By Barrie Cran
Seventy-Five years ago the guns fell silent at the end of the second world war, firstly in Europe and then in the Far East. Humanity seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, the suffering was over, At last the horror that seemed to envelope the world, and that impacted upon serviceman and woman, as well as millions of civilians, had ended and there was a dawning of a new peace. “Our boys” would come home; things would be better; the killing was over.
Of course, it didn’t really turn out like that. “Our boys”… and don’t forget the many girls, remained on active service, in places of danger across the world. They still do today. Wars didn’t end then. Fighting restarted in Europe and the far east almost immediately. Anyone remember, or even heard of the Greek Civil War? Round one was in December 1944, it didn’t finally finish until 1949! Vietnam started with the first IndoChina war in December 1946. There are still armies fighting in various forms today. We still have UK troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan along with ships, submarines and aircraft deployed around the world. I wonder if this is what was expected when VE and VJ days were celebrated all those years ago.
So, if nothing has changed, why is it important to remember still? In a world where natural jeopardy in the form of COVID and other things seems so real, why do we, in church, take time to remember those whose task it is to be bearers of arms? Don’t worry, I am not about to give discourse on Just War theology, nor am I going to preach on pacificism. But I passionately believe it is important to remember, to stand alongside those who suffer, because that is what Jesus would do. Jesus would look at the individuals who go out to fight, and to suffer.
We all know that war has terrible consequences and we talk of sacrifice. But these are not saints who set out for martyrdom or some great vision of righteousness. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now. So, who are these people whose names are on our memorials, whose hands put the stones in the form of ship’s names above Loch Eribol? Why did they go, why do they still go? They are very ordinary people; people like you, people like me. And they do it for many reasons. In past wars like the first and second World Wars there was no choice. The government decided and they did because they had to, because it was expected of them, because the fate of the nation depended on it. Some went willingly, others reluctantly, but they went, many never to return. They are buried where they fell in carefully tended war graves around the world, or still in their ships and aircraft deep under the ocean. We cannot know what the people behind the names on the memorials across our country and county actually thought, but we do know they went and did not come back. We may never have known them in person, but we should remember them.
But today we are in a different world with the people doing the fighting, at least in our armed services, as volunteers. They volunteer for many different reasons, some for the glory, some because for them it’s the right thing to do. Some because that’s what the family business is, and they follow their father grandfather or even older brother; to them it’s what’s expected. Some do it because the army, navy or air force gives them the family, security, belonging and respect that they have never had. The concept of running away to sea is very much alive and well in the 21st century. It’s not for us to judge their motives, but it is for us all to remember.
Through films and television war can seem very familiar to us all. Somehow, we can all become part of it, have an experience without having to face any danger ourselves. The film Saving Private Ryan was remarkable for the accuracy of the way that the reality of the D Day beaches were shown. It is the only film I have ever seen where the response was silence. When it finished everyone, including a bunch of “see the funny side of everything” submariners, left the cinema in a silence that lasted some time.
So how much more unsettling is the reality. The waking up to a funny whistling noise, followed by dull crump fairly close by and only then alarm sounds. Walking down a dusty road not knowing who the friend or who the foe is. Giving and receiving communion wearing pistols and carrying live ammunition, the body armour and helmets piled up at the back of the dusty room that doubles as a temporary church. The wearing of heavy, cumbersome and hot body armour under a blazing sun. But this is just a scratching the surface of a life that it is for most people, outside comprehension. A life of tension, of uncertainty, of risk, of comradeship, amazing self-sacrifice, of beauty and indescribable horror, of laughter and tears; of love and hate. We cannot understand but we must remember.
And yet in the midst of all this, Jesus is there. He is there not because we deserve it. He is there, not because he is on “our side,” but He is there because people are suffering. He is there because His creation is broken. He is there because He is love and reaches out to us. He does not care that we have brought this suffering upon ourselves. He does care for those who suffer, He does care for those caught up in the terror, the tragedy, the chaos, the hurt, the grief, the destruction that comes from war. He is with the suffering innocents; those caught up by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those who live in places of conflict and hate. If Jesus can be there, we must remember.
And we should be there too. Be there in our thoughts, in our prayers, in our actions. We are called to remember all those who give and all those who suffer. Many countries have their tombs of the unknown soldier. For some they are places of idolisation, a focus for national pride, a rallying point in times of conquest, full of symbology that inspires the next generation to martyr themselves. But for other countries they are places of reverence. The tomb of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey is NEVER walked on. Even Kings and Queens being crowned, Princes and princesses being married, dignitaries being buried, go round it. Princess Elizabeth stopped to place her wedding posy on it when marring the future King George. If the highest in the land can remember, so can we, so must we.
We must remember what they have done for us, give thanks and then work hard that the sacrifices they have made, however, wherever and whenever they were made, have not been made in vain.
In the words that the US 4* General commanding all the forces in Iraq during my time there used to close every daily briefing,
“May God Bless all our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines”