Address for Remembrance Sunday Service 2014
It has become something of an international sensation: I refer to the art installation in the Tower of London’s moat; 888,246 ceramic poppies – one for every Commonwealth soldier who died in the First World War. Judging from the aerial photos – its breath-taking but goodness knows what it must be like to stand amidst it. It gives such a striking impression of the almost unimaginable losses in that war – on this day when we try to remember.
The researchers employed for this work in the Tower of London also asked a great many people what they thought should be remembered. I was impressed by the words of one schoolgirl who said ‘I think it should be remembered as something that should never have happened.’
Who would argue with that?
The truth is that no one can now actually remember:
“At the going down of the sun, and in the morning / We will remember them.”
No, we mustn’t and won’t forget, but neither can any of us remember: no-one actually remembers, anymore.
Harry Patch died on 25 July 2009 - the last fighting Tommy - and with him the last actual memories of fighting the First World War.
Harry Patch remembered, his whole generation remembered, yet he carried those memories inside himself for longer than most of that generation lived. For eighty years he never even spoke of what he had seen at Passchendale, of the reality of fear or of the image that haunted him all his life, of a wounded comrade, ripped from shoulder to waist by shrapnel, pleading for death and his mother: a bloody, muddy and haunting image of the war to end all wars.
Fortunately for us Patch broke his eighty year silence. It has been said that the ghosts of his memory were agitated by the futility of his experience, angered by each successive generation’s failure to learn, horror repeating horror. So, interviewed not that long before his death, the last fighting Tommy made his point very simply: ‘the younger generation can’t imagine what it was like’. That’s the truth: we can’t imagine it; that is a leap too far for us.
Libraries of popular military history and military memoir attest to our appetite to read about man at his violent, animal worst, and perhaps sometimes at his heroic, selfless best. But there is something about the act of war, the direct human experience of conflict which seems to set it apart: participation is privileged and the accounts of actors deferred to; you don’t know ‘cause you weren’t there, man.
Perhaps indeed it is best remembered as something that should never have happened.
Yet the truth is that our remembering has to endure alongside continuing conflicts; continuing horrors. Our digitally connected age brings the conflict into our living rooms, our phones, and into our everyday waking world.
I believe this changes our remembering and how we think about war. It introduces a new complexity. I watch the Al Jazeera news and its coverage of the conflict with ISIL. The horrors are graphically revealed. We can no longer plead ignorance of barbarism and the slaughter of innocents. No generation has been better informed than we are.
It seems to me pacifism has now become so much harder. I don’t want to debate Just War theory or repeat the arguments of Augustine and Aquinas; but to see the helplessness of the innocent and not to feel an obligation to act seems to me unconscionable.
We may get things wrong, make mistakes; innocents will almost certainly suffer – consider the ghastly euphemism ‘collateral damage’. Nonetheless can our remembrance of war, our awareness of frailty and risk prevent us from action, allow us to do nothing? May we allow ourselves to be desensitised by the recurring and overwhelming images of horror and slaughtered innocents, only to justify inaction by whatever rationale we can find?
We live in dangerous times – I think more dangerous than we may imagine.
Today we remember a war ‘that should never have happened’.