The Pity Of War
On today’s Order of Service there is a picture of a red poppy in full colour. You know well the meaning and significance of the red poppy. Canadian doctor and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem 'In Flanders Fields' on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.
'In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields'.
The poppy has long been associated with sleep and death – from ancient times, in fact. It is blood red and numerous on the ground in northern Europe as were the injured, dying and dead of the First World War. On 1st July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, of Britain’s Fourth Army 19,240 were killed in that one day and there were a total of 57,470 casualties. The French had 1,590 casualties and the German 2nd Army lost 10,000–12,000 casualties.
Not everyone wears a poppy and not everyone wears a red poppy. Some wear a white poppy. In 1926, a few years after the introduction of the red poppy the idea of pacifists making their own poppies was put forward by a member of the No More War Movement. Their intention was to remember casualties of all wars, with the added meaning of a hope for the end of all wars; the red poppy, they felt, signified only the British military dead. The first white poppies were sold by the Co-operative Women's Guild in 1933. Those who promote the wearing of white poppies argue that the red poppy conveys a specific political standpoint. They choose the white poppy over the red often because they wish to disassociate themselves from the militaristic aspects of Remembrance Day, rather than the commemoration itself. Next year much is to be made of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. No doubt there will be a lot of talk of heroism and sacrifice and of the courage and nobility of the British soldiers of the time. There is a national duty to remember the fallen and their families – swathes of rural and highland Scotland, for example, with their disproportionate losses of a generation of men, husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, friends. It is easy to go beyond remembrance to glorification – the glorious dead. And it is never popular to question the whole purpose and enterprise of the 1st Word War or criticise the military leadership responsible for such catastrophic losses.
My own great uncle Hugh Reid was a doctor in the trenches of the 1st World War. I got to know him well because my brother and I stayed in a spare room in his surgery in Windsor Terrace at St George’s Cross in Glasgow when we were students. He survived the War uninjured and having tended horrific injuries and dying he was not a soft touch and he did not dish out pills for little reason. 'Go and get yourself some fresh ai'r he would counsel a malingering patient or two. 'Nothing wrong with you, away you go and don’t waste my time'. He’d write prescriptions with 'Mistura ADT' on them; the patient would thank him and go off to the chemist down the road who knew my uncle well. He’d read the prescription and knew the meaning. ADT stood for 'any damned thing'. The chemist would give the patient what used to be called a placebo - a bottle of something with no medicinal properties whatsoever. Dr Reid worked into his eighties and lived well into his nineties. He would say, 'I may not be popular – but I’m pleased with myself'. In passing it is interesting to contrast his style with those of doctors today. But also of other professionals like the Police who are now like social workers, and yes, we Ministers. You don’t hear any knockabout fire and brimstone from the pulpits these days, do you? Even the words ‘sin’ and ‘hell’ are rarely heard.
Those who were there in the battle grounds of the 1st World War were entitled to express their reservations. And Wilfred Owen did. He was one of the leading poets of the First World War, an Englishman and a 2nd Lieutenant in the British Army. Interestingly, during the war, he spent some time recuperating from injury at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh and taught briefly at Tynecastle School. He won the Military Cross for bravery. He died on 4 November 1918, just one week before the signing of the Armistice. He did not glorify war. His poem 'Strange Meeting' typifies his realism.
'It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said that other, "save the undone years,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled'.
British governments are good at putting on impressive parades. People the world over come to see them and many governments aspire to such show, colour and discipline. Remembrance Day services are moving. And so it should be.
Of course we remember also the fallen and injured of the 2nd World War and their families. 42,000,000 of humanity throughout the world died. The phenomenon of Hitler makes us reach deep into our understanding. Where does such evil originate? Is it just in the human mind and imagination? What are we humans capable of at our worst? Given the opportunity to exercise unchallenged power over one another, what do we humans do? We kill. Stalin’s 30,000,000+. Mao’s 30,000,000+. Present day Syria’s hundreds of thousands. We also remember other conflicts, Korea, Kenya, Malaya, Aden, Suez, Falklands, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan. Britain has been fighting wars all its life. How can that be for a so called Christian country?
We like to pick out the best and forget the rest. Scots played a disproportionate role in the formation and expansion of the British Empire. Scots were always up for a fight. Poverty and lack of prospects led to many young men joining our armed forces. That is still true today. It was no surprise to hear last week that post-traumatic stress disorder is more prevalent among younger soldiers from poorer backgrounds than from soldiers from other social groups.
The Pity of War, the pity war distilled – Wilfed Owen’s conclusion – a decorated soldier – unimpressed with war. In June 1918 he had also written the poem Futility.
'Was it for this the clay grew tall?
O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?'
How then do we combat evil? Can it truly be overcome by goodness? Is turning the other cheek the universally applicable answer? What would happen to society if we had no police force - no anti-terrorist specialists, no anti-drugs specialists, no child protection specialists? What would happen to our country if we had no army, navy and air force? Might it not be a wrecking ground – a wasteland? Do we not see on our TV screens all too often examples of such human bestiality that make us shudder and weep? We hear every day of Islamic jihad – holy war – justified by Islamic faith – do we suppose we would not mostly all now be Muslims in Britain – excepting a few willing to confess Jesus Christ and suffer for it?
The route of pacifism and of non-violence has been very influential in history. The pacifism and non-violence of Jesus (excepting his overturning of the money changers tables in The Temple) has been more influential than any human war, arguably more influential than all human wars put together. It is possible to overcome evil with good and Jesus has shown us that. But he Himself took a terrible hammering and met the cruellest of deaths. And so we can never be complacent or over-optimistic. If some nations disarmed - others would take advantage. Jesus’ way is a choice for individuals and for groups of people, for communities and societies and even for nations. It is the way to peace through self-sacrifice. What became the Christian Church took this pathway for three centuries. It followed Jesus. Having become the official state faith of the Roman Empire however, Christian leaders decided that whole swathes of the Christian population could not be asked to meekly surrender their lives to enemy armies and barbarians to be slaughtered in genocides. They evoked the principle of the just military defence of innocent third parties. It was right for Christians, they said, to go to war to protect others. It was noble to lay down their lives for their friends. See how Jesus words in John’s Gospel assumed a new meaning. The difference was of course that Christian soldiers did not just lay down their lives as Jesus did – they killed and were killed. Once that step was taken there has been in every generation some reason to go to war.
And so we appropriate this same confused and compromised message today as we remember the fallen of our military history. Teenage boys went from these villages to fight against Germany in 1914 and against Hitler in 1939, later also against Japan. Some lost their lives. Some were badly injured. Some were mentally scarred for life. Most survived. Would it have been better to have taken a non-violent pacifist posture in the face of Adolf Hitler? Hardly anyone would say so. The Nazi Empire was far more inhumane, bestial, perverted and murderous than the Roman Empire ever was. The scale and nature of the inhumanity had never been seen on earth before. Against the odds, the armed forces of decency won the battles and won the wars. In remembering with thanksgiving, we should also acknowledge that this is not how our Lord and Saviour lived. But we have the opportunity to freely follow Him, and we should do so now.