The theme of bravery within conflict poems is often controversial as poets express whether it is in-built or a true quality of a soldier and whether we should honour the bravery they showed when this could constitute honouring war.
‘Flag’ hints that bravery in soldiers is not a choice but that it is forced upon them by blind patriotism. ‘makes’ particularly insinuates that they have no option and must ‘grow bold’ the use of ‘grow’ could also convey that we all contain the ability to be brave but that it must be stimulated by a situation in order for it to be able to show. A further contentious image within the poem suggests that emphasises the lack of choice in a soldiers’ life, ‘dares the coward to relent’ but employing the oxymoron ‘dares’ and ‘coward’ we see that for the coward there is no escape as to show fear would result in need to be brave anyway as they were questioned. This could then link to the fact that in warfare it has been common for those who refuse to fight to be shot for cowardice so Agard could be subtlety referring the fact that for many the choice is simply die in battle or be shot.
‘The charge of the Light Brigade’ supports the image that bravery can be thrust upon soldiers but in a contrast to Agard, Tennyson is keen to encourage celebration of the soldiers and empresses on the reader that they should remember the ‘noble’ and ‘hero’. These emotive language choices focus the reader on how difficult it would have been to fight in the battle and so Tennyson could be trying to underline the intense need for the public to remember those who gave their lives for us. Tennyson regularly refers to the soldiers positive features and never once criticises the soldiers themselves which further highlights the need for us to honour them as it is seen that the losses were not the soldiers fault. Tennyson could also be demeaning patriotism in a similar way to Agard when he explores the soldiers who are able to ‘charge for the guns’ which symbolises charging towards their own death and they are portrayed as not thinking twice about what they are doing the reader could come to understand that patriotism leads directly to death. Agard has also explicated this idea, [particularly in the last line of ‘Flag’ ‘blind your conscience to the end’ where patriotism is seen to take away eye-sight and choice until the ‘end’ which may be representing death or could also be an end induced by the mental scars of conflict.
One theme which is, perhaps surprisingly, common to conflict poetry is that of control and power. This is often linked in with ideas of patriarchy as in ‘Bayonet Charge’ but can also be examined as a theme in it’s own right.
‘Bayonet Charge’ demonstrates that the control in battle is entirely left to the officers and portrays soldiers as having no say in their own destiny. This then suggests that joining the army results in a sense of self-loss and is almost like a sentence of imprisonment which could almost convey that all soldiers are actually prisoners of war because they cannot escape. ‘cold clockwork’ is particularly suggestive and Hughes seems to indicate that the soldiers are explicitly programmed and that no emotion is allowed to interfere in their fights which connects to the loss of humanity and by employing this Hughes could be displaying a view that control is unfairly distributed within war. Hughes also indicates that the control is very strong through the pain which results from it. ‘patriotic tear’ not only conveys pain expressed through crying but also connects to the image of tearing a man’s freedom away from him with the double meaning of ‘tear’.
Hughes portrays similar ideas in ‘Hawk Roosting’ as, again, power is given to an individual and he is free to exploit that control. The hawk is seen as inflicting pain as suggested in ‘Bayonet Charge’ ‘I kill where I please’ which may indicate that officers have some choice in which soldiers are sent into the dangerous situations and this could then evoke strong emotions in the reader as they feel that the deaths were not accidental. However, an alternative impression is that it is not physical killing but mental and this supports the image of pain caused by patriotism and the power it can exercise over soldiers. It is also interesting that Hughes has explored this issue from two contrasting views as it suggests that it is ab important issue for him.
Within war poetry a theme which is mentioned with extreme regularity is death. Death is so important because in conflict the result is often loss of young lives and both ‘Futility’ and ‘Mametz Wood’ explore the waste of life.
‘Mametz Wood’ gives the impression of conflict having little success as it ultimately results in the death of soldiers ‘wasted young’ by Sheers choosing ‘wasted’ it conveys that there has been no result from their deaths and that there was no need for them to give their lives. Sheers also successfully heightens the emotions of the reader here with ‘young’ which suggests innocence and is particularly powerful as they are seen to have missed out on life for no cause. Sheers also explores the image that these soldiers died in the midst of a happy and fortuitous life which then evokes feelings of guilt as the reader feels these people have ‘paused mid dance-macabre’ for them. The use of ‘paused’ is suggesting that the death should be temporary as well which can then impress upon the reader the damage as they may have paused thinking they would return but they never will.
The idea of death being irreversible is likewise explored in ‘Futility’ with the attempts of the speaker to rouse his friend but by the end of the first stanza the speaker seems to lose hope and this ability to abandon hope so quickly links to the idea that he always it was a futile attempt. ‘if anything’ however also conveys his desperation for the death to be reversible which links to the waste of life. The title is significant as it expresses the pointless nature of war ‘futility’ which could be linked to death or also that war makes life useless as people will inevitably die and those who survive have their lives removed metaphorically. The both suggest that war is a waste of life.