[A short version of this post appears here]
Last week a letter appeared in the Guardian written by six British veterans of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falklands, the Balkans and Northern Ireland. They wrote to say they felt that Remembrance Day was being subverted into ‘a drum roll of support for current wars’, and that the poppy appeal had been launched with such showbiz hype that the horror and futility of war was being forgotten and ignored.
They closed by saying, ‘The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of “our heroes”. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict. Remembrance should be marked with the sentiment “never again.”’
They are not the first to express concern about the tone that is used to mark our annual remembrance of those who have died in wartime. The language of ‘our glorious dead’ that is so often seen on war memorials masks the sense of shame and regret that should be felt by our participation in any war.
Because war is always a moral failure.
God calls us to live in peace, to reconcile ourselves both to him and to each other. Christ came to offer the means to heal our divisions. Our biggest sense of shame should be particularly felt for those wars in history that were prosecuted in his name and to further his kingdom.
However, while God may see a way in which we avoid sending our young men and women to die on the field of battle, it is much harder for us with our limited and flawed human condition to see ways of halting, for example, the great injustices of tyrants without declaring war. Sometimes battle seems like the noble thing to do. Human life is full of our inadequacies, and sometimes the best that we can do is still not good enough. So there is a tension here: that on the one hand war is always a moral failure, but on the other it may seem like the only way to resolve a situation. Of course, war has also been used to grab land, expand empires, enslave people, or secure access to raw materials, minerals or energy resources. If there is one thing you can say about war it is that the case for it is seldom black & white.
When we remember those who have died in war we must lose any sense of triumph or glory, and instead feel profound regret, shame even, while continuing to aspire to find new ways of living peaceably.
I do believe that observing Remembrance Day is a very good thing and that our commitment to honouring those who have lost their lives in wartime should be continued, and there are three reasons for this:
1. Often those who died had no choice. Both the first and second world wars saw the deaths of those who had been conscripted into the armed forces. Servicemen who deserted their posts in the trench warfare of WW1 were court-martialled and shot.
In times of high unemployment, and this is true even today, young people with few other options opted for the army to secure regular pay and a roof over their head. Others were caught up in the jingoism and imperialism of their day. Not to volunteer was the fast route to becoming a social outcast, handed white feathers in public and scorned as a coward.
Astonishingly, many testify to the way that war brought out the best in the character of themselves and their comrades. There is no denying the courage and bravery that has been shown on the field of battle, regardless of whether the combatants chose to be there or not.
In the first world war the scale of death was so high that one in every 57 people in Britain was killed, including 163 men from De Beauvoir Town. Their names are commemorated on the plaque on the north aisle. If you have never had a good look at that then I encourage you to do so today. Read a few of their names to yourself, or run your fingers over them. Or light a candle in their memory.
2. The second reason we should observe Remembrance Day is that war is the ultimate consequence of the same kernel of conflict that we all encounter in life - with our families, neighbours and colleagues. These are the daily squabbles in which people push for what they want at the expense of others. The seed of war is the same seed of sin, of selfishness, that mars our daily interactions in our community.
This was brought home to me most starkly on a visit I made to the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland. In a period of just over two and a half years during the second world war the Nazis gassed more than a million people there, mainly Jews but also non-German prisoners, physically and mentally disabled people, romanies and homosexuals. Being there was one of the most sobering experiences of my life, and as I stood beside the incinerators in which the corpses were burned, fighting back my tears, I was pushed aside by a tourist wanting to get a better view with his video camera. In that moment, in that room, I encountered two ends of the same scale: the spectrum of self-interest that the Bible calls sin. What the tourist did to me was merely a bit rude. What the Nazis did was incomprehensible. But it came from the same seed of corruption of the human heart.
Of course, the Nazis’ victims are not the only examples of large scale genocide we have seen. In more recent times there have been similar mass killings in Rwanda and Bosnia. Today in Iraq the minority Christian population is being slaughtered in a series of attacks on them while they are at worship in Church. Just a couple of weeks ago at a service in Baghdad, terrorists burst in during the Mass, rounded up the congregation into a side room and tossed in a hand grenade. When government troops arrived to storm the church the assassins surrounded themselves with children before detonating explosives in their suicide vests. Around 60 people died. Compared to twenty years ago there is now only between one third to one half the population of Christians in Iraq. Somewhere around 500-800,000 Christians have either fled or been killed.
Today we remember all the victims and casualties of war, because if we forget we simply repeat the same mistakes - Auschwitz, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq. We must remember these horrors because they remind us what happens when the same seed of selfishness we encounter in daily life gets wildly and ludicrously out of hand. When we make the effort to remember, it might help us to do better to follow Jesus’ command that, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”
3. And the final reason we must remember is because we as Christians are a remembering people. Week after week we meet together to celebrate the Eucharist, to remember an act of God where he gave of himself to bring about reconciliation. The death of Christ on the cross was an execution by vested interests who feared the loss of their power and privilege. They did not want too many people following the teaching and example of the one who came to conquer the power of sin and selfishness in our lives. Through Christ we have the chance to start again, to put right our wrong relationship with God and with each other. Our weekly act of remembrance feeds us with the conviction and power to start afresh, and live lives that are peaceful, gracious and full of self-giving.
Our annual Remembrance Day service reminds us of the consequences when we fail to do that.