I grieve as I watch Ukraine’s student generation forced to take up arms

As war descends on Europe again, how many of the idealistic young scholars defending their country against invasion will live full lives, muses Keith Burnett

March 20, 2022
A Ukrainian soldier
Source: iStock

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

Did you hear on the news last week a version of Horace’s words, incorporated into one of Wilfred Owen’s most famous war poems, spoken by a young student soldier guarding a Ukrainian checkpoint on the outskirts of Kyiv?

As an old teacher, I could not but cry for those young men, caught up in Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of their country. They made me think of all the scholars I have taught over the years, and of the lives they went on to live – lives that may well be denied to many of Ukraine’s current generation of students.

I grieve for all those already lost to this awful conflict, and those who suffer because of it. But the sight of those young men has hit me hardest. It made me think, too, of the many times I have read down lists of names during annual acts of remembrance. It reminded me of the countless times I passed the monument to the scholarly fallen in the quadrangle of my Oxford college while walking back to the physics department after decades of lunches.

I have often mused on those symbols of loss, wondering about all the lives cut short. But I never thought I would again see teenage students facing death. I never thought, 101 years after the publication of Owen’s shocking depiction of the First World War’s reality, to hear them explain their decision to bear arms with all the vigour, courage and, yes, naivety of youth.

How can the world deny these young so much? How can their joy be snuffed out so early? It is hard to comprehend.

It does not need a war, of course, to end lives prematurely. I remember, in the chapel of another Oxford college, hearing the heart-rending words of a Russian father at the funeral of his brilliant physicist son, Ian Ilyich Kogan, who had died at just 44. The unspeakable loss of a child knows no geographical boundaries.

I don’t suppose many readers will have read Mr. Britling Sees It Through, but H. G. Wells’ novel about the experience of a British writer in the First World War comes to me again now. The protagonist hires a young German student to tutor his even younger son. Both die in the war, and the book ends as the two fathers meet after the armistice and unite in grief and hope for a world where no one has to bear such pain.

I have at times been rather sharp with those who are quick to criticise our students for their idealism or their politics – or, latterly, for their “wokeness”. I have reminded them of the droves of students, apprentices and other youngsters who were the first to volunteer in what my grandparents called the Great War. They were indeed to melt like snowflakes – but only because of the furnace of violence they marched into.

So what is our duty at this time?

First, it is to use our freedom and peace to offer safe refuge, to look after as many as we can of those who escape from this grievous conflict. After all, we owe so much to the precious generation of scholar refugees from Nazi Germany, who so did much to build our present-day universities and to whom we owe so much.

The placing of those scholars into UK universities was greatly aided by the formation of the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara). We should continue to support wholeheartedly the work of such organisations. From its founding in 1933 to its work with the persecuted of Syria and Afghanistan, Cara has taught us what hospitality and solidarity really mean.

And we must find ways to live together in our privileged communities, seeking understanding rather than dominance. We must rededicate ourselves to researching and heading off the causes of conflict, from food production to energy security. And we must preserve the freedom to seek truth and to question what Wilfred Owen called “the old lie”: dulce et decorum est.

We should do this for our students, for our children and for theirs. For what world will be theirs if we ever stop striving for these ideals?

Sir Keith Burnett is chair-elect of the Institute of Physics and chair of the Nuffield Foundation.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles