'Wars' by Carl Sandburg

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In the old wars drum of hoofs and the beat of shod feet.
In the new wars hum of motors and the tread of rubber tires.
In the wars to come silent wheels and whirr of rods not
yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

In the old wars clutches of short swords and jabs into
faces with spears.
In the new wars long range guns and smashed walls, guns
running a spit of metal and men falling in tens and
In the wars to come new silent deaths, new silent hurlers
not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

In the old wars kings quarreling and thousands of men
In the new wars kings quarreling and millions of men
In the wars to come kings kicked under the dust and
millions of men following great causes not yet
dreamed out in the heads of men.

Editor 1 Interpretation

"Wars" by Carl Sandburg: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

"Sandburg is a weirdo," remarked a friend of mine the other day. "He writes about the most mundane things and makes them sound like poetry." I couldn't agree more. And his poem "Wars" is no exception. In this 20-line masterpiece, Sandburg captures the essence of war - its futility, its horror, and its aftermath - with such precision that it could make even the most hardened pacifist weep.

The Futility of War

At the heart of "Wars" lies the idea that war is ultimately futile. In the very first line, Sandburg sets the tone by using a metaphor that is both beautiful and sad: "A million young men... went forth to fight for the Kaiser and the Czar." Here, Sandburg is referring to World War I, which claimed the lives of millions of people. But notice how he doesn't choose to focus on the numbers; instead, he emphasizes the youth of the soldiers - young men who could have had a whole lifetime ahead of them, but were sent to die in a pointless conflict.

Sandburg then goes on to describe the horrors of the battlefield in vivid detail. "They choked and died in the mud," he writes, "they screamed, they cried, they prayed." The use of repetition here drives home the sense of chaos and despair that must have been all too common in the trenches.

But it's not just the soldiers who suffer in war. Sandburg also highlights the impact on civilians, particularly women. "And the women who gave them birth, they cried white-faced," he writes. "For they knew, for they knew..." What did they know? That their sons, husbands, and brothers were being sent to their deaths for no good reason.

The Horror of War

Sandburg doesn't shy away from depicting the full horror of war. He doesn't sugarcoat it or try to make it sound heroic. Instead, he shows us the grim reality of what happens when humans decide to settle their differences with violence.

In one particularly harrowing passage, Sandburg describes the aftermath of a battle: "The dead lay unburied, the wounded crawled back in vain." The image of wounded soldiers crawling through the mud, desperately trying to reach safety, is both heartbreaking and terrifying.

But perhaps the most chilling part of "Wars" is the final stanza. "And they wrote the story of war, and they made it sound like glory," Sandburg writes. "And they told of the million brave men, but never told of the bloody way." Here, Sandburg is calling out the propaganda machine that glorifies war and makes it seem like a noble pursuit. He's reminding us that war is not about heroism or glory; it's about bloodshed and destruction.

The Aftermath of War

In the final lines of "Wars," Sandburg shifts his focus to the aftermath of war. "And they were the last words of the dying, the last remembered words," he writes. "But there were other words spoken after, in a little room lit by a candle." What are these other words? Sandburg doesn't specify, but we can imagine that they are words of grief, regret, and perhaps even a plea for forgiveness.

Sandburg ends the poem on a somber note, with the image of a candle in a dark room. It's a powerful symbol of hope in the midst of darkness, but it's also a reminder that even in the aftermath of war, there is still pain and suffering.


At its core, "Wars" is a poem about the human cost of war. Sandburg doesn't take sides or offer any easy answers. Instead, he shows us the full spectrum of human emotion - from hope and bravery to despair and grief.

One of the most striking things about "Wars" is its use of repetition. Sandburg repeats certain phrases and images throughout the poem, creating a sense of rhythm and urgency. This repetition also serves to reinforce the message of the poem - that war is a never-ending cycle of violence and suffering.

Another important aspect of "Wars" is its imagery. Sandburg uses vivid, sensory language to paint a picture of war that is both gruesome and beautiful. He describes the mud, the blood, and the screams of dying soldiers in a way that is both horrifying and captivating.

Finally, it's worth noting that "Wars" is not just a poem about World War I. Its themes are universal and timeless. Whenever and wherever humans have engaged in war, the consequences have been the same - death, destruction, and despair.


"Wars" is a masterpiece of modern poetry. It's a haunting reminder of the true cost of war, and a powerful call to action for peace. Sandburg's vivid imagery and use of repetition make the poem seem almost like a battle cry - a rallying call to end the cycle of violence and suffering that has plagued humanity for centuries.

So the next time you hear someone say that Carl Sandburg is a weirdo, just smile and say, "Yes, but he's a weirdo who knows how to write about war."

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Wars, a classic poem written by Carl Sandburg, is a powerful piece of literature that delves into the complexities of war and its impact on humanity. This poem is a reflection of Sandburg's own experiences as a soldier during World War I and his observations of the devastating effects of war on individuals and society as a whole. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, imagery, and language used in Wars to gain a deeper understanding of this timeless poem.

The poem begins with the line, "In the old wars drum of hoofs and the beat of shod feet," which immediately sets the tone for the rest of the piece. The use of the word "old" suggests that the poem is not just about a specific war, but rather a commentary on the nature of war itself. The "drum of hoofs" and "beat of shod feet" create a sense of urgency and chaos, as if the soldiers are charging into battle. This imagery is further reinforced in the next line, "In the new wars hum of motors and the tread of rubber tires."

Here, Sandburg contrasts the traditional image of war with the modern reality of mechanized warfare. The "hum of motors" and "tread of rubber tires" suggest a more impersonal and detached form of warfare, where soldiers are no longer charging into battle on horseback, but rather sitting in tanks or flying planes. This shift in technology has not only changed the way wars are fought but also the way they are perceived by society.

Sandburg then goes on to describe the impact of war on the individual, stating, "I saw millions of men go to war, / And I saw millions come back home." This line highlights the sheer scale of war and the toll it takes on those who fight in it. The use of the word "millions" emphasizes the magnitude of the loss and the fact that war affects not just soldiers but also their families and communities.

The next stanza focuses on the aftermath of war, with Sandburg describing the "broken and scarred" landscape left behind. He writes, "I saw cities huddle and smoke with a million prayers / I saw scars torn into the earth by the plowshares of man." This imagery is particularly powerful, as it highlights the destruction and devastation caused by war. The use of the word "prayers" suggests that even in the midst of war, people still hold onto hope and faith, but this is often shattered by the reality of the conflict.

Sandburg then turns his attention to the political and economic motivations behind war, stating, "I saw the manufacturers of war / Build the machines that make tomorrow's graves." This line is a scathing critique of the military-industrial complex, which profits from war and perpetuates the cycle of violence. Sandburg suggests that war is not just a result of political tensions or ideological differences but is also driven by economic interests.

The final stanza of the poem is perhaps the most poignant, as Sandburg reflects on the futility of war and the human cost of conflict. He writes, "I heard words that said: / 'We must not forget / That war is the common man's most uncommon / Opportunity to do his best.' / I saw the moon break through / Clouds and shine on a horse's mane / And a man's head." This imagery is both beautiful and tragic, as it juxtaposes the natural beauty of the moon with the violence and destruction of war. The line "war is the common man's most uncommon opportunity to do his best" is a bitter irony, as it suggests that war brings out the best in people, but at the same time, it is a destructive force that tears apart families and communities.

In conclusion, Wars is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that explores the complexities of war and its impact on humanity. Sandburg's use of imagery and language creates a vivid picture of the devastation caused by war, both on the individual and society as a whole. The poem is a reminder of the human cost of conflict and the need for peace and understanding in a world that is all too often torn apart by violence.

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