VETERANS DAY AND THE AFTERMATH OF THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: SOME THOUGHTS FOR THE ROYAL BRITISH LEGION.
This is a service of remembrance. And remembering is a hazardous and unreliable business. It’s easy to edit things out and re-vision history. We can demonize the past or sentimentalize it. We can edit out the nasty bits or concentrate on the awful bits. But the fact that it is hard doesn’t let us off the hook of the necessity of remembering.
Laurence Binyon wrote For the Fallen, while sitting on the cliffs in north Cornwall, in 1914.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
So, what do we think we’re doing when we remember our war dead? Whatever it is it’s not a trip down memory lane. Novelist William Faulkner warns us “the past is never dead; it is not even past.” Another way of putting it is “The present is what the past is doing now!” On this solemn occasion, we are invited to interpret our present reality by remembering and honoring the past. So, what is there to remember?
In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the world rejoiced and celebrated. After four years of bitter war, an armistice was signed. The “war to end all wars” was over. In 1921, an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation’s highest place of honor (in England, Westminster Abbey; in France, the Arc de Triomphe).
If the idealistic hope had been realized that World War I was “the War to end all Wars,” November 11 might still be called Armistice Day. But only a few years after the holiday was proclaimed, you remember, war broke out again in Europe. Eventually, congress was requested to make this day an occasion to honor those who have served America in all wars. In 1954 President Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day.
It would be easy to sentimentalize and/or demonize – the bravery and the courage, the idiocy and the cruelty of that war. All the war dead are all memorialized today; and, what is very painful is that what we remember intensifies our fears and hopes about our present crises and miseries – the millions displaced and on the move in our own time. Aleppo – just to mention one place of horror.
Great and searing poetry came out of that war to end all wars. Perhaps the most famous? In Flanders Fields by Major John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
And there’s Wilfred Owen’s angry and heartfelt poem:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife,
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven.
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by the horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Owen also trained young men for the Front. To Osbert Sitwell – July 1918 — “ I see to it that he is dumb, and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him everyday, and with maps make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”
So, how do we honor the dead – especially in tense and divided times? In three ways – by remembrance, by probing the past and, above all, by honoring and not wasting the sacrifice of the slaughtered and wounded. How should we interpret our own time? In the light of history, how should we live?
The best way we can honor the dead is to get back in touch with our deepest selves, with our souls. Tragedy ensues when human beings assume that a man, a woman, has no soul – that is to say, that life has no intrinsic meaning, no value. Human beings become disposable – bodies on the rubbish heap of history. And that’s how many human beings on the planet feel today. The soul has gone out of their world. There is no justice, no peace, no food, no water, no health care, no schools, no common humanity.
George Orwell saw the absence of soul in himself and the people around him – writing at the end of the 1930s (another ominous time for the world).
“I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing hat had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that had been cut away is his soul, and there was a period – twenty years, perhaps – during which he did not notice it.”
Now, we’re noticing the “absence of soul”.
Yet people long for soul, that is, for responsibility for their lives because they are of infinite worth, even if they daren’t believe it. Even as they don’t know how to go about having a soul. Religion is vital because it provides the window of transcendence – in spite of its failures, it opens us up to a deeper reality.
Mary McCarthy’s reaction to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) is telling. She found it “morally exhilarating. I freely confess that it gave me joy and I too heard a paean in it – not a hate-paean to totalitarianism but a paean to transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of Figaro or the Messiah. As in those choruses, a pardon or redemption of some sort was taking place.” Evil cannot and must not be sentimentalized or whitewashed but neither should it be thought of as inevitable. To acknowledge that you have a soul is to know that compassion and forgiveness, love and redemption have the last word. These are the values we need to inject into our political discourse.
Having a soul is a way of talking about call to be human. Being human isn’t simply a biological fact; it’s a vocation, a skill. It’s a question of how you see the world and interpret it. What’s happening to and in the world? It’s looking for its soul. We’re looking for ours! Looking for our common humanity. And war and violence – even in the midst of their horror – show up in stark detail our common humanity.
G.A. Studdert Kennedy – a great chaplain in WWI:
“On June 7th, 1917, I was running to our lines half mad with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had once been a wooded copse. It was being heavily shelled. As I ran I stumbled and fell over something. I stopped to see what it was. It was an undersized, underfed German boy, with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head. I remember muttering, ‘You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? not much “great blonde Prussian” about you.’ Then there came light. It may have been pure imagination, but that does not mean it was not also reality, for what is called imagination is often the road to reality. It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place there lay Christ upon the cross, and cried, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my little ones ye have done it unto me.’ From that moment on I never saw a battlefield as anything but a crucifix. From that moment on I have never seen the world as anything but a crucifix.”
This lens – the lens of the cross – the lens of sacrificial love – is a way of looking at this day of remembrance. Its stark realism promises hope not despair.
This month is the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. It finally concluded in November 1916 (begun on July 1). By the end (141 days), the British and French had advanced only 6 measly miles. The final casualty count was a staggering 1.1 million: 420,000 British, 203,000 French, and 465,000 German. Britain’s most notorious military engagement – remembered as its greatest military disaster – the sacrifice of a generation – a bloody defeat in a futile war. Mythologized and overanalyzed as well. A defining battle in European history – a clash of empires. Field Marshal Haig was subsequently nicknamed “The Butcher of the Somme” not by the Germans, but by his own men. That slaughter touches us today. And there’s a personal connection here – the thread of history. Remember: “the past is never dead; it is not even past.”
There’s one family, represented here today, by a good friend – the grandson/grandnephew of five brothers who fought in that terrible war (like my own grandfather). Dickie (one of the five brothers) was assigned to the Western Front where he was eventually promoted to Captain. On the eve of the Battle of Poelcapelle October 1917, he sent this short letter home:
“This is just a short note in case of anything happening. But whatever does happen, it is all for the best and only what God wills for us… I am going in, putting all my trust in God, and may He do what he wills. I will try and do my bit and take things as they come … the one thing I am sorry for is that I have not had much chance of showing how grateful I am to you all for what you have done for me. I shall never be able to make up for all, but only hope you will take the wish for the deed. … You must try to take things as they come as well. Though I know how very much harder it will be for you all … Please don’t be too upset if I do go, as it really is all for the best. … I could go on writing forever, but just remember how proud I am to do my bit, and keep up the tradition of the family.”
In the following battle, Dickie was shot and fell in the mud. His body was never discovered.
Here’s a very different experience. Lieutenant John Brande Trend wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement from the Somme (published on July 20, 1916) thanking the editors for an eloquent article on Mozart’s Magic Flute! It was as if to say, even from the depths of hell, no matter what happens, we still live in a world which plays the music of mozart! He wrote, “in the middle of this bustle and clatter, and the revolting ugliness of the business came una marcia per il fango (from The Marriage of Figaro) – one is inexpressibly revived and cheered at being reminded of anything so beautiful as one of Mozart’s operas . . . . “ Strange, elitist? Maybe, yet a reminder of the beauty still present in the midst the horror. The longing for soul cannot be completely obliterated – even in these strange and trying times.
There was also an article from October 5, 1916 about war and art – reminding readers never to lose sight of our common humanity. “We have seen the German prisoner in the Somme films — what a pathetic and helpless human being he is . . . [but] then he comes to life, and in his loneliness and helplessness [his humanity shines through]. One of these prisoners, sitting dazed among his enemies, a mere lost part of a broken machine, is offered a cigarette by an English soldier. In a moment his face is beautifully lit, lit with the sudden glory of the truth that [we are all human] and our humanity is triumphant over any process that would make us less than human.”
So we honor the dead, we acknowledge the sacrifice but we do not glorify war and, above all, we dare to celebrate our shared and common humanity. We honor that longing for soul! We honor their sacrifice by honoring the deepest part of ourselves. We resist amnesia!
One of the five brothers I mentioned, — Dickie’s brother — Dom Ambrose, served as a chaplain on the western front. After the war he returned to England and eventually became Abbott of a Benedictine Abbey in south London. This poem is one that Dom Ambrose wrote for his brother Dickie’s eulogy:
The legions start with rhythmic gait
To claim their meed of victory.
Through Flanders, home of memories,
they pass. No clink of hoof or chain,
nor echo of sharp-voiced command
attends their coming home again.
But home again they march today
In serried ranks through London streets,
And we shall stand in awe and see
The faces that we knew so gay
Look out to us, as who should say:
“Is it so long that we are dead,
That ye could not remember us?
Ye live and love and laugh: oh see
Our lonely, our forgotten bed
Of clay. We won the Victory
That ye enjoy. At least this day
We claim no thing that gold can buy,
But memory, your memory!”
Don’t let us forget! Memory! Amnesia is bad for the soul and our world is in danger of the violence and terror that comes from the loss of memory. We need to learn from history how to live now because “the past is never dead; it is not even past.”
What about the chaos of world politics? Religion – spaces like a great cathedral — raise one important question – that of the call to sacrifice and a rejection of the current consumer culture, which understands itself only through the lens of economics. Remember George Orwell writing in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937): the weakness of a Socialism, committed, as it claimed, to justice and liberty but also to seeing the world only through the eyes of economics and the hope of a materialistic Utopia, “proceeded on the assumption that man has no soul.” On the other side, we see the weakness and terror of Fascism coming from the Right, which offers tyranny is exchange for safety – it plays upon our need for authoritarian nationalism.
SO, don’t let’s waste this vital day, which helps us not only to get in touch with our souls but get in touch with each other and re-imagine a world of justice and peace ! In the light of all we are called to remember today, how should we live now? Today is a great gift. A time to reconnect with each other, to reconnect with our souls. Remember: “the past is never dead; it is not even past.”
At least this day
We claim . . no thing that gold can buy,
But memory, your memory!”
May they rest in peace.
In gratitude to them, may we rise with grace and courage to meet the present challenges, to fight for justice and peace and for the common good.
May it be so!
The Very Reverend Alan Jones, PhD, OBE, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. A sermon preach at the Royal British Legion Remembrance Day Service, November 13, 2016.