campaign-ad props

    The nuts and the dolts in their suits really blew us
    They made our life’s meaning a dead metaphor
    Still, no matter how Furies and Fate may pursue us
    The Fig Leaf Contingent has been here before

    The years pass in darkness and graveyards accrue us
    As early returns on investments gone wrong
    So the next time “supporters” of troops ballyhoo us
    Remember to vomit in tune to this song.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005

  9. Soldier’s Soldier

    Scapegoat of the king’s ambition
    Hostage to the prince’s crime
    Sent upon a madman’s errand
    Soldier of another time

    Sworn to do as he is bidden
    Not to think of why he came
    From himself his purpose hidden
    Soldier by another name

    Searching for a mystic evil
    Ever just a war away
    Always beaten, not defeated
    Back to fight another day

    Battles always won, but cheated
    Of the promised victory
    Never lost but just depleted
    Army of our history

    Kill the chicken; scare the monkey
    Centipede is dead, not stiff
    Off to far Cathay he marches
    Soldier diving off a cliff

    War not done but just abated
    Peace the only thing to fear
    Power’s hunger never sated
    Soldier’s orders never clear

    Dragon’s teeth by Cadmus planted
    Sprung from battle’s plain full grown
    Men who kill them all if doubtful
    Heathen gods will know their own

    Burn the village, clear the jungle
    Save them from themselves at least
    Make excuses for the bungle
    Soldier then becomes the beast

    Wounds still fresh and redly bleeding
    Bound up with a filthy rag
    Something shapeless once a husband
    Stuffed into a plastic bag

    Squatting in the dusty swelter
    Widowed woman once a wife
    Never more to know the shelter
    Of a tranquil married life

    Head thrown back in boundless grieving
    Mouth agape with soundless woes
    Tears and snot now glisten, mingling
    Coursing down from eyes and nose

    Anguished face a tangled curtain
    Clotted, matted, raven hair
    Almond eyes with sight uncertain
    Weeping pools of deep despair

    Do not knock this war we’re having
    It’s the only one we’ve got
    Better dead than red we tell them
    Mouthing slogans; talking rot

    Fight them over there they tell us
    Rather that than fight them here
    Just invent some casus bellus
    Danger’s best that’s never near

    Ozymandias’ sneering statue
    Crumbled in the desert bare:
    Look upon my works, you mighty
    See their ruin and take care

    Told to teach and be creative
    Soldier ignorant and young
    Learned instead and then went native
    Speaking now an ancient tongue

    Only they will now receive him
    Who see not his bloodstained hand
    None will hear for he can’t speak it
    Stranger to his own lost land

    Bringing with him what he carried
    Losing only what he bought
    To the cause no longer married
    Soldier doing what he ought

    Shipped away like so much baggage
    Not to choose the things he’s done
    Often bad and sometimes better
    Soldier not the only one

    Now he comes home like the others
    Breathless lips and eyes shut fast
    Lain to sleep beside his brothers
    Soldier’s soldier to the last

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2005

  10. Peace With Horror

    A leper knight rode into view
    Astride his mangy steed
    A harbinger of violence
    A plague without a need
    An apparition of discord
    Upon which fear would feed

    His unannounced arrival meant
    He’d lost his leper’s bell
    And yet his ugly innocence
    Could not conceal the smell
    His good intentions only paved
    Another road to Hell

    With mace and lance and sword deployed
    He vowed in peace to live
    Through rotting lips he promised not
    To take, but only give
    He swore to only kill the ones
    Whom he said shouldn’t live

    He did not speak the language and
    He did not know the land
    So why the healthy shrank from him
    He could not understand
    Why did they want the water when
    He’d offered them the sand?

    Committing to commitments he
    Committed crimes galore
    As steadfast in his loyalties
    As any purchased whore
    A mercenary madman like
    His slogan: “Peace through War”

    His slaying for salvation masked
    An inner, grasping greed
    A lust for living good and well
    While looking past his deed
    A dead man walking wakefully;
    A graveyard gone to seed

    He planned to leave in “phases,” so
    He said to those back home
    Who’d heard some nasty rumors rife
    From Babylon to Rome
    Of murders in their name meant to
    Exalt their sacred tome

    But still he needed to “protect”
    Some pilgrims on the road
    Who for “protection” glumly paid
    A portion of their load:
    For this decaying derelict,
    An object episode

    When asked to give a summary
    Of what he had achieved
    He shifted to the future tense
    The gains that he perceived
    And spoke in the subjunctive mood
    To those he had aggrieved

    “The future life to come portends
    More suffering than now.
    Through me alone can you avoid
    What I will disavow:
    The promises I never made
    While making, anyhow.”

    “I unsay things that I have said
    And say I never did;
    Then say them once again to pound
    The meaning deeply hid,
    Down where the lizard lives between
    The ego and the id.”

    “I’ve given you catastrophe
    And called it a success;
    If you want other outcomes then
    Step forward and confess
    That you believed a pack of lies
    With no strain, sweat, or stress.”

    “You know the meaning of my words
    Lasts only just as long
    As sound takes to decay in air
    So that you take them wrong
    If you assign significance
    To my sly siren song.”

    “A ‘propaganda catapult’
    I’ve called myself, in fact;
    A damning human document
    Which I myself redact
    At every opportunity
    With no concern for tact.”

    “If you think what I’ve done before
    Has caused me to repent
    Or dream that I, in any way,
    Might let up or relent
    Then I’ve got wars for you to buy,
    Or maybe just to rent.”

    “I’ve little time to live on earth,
    So why should I reflect
    Upon the dead and dying souls
    Whose lives I’ve robbed and wrecked?
    I care not if they hate, just that
    They know to genuflect.”

    Thus did the ruin of a world
    Continue in its curse;
    The great man on his horse relieved
    The faithful of their purse
    And gave them bad to save them from
    What they feared even worse

    So onward to Jerusalem
    He staggered as he slew
    In train with sack and booty that
    He only thought his due
    For spreading freedom’s germs among
    The last surviving few

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2008

  11. This is about a mother’s tears on finding her youngest son dying after the battle at Halidon Hill on July 19, 1333. The plea to not forget him rings down across seven centuries, along with a mother’s love,

    Fallen Flowers
    There on a misty morning, the sun slowly rised
    After the Battle at Halidon Hill
    There lies her youngest son, tears in his eyes
    Wounded and dying she hears him still

    Ma, if I could live my life again
    If I could call the world my friend
    If I could write the story’s end (I would)
    I would give all these things in vain
    To feel you hold me once again

    A smile comes to his face
    An uneasy calm
    In front of him, his life flashes by
    Amidst his boyish charms,
    he feels his mother’s arms
    In that painless moment, he hears her cry

    Son, if I could roll back the years
    If I could see you through these tears
    If I could face all of my fears (I would)
    I would give everything in vain
    Just to hold you once again

    Remember me forever
    I’ll be here forever
    Please forget me never
    I’ll be here forever

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