I’ve written previously about my eighth grade teacher, Abraham Elias, who taught me to memorize poetry when all I really wanted to be able to remember were things like batting averages and shooting percentages. I did it because he inspired me to do so, but I was never really sure how well the exercise would ultimately serve me. And yet, as the years have passed I’ve found myself returning to those poems over and again—almost as if I can’t help it—as I try to make sense of the world around me. And so it is today with this photograph of two “Russian military officers tak[ing] part in a Flag Day Holiday in St. Petersburg” that appeared last week on-line at the Washington Post.
The words that billowed forth from consciousness when I saw this photograph are originally from the Odes of Horace (iii 2.13): “Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.” In English: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” But truth to tell I’ve never read the Odes. Where I encountered these words was in Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poem, “Dulce et Decorum,” written in 1917 during the Great War, the first of “the war to end all wars.” Owens’ point, of course, was that Horace’s aphorism was a lie told to boys and young men in an effort to nurture a desire for military glory and to mobilize their bodies to national interests without regard to question or cost.
What is most striking about the photograph is the uniform intensity of the youthful faces staring straight ahead, teenage boys trying ever so hard to look like the men that they want to be, strong and in control. Note the cold and emotionless expression on their faces. It is perhaps what we might call the look of a killer, and thus altogether out of place on young boys who we might otherwise imagine playing soccer on a school field or trying to steal their first kiss. But here that stoic look is legitimated and glorified by the adornment of military regalia and the national flags that simultaneously cover and substitute for their bodies. It would be hard to mistake these boys as anything but interchangeable instruments of the nation state. And indeed, the very proportionality of the image, with their faces barely peeking out from behind the unfurled and flapping flags, underscores the sense in which they stand behind the nation in a doubled sense, both subordinate to it and propping it up at the same time.
The photograph here is from an eastern European country, and it would be easy to deride and dismiss it as the artifact of a once and future totalitarian nation-state, but of course the image is less about Russia than it is about the apparatus and mechanisms of nationalist desire, which seem always and everywhere to feed upon its youth regardless of its particular geographical location. Those could be young American faces and US flags, and of course we have encountered such images all too frequently. What remains is for us to see them for what they are.
Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori, indeed.
Photo Credit: Sergei Kulikov/AFP-Getty Images