This poem by Edwin Brock is often considered a poem against war, whereas in fact it is a poem about the loss of humanity. It is written much like an instruction guide or recipe book, telling the reader the manner in which a man can be efficiently killed. Each stanza deals with one method of killing; each one distancing the killer further from his victim, till in the last stanza there is neither killer nor victim, but just a living death. In the first stanza the crucifixion of Jesus is refered to. Here the reader is told that all that is required is a plank of wood and some nails and hammer to drive them home.
This deliberately dead pan and emotionless tone underlines the lack of humanity that is fast becoming the hall mark of current war fare with its references to “collateral damage”, a conveniently clinical term for civilan casualties. In the second stanza the poet uses the War of Roses as a way to illustrate how wars were fought for the sake of crown and honour, whereas there was nothing noble in the brutal hand to hand warfare using common agricultural tools like bill hooks axes and hammers that pierced armour with ease.
The armour is called “a metal cage”, the weapons “shaped and chased in a traditonal way”. All you need is a prince, two flags (representing the Houses of York and Lancaster) and the English countryside marred with the killings of battle. You require a castle to hold your banquet in to celebrate your victory while the brutal and ignoble nature of this war is hidden in the image of “white horses” and “English trees”.
In the next stanza we are told that we may dispense with nobility altogether as the poet brings our attention to the cruel practise of gas warfare in the First World War. “… you may if the wind allows, blow gas at him… ” sounds as harmless as a child blowing bubbles or at the most someone blowing cigarette smoke in your face. In 1915 when the British used gas cylinders to send Chlorine gas towards the German front lines the wind direction changed and the gas came back to poison the British soldiers.
In this stanza the poet brings our attention to the other horrors of trench warfare, as he says to kill a man in this way you also need bomb craters, a mile of mud, a plague of rats. This sounds exaclty like a list of ingredients for a recipe. As we dehumanize ourselves further in the fourth stanza we are told we may fly miles about our victim and “dispose” of him by pressing a small switch. But now we require an ocean to separate us, two different ideologies and scientists and a psycopath.
This is an obvious reference to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. We are left with “land that no one needs for several years”, as if that was the end of this exercise. However the argument is succintly clinched in the last stanza of the poem in just four lines. These methods after all are too cumbersome and it is far simpler and more direct to see that our victim is living somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century and leave him there. This the most telling part of this poem. We find here the hopelessness of life as we know it today.
We must kill our humanity to survive in the world of today, with daily news reports of children dying of disease and malnutrition, people becoming victims of religious intolerance, suicide attacks, honur killings, suicides due to joblessness in developing countries and the sheer scale of human idiocy in destroying its own race. We have had to desensitize ourselves to this daily onslaught of pain in order to survive and in so doing we are in fact slowly dying. It is too painful to shed tears over every mining victim, every bomblast victim, every woman stigmatised.
So we kill ourselves, we kill our hopes and our very desire to live. We become as mechanical as the tone of this poem in our efforts to deal with the horrors of daily life, with that accident we see during rush hour, with the child victim of some pedophile we see on the news. We learn to numb our pain in a world full of pin-pricks. In doing so we may as well be dead. In short this poem, is brutally simple, its tone clinical to the point of instructional prose, and yet it does so well what Wordsworth said a poem must, appear to the reader as a remembrance of his own highest thoughts.
The average man today is helpless in the face of what a few misguided leaders are doing to destroy humanity, and this poem voices for us this frustration and this bitter truth. Millions of protestors all around the world could not dissuade America and Brittain from attacking Iraq. This poem stands witness to how our hopes and the voice of humanity can be easily silenced. In doing so it urges us to speak up against our spiritual death and resurrect our dying humanity.