Sunday, November 11, 2007

Day 10: Remembrance 

Ever since August this year, the South Asia page of the BBC News website has been one of the first I visit, always with a touch of apprehension, when I turn the computer on before breakfast. My oldest son, J., is on six month tour of duty in Afghanistan. He’s not a regular soldier, but he’s in the Territorial Army (TA) – the volunteer reserve. “Weekend soldiers”, they’re sometimes rather disparagingly called, but they also serve as equals alongside their full-time counterparts wherever the British Army has a presence.

Usually on Remembrance Sunday, I’ll just go along as usual to the local Methodist Church where I’m a member, but today it seemed appropriate for us to go a few miles down the road to Barnet where his TA group hosts the parade to the war memorial for all the local uniformed organisations who traditionally take part, and then attend with them the service at the Anglican church.

I always feel uncomfortable about the link between church and warfare which this day in the calendar exposes. The common factor between the two I suppose is nationhood, reflected in the opening words of the traditional Remembrance Day prayer: “Let us remember before God and commend to his sure keeping: those who have died for their country in war…” – one of the reasons perhaps why I’ve never felt drawn to the Church of England, preferring always the non-conformist denominations. You cannot serve two masters; but more of that later.

War is bad; remembrance is good. Keep those two ideas separate and you may stay sane. Unfortunately though, they are inextricably linked. The vicar did not, to my mind, do a particularly effective job of exploring this paradox – he kept his blinkers firmly in place, sticking to the traditional straight and narrow. Far easier on such day, and in such company - and, to be fair, probably more appropriate - to put aside the difficult questions about war, and focus instead on the sacrifices made by millions. That, after all, is why we were there. All the same, he treads on dangerous ground when he hints at the idea of nobility of sacrifice, and draws parallels with the very root of Christian faith – the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Did the soldiers of Passchendaele feel such nobility? I doubt it very much. It is something we have devised after the event – in truth, as a way of honouring them, nevertheless by thinking in such terms we risk moving a step down the road to the glorification of war.

My father took a very simple line. He was a devout Christian, and knew that for him, the authority of God came above the authority of any man – even a three-star general. And God had said quite plainly (or would have said, had he delivered the clay tablets to King James instead of Moses) “Thou shallt not kill”. Some translators have rendered this as “Thou shallt do no murder”, but whatever the original clay tablets may have recorded, for my father, the traditional interpretation of the command was absolute and beyond doubt. His allegiance was first to God, second to fellow men and women; nations and generals came a long way down the list.

He wasn’t prepared in any circumstances to kill, so instead, as the most appropriate way he could think of to serve both God, his fellow men and even the generals, he volunteered to train as a battlefield medic – probably a role equally as dangerous as a front-line soldier. But he’d still be a soldier, and would have to carry a rifle, which he could be ordered to use. And if that happened, he would inevitably refuse, equally inevitably be court-martialled, and so bring shame, dishonour and hardship on his family. So he took the only remaining course of action open to him – he registered as a conscientious objector, and joined the Non-Combatant Corps.

This was no ideological ivory tower, either. He wasn’t simply anti-war, he was actively pro-peace, at the level where such ideals can have most impact – personally, in his relationships with everyone around him. He lived as an active peacemaker, always seeking reconciliation and harmony, sometimes at great emotional cost to himself.

So here I am; son of a conscientious objector, father of a serving soldier. Where does that place me? Perhaps inevitably, I’ve inherited some of my father’s peacemaking qualities, and in seeking reconciliation that means I can see both sides of the coin.

However unpleasant the notion may be, I feel bound to accept that the evidence of all recorded human history is that the waging of warfare is intrinsic to the human race. It’s a safe bet that in all the tens of thousands of years for which humankind has existed in organised social groups, somewhere over the globe, every single year, wars have been fought between those groups. Much as we would wish it otherwise, it would be foolish to expect next year, or the year after, to be any different from those tens of thousands of preceding years. Hope, yes; work towards, certainly; expect, no.

And from that simple premise, builds in one swift stroke the entire global military edifice. It’s part of humanity, as inhuman as that sounds. So, what if I were called to be a part of that edifice?

It’s a question I sometimes ponder. I don’t know the answer.

Back to current posts