Saturday, 3 November 2018

The Centenary of the Great War: Thoughts on Good Remembrance

“This is without doubt the saddest story I have ever heard.’  That’s the first line of Ford Maddox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier published just as the Great War began.  It captures the dying of an era, the end of innocence.  You read it knowing, as the protagonists did not, that the lights were going out all over Europe.  I have heard it said that the war that was declared in the summer of 1914 did not truly come to an end until 1989.   Perhaps, with the hindsight of another thirty years, we might say that it has still to come to an end. The red horseman of the Apocalypse with his bloodied sword who takes away peace rides this earth yet.  Wilfred Owen called it ‘the pity of war’. 

In a week’s time we shall keep Remembrance Sunday and commemorate the centenary of the 1918 Armistice. It is one of the last truly national rituals left to us. Whoever you are, you are aware of poppies and war memorials, of the Royal Albert Hall, the Cenotaph and the Chelsea Pensioners.  You are drawn into the ceremonies that symbolise the remembrance, the gratitude and the care of a nation.  Every society, every people needs a day such as this both to remember and to think.

I once thought that we should have to work harder in the future to keep the collective memory alive of what it is like when nations go to war, and civilisations are nearly destroyed, and so many have their futures taken away from them or carry their physical and emotional injuries with them for the rest of their lives.  But in the last twenty years we have seen attendances at Remembrance ceremonies soar, especially among the young. For the landscape of war remains only too well known to us.  Our world is as precarious today as it has ever been, more so in some ways with the pressure on liberal democracies and the rise of nationalisms and the far right.  I shall never forget that on the very day of my installation as Dean of Durham the Iraq War began. Its aftermath lingers on. The unfinished business of war casts a long shadow. Its victims, like the poor, are always with us. 

The trouble is that all this is so big in its scope. We look back to 1914 and 1939, and the other conflicts of our age - lesser maybe in scale, but not lesser to those who were its victims. How do you begin to take it in?  A few years ago I was in Russia, in what was once Stalingrad, now Volgograd. There is a vast war memorial there, a colossal sculpture in the tradition of socialist realism that dominates the skyline for miles around. The eternal flame that burns beneath it, the perpetual guard that is kept there, - the need never to forget is everywhere. Yet the hugeness of it didn’t move me as much as something I saw in the museum dedicated to the terrible Battle of Stalingrad of 1942/43: a helmet that had lain frozen for months alongside the body of its owner in that terrible winter, a sweetheart’s letter that was the last thing a dying soldier pressed to his face as he bled in the snow, a battered, forlorn tin mug, a torn photograph of a mother and father who were not to know they would never see their son again. It spoke of unbearable sadness, of the tears in things. 

This for me put a human face on war, because the huge was brought down to the level of individuals.  If you talk to me about the slaughter of millions, my mind seizes up. But talk to me about the suffering and the dying and the bereavement of individual people with names and homes and loved ones, and I begin to know what you mean. Tell me the stories of men, women and children with faces I can picture, and voices I can imagine, and the words become flesh and the reality of it all begins to dawn.

Today’s news has told us that a bugle carried by the poet Wilfred Owen will be sounded at his grave tomorrow, 4 November, exactly 100 years since he was killed in action in France. It was one week, almost to the hour, before the Armistice. He took the bugle from a dead German soldier. Perhaps he wondered who that German was, where he had come from, what family he had left behind at home. “Bugles calling for them from sad shires” says his “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. Calling for them both, on opposite sides of a conflict neither of them wanted, yet united in death by a musical instrument. “Strange Meeting” indeed.

Our Armistice ceremonies and traditions are a way of holding and handing on raw memories of pride and shame, bravery and cowardice, outrage and fear, comradeship and sacrifice. We find our own meanings in them, we think our own thoughts and pray our own prayers during the two-minute silence. The risk is that the rhetoric of remembrance becomes too broad, too elegiac, too generalised for us to make sense of it. I’m reading a rather wonderful book by Rachel Mann, Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God. Her writing originates in her memories of her Grandad Sam and Grandad Bert, both of whom fought in the Great War. They survived it, yet remained its victims all their lives. Her reflections range far and wide across the landscape of conflict and how we remember it, yet she constantly comes back to these two men who anchor her writing in what is specific to them and their families. Particulars matter.

What does Christianity have to say about all this? 

Every Sunday is a remembrance Sunday, for every Sunday we remember a dying and a death. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. It is individual and specific: one man's pain and darkness, one man's broken body and shed blood, one man's mother and best friend looking on in grief as his life ebbed away on the cross. ‘Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still/Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill/While in the frailty of our human clay/Christ our Redeemer passed the self-same way’ says the much-maligned yet (to me, anyway) moving ‘O valiant hearts’. That hymn from the Great War comes straight out of the struggle to make sense of the new experience of mechanised warfare and death on a scale never known before. It’s moving because it interprets those deaths in the light of the death of Jesus; it asks God to “look down and bless our lesser Calvaries” where God suffers in every human soul, each one cherished by God, each death mattering to him, or might we dare to say diminishing him just as it diminishes us?  The cross ties our human suffering to God’s for eternity. We remember. God remembers.

A rabbi was asked whether a garment that had been symbolically torn in grief could be sown up and used again. Yes, he replied, but you mustn’t disguise the tear.  The scar must always show.  In other words, we always carry our collective and individual memories around with us. Time gives a perspective from which meanings can become clearer, the picture comes into focus.  However we must learn in the ceremonies of remembrance not to make it better by easy speeches that gloss over the particularities of suffering, loss and grief with the language of willing self-offering and the glorious dead.

In particular, we mustn't elide our piety as essentially sympathetic bystanders with the raw experiences of those who have served in conflict. Rachel Mann comments on the last line of Siegfried Sassoon's poem "The Attack": “O Jesus, make it stop”. She observes that the difference between prayer and blasphemy is hard to draw. Could we hear the final cry from the cross in Matthew and Mark in that way, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The experience of wondering where God is, the outrage at a God who does not come to rescue us is familiar to human experience. And the resurrection, especially in Mark’s short ending, does not make it “all right”.

At least, not yet. We glimpse a future that could be different, indeed, will be different according to our Christian hope. In the eucharist, we "remember forward" to what will dawn one day, that other country whose “ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace”. It seems as far away as ever for now, further away, I think, even than it seemed earlier in the lives of my post-war generation. Our world is not in a good place as we mark this centenary. All the more reason, then, to make sure remembrance leads us into prayer for the future of humanity. And into reflection, so that we ask ourselves what we have learned from the past and how we intend to act on it. Memory, prayer, wisdom and resolve are the antidote to despair.

These are among the things that will make for "good remembrance".


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