Why is nearly all war poetry anti-war, and not just now, but always? Stanley Kunitz thinks it’s because “[war] is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse.” Poets oppose war because they care more deeply about humanity than the rest of us. If this satisfies you then stop reading now, by all means.
A poem motivates, through technical means like rhythm, meter and rhyme, the emotion proper to its rational statement. Emotion derives from personal experience. Thus the statement of poetry tends to be personal. This is not to say that poems cannot make complex logical arguments. But these arguments will relate, in the end, to a personal experience.
War is, at the level of the statesmen (and the pundits), where one decides whether to wage it, or even at the level of the generals, where one decides how, as impersonal a subject as one could wish for. To decide rationally to wage war one must put one’s emotions aside, which is the opposite of what poetry asks you to do.
Therefore most poetry about war is written at the level of the soldier, the best of it often by the soldier, and it’s understandably not very favorable to the enterprise. For the soldier war is a bloody, muddy, destructive, terrifying, chaotic smash — hell, as Sherman said. At this disastrously personal level it is impossible to be pro-war: no one enjoys war, for itself, except the morally deranged. This poem by Yvor Winters limns the difficulty:
Night of Battle
as regarded from a great distance
Impersonal the aim
Where giant movements tend;
Each man appears the same;
Friend vanishes from friend.
In the long path of lead
That changes place like light
No shape of hand or head
Means anything tonight.
Only the common will
For which explosion spoke;
And stiff on field and hill
The dark blood of the folk.
Winters fiercely supported the Second World War, but this poem is neither pro nor anti. To support a war one must regard it “from a great distance,” while poetry tends, on the contrary, to regard matters up close. As much room as there is for the individual, there is that much room for poetry; when one disappears the other must as well.
This is why pro-war poetry like Kipling’s sounds like tub-thumping. Kipling had little poetic talent: his poetry resembles great poetry as Sousa marches resemble great music. But mostly he chose a medium that does not suit the subject.
The problem of war resembles the problem of “what is seen and what is not seen,” as Bastiat put it, in economics. Unsound economic policies like tariffs win support because the benefits are seen, while the costs are invisible, being good things that never happen. (Not coincidentally, very little poetry has been written on economics.) War is the opposite. The costs are seen, while the benefits are invisible, being bad things that never happen. All art, and poetry especially, deals best with what is seen. So poems about war will tend to be against, or ambivalent, but always myopic. Anyone looking for geopolitical wisdom from poetry should look elsewhere. And when faced with a subject that’s out of their ken, poets, like actors, should just shut up.
(Update: Jim Ryan comments.)