When I was a wee boy, about 7 or 8, Granny Butler, my great gran, was the oldest person I knew. Born in the 1890s she wasn’t really that old, in her mid to late 80s, but as she sat in the same old chair at my gran’s house, where I went every day from school for lunch, she was incredibly wrinkled, and, as I’ve said, to me, anyway – looking very old.
She didn’t really say much. I remember her chain smoking, and occasionally grunting at an equally aged dog, called Rebel.
Occasionally, I was forced to have conversation with Granny Butler, it was only polite; but what does an 8 year old say to an octagenarian? “Ask her about the War”, my mother would hiss, and so me and my brother would stand, in wide-eyed interest and say, “Tell us about the War gran”, for about the tenth time.
My great gran died more than 30 years ago, and the number of those who have direct experience of the First World War has, of course, diminished every day since then. Harry Patch, dubbed ‘The last Tommy’, the last British world war one veteran, died in 2009, aged 111. So if Remembrance Sunday is a time to remember primarily those who fell in the Great War, then there are very few left who can do that.
I think it’s probably true to say that most people in this country have no direct experience of War at all. My own mother was born after World War 2. Obviously, although we have as a country been involved in armed conflict, our professional army means that for most of us, war has become a spectator sport.
Recent wars have been, for those of us in the west, armchair conflicts. We have seen the pictures of precision bombs hitting their targets, looking like a child’s video game. However, with each explosion, many are left killed or maimed. While we may have no direct experience of war and conflict, this is not the case for many of the world’s people.
So what then are we to remember? What is it we do on Remembrance Sunday that we don’t do at any other time?
Is it to remember sacrifice? “Tell them of us and say/ for your tomorrow we gave our today.”
It is common on war memorials to link the sacrifice of young soldiers of the First and Second world wars with Christian ideas of sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. A common text on memorials is from John’s Gospel: “Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for a friend.”
But is this to claim too much? At Remembrance Services in the past, I’ve certainly been aware that many of those standing during the two minutes silence, were remembering specific people: fathers, brothers, husbands, or friends.
What happens when we remember, if ‘remembering’ is indeed the right word, people we simply didn’t know. We begin to remember an idea. When that idea is wrapped up in a Christian notion of sacrifice that is itself linked to atonement, then that becomes a very powerful idea, and the dead become ‘unlike’ us; a different category of person.
But we also remember a presentation of the past. An authorised national narrative, in which soldiers become martyrs for the Nation, dying for our ideals, and our values.
This idea was reinforced by the ritualised repatriation of soldiers, killed in action in Afghanistan, driven through the lined streets of Wooton Bassett, with the ritualised imagery shown on evening news bulletins.
Though the vast majority of our soldiers died far from home, in our remembrance, we reflect that they somehow died for us. For our freedom, for our way of life, for our ‘today’. They conform to the ancient Graeco-Roman pattern of Noble Death; death for the father land: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ in the words of the Roman poet Horace.
And yet, does this leave room for the remembering of individual soldiers – Human beings with families – if Remembrance is essentially about a National story rather than individual stories?
Is this especially the case when this national story is contested? I suspect most of us came across the line Dulce et decorum est not through reading Horace, but through Wilfred Owen’s poem, in which the line is called ‘the old lie.’
Owen and others challenge this National story, but not the bravery of the soldiers.
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Perhaps, in popular culture, this mood is captured most in Blackadder goes Forth in its achingly poignant ‘Over the Top’ scene.
Of course, this way of remembering the War was recently challenged by politicians, most notably, former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who, writing in the Daily Mail in 2014 lambasted Television sit-coms and what he called ‘left-wing academics’ who represented the War as a ‘misbegotten shambles.’
Surely, part of the tragedy of the Great War, shambles or not, is that so many young men, with little training with so much to give to the world, artists, poets, musicians, husbands and fathers, were slaughtered for the sake of a few feet of land.
I wonder if something crucially important is lost when Remembrance turns away from remembering individual stories to insisting that these stories fit within a larger national framework of remembrance. Many of these stories are romanticised. Perhaps they have to be.
I don’t remember much about my Granny Butler’s stories of the Great War. She made bombs, or artillery in Irvine. Listening to her daughter, my Granny Lizzie, who herself died about 10 years ago, you would think that rationing was the best thing ever – indeed you wonder why it was ever abolished!
But she also tells of the difficulty of raising two small children during the blackouts, of having very little, of air raids and fear. We can hear the reality behind the stories that the people who lived through the wars tell. But they are becoming scarce.
When I was an assistant minister at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, part of the job, as it is for all ministers in Parishes was to make pastoral visits, mostly to elderly ladies. I was always struck how much these women had done during the war – the Second World War. Gunners, a typist in Winston Churchill’s war room, a Bletchley Park secretary, and one 95 year old, who volunteered that she’d been on a submarine.
“What were you doing on a submarine?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you” she answered, “otherwise I’d have to kill you!”
This year marked the hundred anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. There were many showings of the film made of the Somme at the time (which I think was the most watched film in cinematic history until Star Wars). It is an incredibly moving piece, more so knowing that many of the young men featured would never return home.
But even this was a representation of the past. And we run the danger that in our ritualised remembrance, when we rightly remember those who died in War, that we put our past, present, and future conflicts beyond critique.
When it comes to war and conflict, there is a lot of it in the Bible. From Cain lifting his hand against Abel within the first few chapters of Genesis, to the Apocalyptic blood-bath of Revelation, there are not just rumours of war, but real ones (or at least real literary ones).
There is a lot of violence that gets the people of God into the Promised Land, but after that they find themselves buffeted between the great Empires of the world: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman. Defeats at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians, including exile, and subsequent return are all reflected in the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible. While most of what we might call ‘predictive prophecy’ about the exile and return was in all likelihood written after the event, it does create in the prophetic writings a narrative logic that means one is never sure where one is in time and space.
Past, present, and future merge in these writings. Even more so, because there is also found utopian visions of the End, when God’s kingdom will be established. While some are clearly difficult to envisage on this temporal plane; lions are simply not going to lie down with lambs, others are more clearly imaginable.
Micah imagines ‘the mountain of the Lord’ – the Temple, with the nations of the world saying,
‘Come let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’
God is set up as the judge of the nations, presumably the righteousness of his judgement meaning there is no need for war:
‘and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’
The absence of injustice removes the need for conflict. For as Martin Luther King said: ‘true peace is not simply the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.’
The eschatological visions of the Bible, that is to say, the visions of the End of Time, encourages a theologically linear view of the world. In the Bible, time is not cyclical – it’s not the wibbly-wobbly world of Doctor Who. Instead it encourages us to see our present in terms of both the past and the future.
For in the narrative of the Bible, God makes promises in the past, which are to be actualised in the future. In our reading from Luke, Zechariah addresses his Son, who would become John the Baptist. In the prophecy of Zechariah, God is blessed for fulfilling the hopes of his people in the sending of a saviour, of whom John will become a prophet. Past, present, and future collide.
The visions and prophecies of a time when there will be no more crying or mourning, when the Kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of God, when lions will lie with lambs, when every person will be able to sit under his own vine without fear, and when nation will no more study war, encourage us to remember the future.
A future which we all have a part in creating. It seems to me that the naïve and twee sounding song – ‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me’ – has for all that some truth. Where else could peace begin? If we can let our lives, our relationships, and our communities be characterised by peace, respect, and justice, then surely that is a good place to start.
In remembering the past, let us remember the voices, the stories of individuals and communities at home and abroad that have been affected by War; let us celebrate our national story, our gratitude to those who fought and who fight to preserve our way of life, or who fight to bring freedom and justice to others. But let us at the same time, remember the future, to make sure our past and our present remembering; our sense of ourselves as a nation are always subject to that future vision of God’s reign (however we understand it) to hold ourselves and our leaders to account, that where we engage in conflict, it is to further not hinder the bringing about of that future vision of peace on earth.
So as long as there is injustice our world, we need to remember.
As long as there is hatred in our world, we need to remember.
As long as there is violence in our world, we need to remember.
Until all nations have beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, then we need, we must remember not only the past, but the future vision of a just and achievable world.