This Sunday sees the day in the church calendar which I find most difficult, Remembrance Sunday. Throughout most of my life I have quietly hung out at the back of these kind of services and simply not joined in with any parts I’m unsure or uncomfortable with. Clearly, now I’m ordained, that’s no longer an option!!
So why do I find it so difficult?
Well firstly let me say that I’m aware that I have no right, no authority, to speak about this. Who am I to speak on this subject? How am I possibly qualified to speak on war when I haven’t seen one. I’ve never shot a gun with the intention of killing someone, I’ve never been shot at. My life has rarely, if ever, been in any real danger. I’m aware of this.
I’m also aware that for others this is no dry academic subject. But a subject of deep emotion and pain. I realise that there are people who have fought in wars, seen war first hand and live each day with the repercussions of that. I know that some people have lost loved ones … fathers, husbands, friends and more. I know that, I’m aware of that too.
And so it is with hesitant and uncertain steps that I choose to make my opinions known.
I (like most of us I assume!) had two granddads. I am proud of them both and am grateful to them both for their parts in forming me and making me who I am today. My Granddad Denny was a conscientious objector, because of his faith, and spent the 2nd World War working in a mental hospital. My Granddad Gerrard, on the other hand, fought in the 2nd world war. I don’t recall him ever speaking about it. According to my Dad he rarely spoke about his experiences. I do know that he won medals, medals he never collected. Medals he, apparently, didn’t want.
Harry Patch, who died in 2009, was the last survivor of the Western Front from World War 1. He spent 80 years refusing to talk about his experiences, refusing to attend regimental reunions and avoiding war films. He said bluntly, ‘If any man tells you he went over the top and he wasn’t scared, he’s a damn liar.’ He had strong opinions as to what we need to remember, insisting that we should remember those on ‘both sides of the line.’ He visited both British and German graves and placed a wreath of poppies on both. Furthermore, he spoke out against the message he saw being given through the act of Remembrance. In an interview in 2005 he said war ‘wasn’t worth it’ and described the modern day Remembrance Day as ‘just show business.’ In sadness he believed nothing had been learnt from the war.
How do we do Remembrance in a way that actually does justice to these men, and countless others, and their memory?
Remembrance day comes round each year, and as our living physical links to the World Wars leave us it is vital that we remember properly, because it is so easy to remember badly.
I worry about the direction remembrance day is going. The poppy appeal is now launched with full show biz fan fair and wearing a poppy has become a test of patriotism. Just a couple of years ago Jon Snow, the channel 4 news reader, caused controversy and heated debate when he refused to wear a poppy on air. The Royal British Legion itself pointed out how ironic this was as they explained that soldiers fought precisely so that people could be free to wear whatever they wanted!
As Remembrance Day comes, we hear about the ‘glorious sacrifice’ of our soldiers. We hear of service men, and women, killed under ‘friendly fire.’ All this comes dangerously close to glorifying war and sanitizing the horrors it brings. From a Christian point of few it is essential this is spoken against. Whether a pacifist or ‘just war’ understanding is accepted, war is always evil. True, within a ‘just war’ tradition it is the lesser of two evils, but the idea that war is glorious or redemptive stands in stark contrast to Christian orthodox belief. Remembrance Day is NOT a celebration (and it should never become one), it is an act of solemn remembrance. We must never celebrate Remembrance Day, we must honour it instead.
This is how poppies began. As is well-known, after 1918 and the end of World War 1, poppies were one of the few plants able to grow in the disturbed and blood covered soils of battle torn ground and, as such, grew in great numbers. This meant they became the symbol of remembrance. At the time everybody, every man, woman and child in the country, was in mourning. No one thought war was glorious or a magnificent adventure. Everyone thought of the war as four years of pointless slaughter. Remembrance began ‘lest we forget’. The Great War was to become ‘the war to end all wars.’ Remembrance Day was meant to achieve two things: an opportunity to comfort those who were grieving and a common commitment to remembering the horrors of war so that it would never happen again. ‘Lest we forget’ was meant emphasise the inevitable doom if we forgot the horrors of war.
And yet ‘the war to end all wars’ was nothing of the sort – we even call it World War 1. Just over 20 years later World War 2 began. Since World War 2, 1968 was the only year in which a member of the British armed forces hasn’t been killed in combat. While World War 2 can be seen to have moral justification, this is harder to say for World War 1 or indeed, the wars of the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Korea, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq.
During Remembrance Day we remember those who ‘gave their lives so we could live and be free.’ There is truth in this, but for many wars and many of our fallen soldiers, it is a half truth. If we are to honour the original meaning of Remembrance Day we must be more honest about why our troops die.
The red poppy does not glorify war and neither does Remembrance Day, but some of the language and some of the campaigns of recent years can be understood as going in that direction. That is why I wear a white poppy too. White poppies began in the 1930s, through women who had lost husbands and loved ones themselves. Both Red and White poppies have their roots in a desire to respect the actions of those who have died. White poppies emphasis peace.
To have Remembrance Day without a commitment to prevent war in the future is the ultimate dishonour to those who died. Remembrance must include a commitment to peace, a commitment to prevent the tragedy of war. That was the wish and sentiment of those who died. It is why Remembrance Day falls on the day the war stopped and not the day it began!
If the true meaning of Remembrance Day is to be realised then peace must become more highly valued that war. That is why Remembrance Day can make me uneasy.
I find it a true worry that Remembrance Day might, unintentionally, sanitize and glorify war. If we are to truly honour those who have been involved in war, them we must make sure that Remembrance Day leads to people contemplating the awful horror of conflict, for troops and civilians on all sides. Nothing could be more dishonouring to those who conceived of Remembrance Day than it becoming a promotion for the militaristic option – when it was supposed to promote peace. If the marching troops and military processions served to glorify conflict, rather than honour and mourn the victims of war. Well then, if that happens Remembrance Day has failed.