Remembering fallen heroes

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Ash Sarker decided that Remembrance Day was a good time to share some pithy wisdom with us.

Unsurprisingly her tweet got short shrift from most people. It’s not as though we go out of the way to put up bunting and hold parties to in someway celebrate war on the 11th November. This response perhaps captured the mood best.

It would of course help prevent confusion if people could hold off putting up their Christmas decorations until the start of December. But the point is that generally speaking, the focus of Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday is on taking time to solemnly reflect.  There is of course a sense of thankfulness that we have in the past seen tyrants defeated. Both World Wars as well as subsequent conflicts are remembered and so whilst 11am on the 11/11 marks the anniversary of the Armistice which ended World War 1, there is also a looking back to the horrors of the Nazi regime too. 

Remembrance though is also marked with hope, tinged with sadness. Hope for peace instead of war tinged with sadness at the recognition of how costly and cruel those wars were.  The key markers of the day are:

  • Wearing poppies -a flower associated with the fields were thousands of young men once lay fallen.
  • Hymns and prayers
  • A 2 minute silence.

Furthermore, the war poetry that Ash mentions is often evoked and recited. The silence itself is wrapped around by quotes from two such poems.  The invite to silence is:

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.

For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon

When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today

John Maxwell Edmunds

Neither verse could be described as jingoistic or glorying in war.  The former is from a poem called “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon. The preceding verse says:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon

It is a verse that portrays bravery and paints the fallen as heroes but the point is not that our armies were full of powerful, strong, handsome young men who conquered all before them. The poem is written as through a mourning mother’s eyes with the mother being England herself.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,

England mourns for her dead across the sea.

However, the point is that these young lives have been lost to the brutality of the war. WE choose to remember more those who fell and did not come back than we focus on the returning victorious. It’s fascinating isn’t it that even the war language we draw on to motivate people today is not that of all conquering victory but rather the spirit of Dunkirk and the Blitz.

It is well and truly drummed into us now that the First World War was brutal and violent to the point where the tendency is more towards seeing it as an unnecessary and futile waste.   Alan Clarke’s line that the soldiers were “lions led by donkeys” has become engrained even at the point when historians are questioning that assumption. There are two reasons for that question. First that the shift from traditional battlefield combat to mechanised war caught everyone out. Second that it was the Germans who, wishing to avoid being in conflict on two fronts simultaneously had a strategy of sweeping swiftly through the French lines so it was to their cost that the battle got bogged down and they faced dogged resistance.

So, what is the argument really about? Well, this tweet probably gets us closer to the nub of things. 

The question is not about whether war was brutal or even whether there was coercion on young men to enlist and fight. The question is about heroism, whether or not it is helpful to see those events through the prism of heroism.  I think there is a case to answer here because to some extent those who dug in on the Somme in WW1 and those who stayed in London and kept going through the Blitz had little if any choice in the matter. Furthermore, we can talk about heroes in such a way that could be seen as a put down and an attack on those who suffered horrifically from PTSD.  WE recognise now that there were many wrongly shamed as cowards and deserters. 

Yet, I want to disagree with the charge. I think that the Remembrance observation gets the balance right. It recognises that there was bravery and costly sacrifice against the background of horrors we wish not to see repeated. It is an opportunity too for people to remember the cost of war and the dedication of loved ones, some who gave their life, some who came home bearing the physical and emotional wounds. This Sunday I’ll remember Granddads who served in the RAF and the Army. I’ll also remember men  from my days with the Brethren Gospel Hall in Bradford who as pacifists refused to bear arms but bravely went onto the field of battle unarmed, risking their lives as stretcher bearers. I’ll remember men who lived into their 90s and were faithful at Bearwood Chapel having served and seen the horrors of war.

There’s another element to this.  There’s been some discussion recently about whether or not it is possible to consider Christians from history as heroes. Part of the problem is our alertness to their failings, for example the association of Whitfield and Edwards with the slave trade. The other part is a concern that this could become idolatrous and take away attention from Christ. Again, there is a risk of this.

However, I think the Bible does offer the possibility of the dignified and appropriate memory of heroes, whether it is David’s mourning the fall of Jonathan or the Hebrews 11 recital of those who had faith. The latter shows that the focus should not be on them as an end in themselves but rather through their faith on The Lord.

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