Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Never has a work of literature so accurately articulated the profound dangers of war rhetoric than Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem Dulce Et Decorum Est. Owen argued that the reality of the brutal horrors of war, were entirely at odds with the government’s insistence that the lives of the millions of young men were highly valued.

Today, over 100 years after Owen wrote his poignant words in the trenches, this warning cannot be forgotten. The current COVID-19 pandemic has left politicians the world over relying on similar glorifying wartime behaviours and languages that should be ringing alarm bells. Macron used the phrase “we are at war” six times within a twenty minute speech, Trump declared himself a “wartime president” and the Queen referenced Vera Lynn in her April speech with the famous words “we will meet again”.

This international approach demonstrates the powerful design behind wartime rhetoric: it gears people into a sense of optimism and positive morale as they are made to feel united in a battle against a common enemy, whilst undemocratic wartime powers are discreetly seized. Perhaps the most incriminating of the purposes behind war rhetoric is the deliberate attempt to divert attention away from the fact that many lost lives could have been spared and towards the false notion that sacrifices made were saintly and voluntary. 

NHS workers’ recent confession that the lack of PPE has left them feeling like modern-day cannon fodder, is truly reminiscent of Owen’s poetic declaration that his life was not viewed with worth, by those who sent him to his death. Meanwhile the weekly clap for the NHS appears to be ‘too little, too late’, as health staff feel the need to remind the government of the fact that they are ‘doctors not martyrs’.

The Dominic Cummings affair also provides an apt illustration of how rules that apply to one class of people do not apply to another; just as the very men who laid claim over the fate of Owen’s life were not the same men going into the horrific battles themselves. 

We are told that NHS staff are heroes, soldiers. But one of the key similarities between doctors and soldiers – one that is not being highlighted by leaders – is that both are likely to suffer from awful PTSD symptoms long after the ‘battle’ is over. NHS staff are heroes and they should be truly valued as such.

We, as citizens under the current government, must remind ourselves that we are in fact not united against a common enemy – as BAME communities are disproportionately affected across the country – and some of us will not be lucky enough to ‘see each other again’ – as we boast the highest death toll in Europe.

For the sake of our political awareness, it is essential that we begin to view the use of war rhetoric as what it truly is: a thinly veiled attempt at manipulating people into trusting and forgiving a leadership that could and should have saved many lost lives, both during WWI and now.

Wilfred Owen lost his life in battle just a week before Armistice Day and his poetry has survived to be known as great literature, poignant illustrations of war and sharp political insight.

We are not in the midst of war with a virus. It is an intangible agent of nature that sadly claims lives, but it cannot be defeated with our anger at its injustice. However, a group that could be defeated with this anger are those who have spent years underfunding the NHS, those who have failed to provide desperately needed PPE, those who have refused to apologise for the thousands of deaths, can. Despite what we are told, it cannot be good nor fitting for either soldiers or doctors to have to die under such terrible circumstances.