Prompted by the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood visited China in 1937. Isherwood reported from what they hoped would become the centre of the conflict: 'Today Auden and I agreed that we would rather be in Hankow at this moment than anywhere else on earth.' So these soi-disant 'lunatic English explorers' observed a distant replay of the Spanish Civil War, which pitted fascist aggressors against a leftist alliance. The literary product of their journey was the co-authored Journey to a War, an eccentric collaboration between Isherwood's prose, Auden's verse, and photographs taken mainly by Auden.
I have written elsewhere about 'In Time of War', the sequence of 27 sonnets and long concluding 'Commentary' which make up the bulk of Auden's contribution. One sonnet, XXII, speaks pointedly to our own time, its sestet accusing a popular culture which is too frivolous to consider necessary matters:
Think in this year what pleased the dancers best:
When Austria died and China was forsaken,
Shanghai in flames and Teruel retaken,
France put her case before the world: 'Partout
Il y a de la joie.' America addressed
The earth: 'Do you love me as I love you?'
Popular songs, in this case by Charles Trenet and Cole Porter respectively, are seen as conniving in a decadent obliviousness. War is approaching, but rather than paying attention, those 'dancers' succumb to the enticements of cheap music. Rudyard Kipling had made similar complaints during the Boer War, attacking those who 'content their souls' with sporting idols --- 'flannelled fools' and 'muddied oafs' --- while their armies fight abroad.
Does the pop music of the last several decades make any greater recognition of war? I don't mean those protest songs which easily insist that war is bad, but rather songs which take as their subject the experience of war. There are other kinds of popular culture --- film, television, video games --- which lend themselves much more obviously to such an engagement; even so, it would be a serious failure of pop music if it could not accommodate much more than 'Do you love me as I love you?'
If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments below. Let me start with Marillion's 'Forgotten Sons', a wild concoction of lyrics about the British soldier's experience serving in Northern Ireland. As the title suggests, its point is not that different from Kipling's and Auden's: our soldiers are forgotten by the society which sends them to fight.