Remembrance Day 2022
We are at War - this Remembrance Day, make no mistake. By his actions Vladimir Putin has declared war on Europe. The invasion of Ukraine and its conduct and manner with indiscriminate bombing of ordinary people in their homes, evidence of mass murders, removal of thousands of citizens and children to Russia, imprisonment and torture of captured soldiers and civilians, destruction of essential infrastructure and total ideological negation of Ukrainian history and existence is war at its worst. It is also psychological war seeking to spread fear and terror throughout the world with the threat of nuclear holocaust. And it is economic war which we here are paying for along with many others throughout Europe and beyond. Boris Johnson for all his faults and failings understood what was happening. He said to Volodymyr Zelenskyy ‘We are paying for this war with money. You are paying with your blood’. The Ukrainians are fighting for our freedom as well as their own. We are letting them do it.
A new phrase has emerged in recent days. ‘The single use soldier’. We know what a single use camera is and we know what a single use razor is. But Vladimir Putin has been deploying young untrained soldiers to the front line of battles without expectation of survival to die there. One soldier, one action, one death. Russian cruelty is shared among its own as well as with others. We may feel superior for a moment. But consider our own history. At the Battle of Quebec in 1759, General James Wolfe sent his Scottish Highland soldiers forward saying “no great mischief if they fall.” You may remember the 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London’s in 2014, a tribute to the dead of the First World War. There has been ongoing criticism of the sacrifice of soldiers for little territorial gain in the years of that war. 57,470 casualties with 19,240 deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig who was born in Edinburgh and is buried in Dryburgh Abbey has been regarded by some as the worst British general of all time, a donkey who sent lions to their untimely deaths. But military historian Gordon Corrigan, himself a major in the Royal Gurkha Rifles sought to correct that evaluation in his book ‘Mud, Blood and Poppycock’ published in 2003 contending that Haig’s strategy tied the German army down and prevented them from advancing west further south and achieving victory.
My own great uncle Hugh, my Gran’s younger brother, was a doctor in the 1st World War. I have a copy of his Record of Service. I got to know him well because my brother and I stayed in the spare room of his surgery in Windsor Terrace near St George’s Cross in Glasgow when we were students. He survived the War and having tended horrific injuries and the dying he was not a soft touch as a GP and he did not dish out pills for little reason. “Go and get yourself some fresh air” 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. ‘Mistura’ was Latin for ‘Mixture’. ‘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. On good days my great uncle would say. ‘The finest tonic there is – a rise in your shares’. But on days when the stock market fell, he would come in, refuse to see patients, lie down on his surgery couch and give himself time to recuperate. He worked into his eighties and lived into his nineties. He would say, “I may not be popular – but I’m pleased with myself”. He was not really right wing – compared to Genghis Khan. 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 us these days, do you? Truth and honesty are at a premium in today’s ministry.
My Dad and my wife’s Dad served throughout the Second World War. My Dad held on to his kit bag for many a year and I played with it as a child. I can’t remember if I packed up my troubles in it. They never spoke much about the war to any of us. As a parish minister in Blackburn and Seafield in West Lothian I came across veterans, unsung heroes, suffering life long with what is now called post traumatic stress disorder. Men like Jimmy Milne, an ex-Japanese prisoner of war, Guy Caldwell, a survivor of the murderous battle of Monte Casino. 383,700 UK military died in the 2nd World War.
In more recent British military history 454 British forces personnel died while serving in Afghanistan. Few would argue that their deaths were worth it. What is worse is that some of these soldiers died while on foot patrols in areas known to be strewn with mines. They drove Land Rovers without armour and some had to buy their own decent boots before leaving for their tours of duty. We British are great at parades and commemorations, trying to inoculate our memories against the actualities.
Wars are terrible. Human chaos at its most self-destructive. We are the only species on earth that massacres its own. Stalin’s 30 million, Mao’s 70 million, Hitler responsible for 42 million. What is the origin of such evil? The Bible says that we are a fallen species. Cain slew Abel. The impetus to our fall however came from outside ourselves. Of which the serpent in the garden of Eden is the symbol. We each know the subtle voice of temptation. It is a basic factor in our consciousness. But that is a long way from making us genocidal criminals. Could it be that our violent nature is inherited through the journey from primitive state to modernity, from clubs and stones to nuclear weapons? Violence is the means to power and territory in this world. The great empires were excessively cruel to defeated enemies. The Assyrians invented new tortures for captives. Julius Caesar cut the hands off Gallic prisoners and sent them home to their villages to warn others. The Spanish Conquistadors were sadistically brutal to the indigenous tribes of South America.
The British Empire was tempered by Christianity. But in our contempt for Vladimir Putin we should remember our own military history. It goes back over 1000 years. The United Kingdom has been involved in 120 wars since 1707. And even since the Second World War, there has been Palestine, Korea, Malaya, Cyprus, Suez, Aden, Ireland, the Falkland Islands, the Balkans, Kosovo, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, ISIS – and that’s not all of them. The National Memorial Arboretum records the names of more than 16,000 servicemen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country since the end of the Second World War. We have been a fighting nation, a fighting people. Scots too – very much part of the story.
Remembrance Day is an act of atonement. It is a demonstration of the follies and failures of war. We cannot glorify war, certainly not as Christians. It is a solemn calling to mind of the worst aspects of our human nature and condition. The current television series SAS Rogue Heroes shows us the wilder side of soldiering. We British glorify our SAS. They are the elite, the best. They do good through doing bad. They rescue hostages, they neutralise enemies. They are the toughest alpha macho males. They train other nations’ soldiers to be like them. They are warriors, first and last. And when they leave their service, they are wrecks.
Standing before our Maker we cannot always claim the higher moral ground. But we can in mitigation make the distinction between voluntary war such as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and just war such as the struggle against Hitler. There is excessive wickedness abroad in the human community. We might find it hard to agree that someone called Satan is stalking the earth disturbing and distressing human life. But evil certainly is – big time. There is a global existential anxiety present in humanity. We baby boomers have had our lives to live in relative peace. War has not reached our doorsteps. But the future is uncertain for our grandchildren and theirs.
All wars are judged by the personal example of the Prince of Peace, Jesus our Lord. Without him as our teacher and guide we would judge wars only by who won. Christianity is the restraining influence, the moderating presence, the reconciling component of wars. Isaiah’s words are carved into the walls of the United Nations building in New York. "...they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). The United Nations appears powerless and useless to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine. But it has had a moderating influence in many places since its foundation in 1946. But can the UN prevent a third world war? It seems not. Already Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are set against Ukraine, the European nations and America. There’s plenty of nuclear missiles on both side.
The appeal to peace is an unnatural one for human beings. We know Jesus’ words ‘But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’ That is the gold standard. Jews and Muslims still take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Vladimir Putin though professing to be Orthodox Christians, enacts the doctrine ‘escalate to de-escalate’. Get your retaliation in first. It is not obedience to Jesus Christ that prevents nuclear war – only the the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in other words, self-preservation.
Jesus’ words ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ are always used to describe the fallen in our wars. And they did. And we remember them today. But there is a problem here. They also killed for themselves and their friends, that is us. Jesus did not. The only thing Jesus cursed was a fig tree and the only time he lost his rag was with the loan sharks in the Temple. His disciples were willing to fight and he told them ‘No’.
How could Jesus have pointed us to his eternal kingdom if he had been a warrior and military leader. He and only he is the Prince of Peace. Many Christians have followed his way over the millennia to be come perfect in God’s sight. They have refused to carry weapons and kill. They have not been largely respected. Indeed some have been imprisoned even in this country. Conscientious objectors. Others have volunteered as stretcher bearers and medical support workers. Chaplains have gone unarmed to the front lines. There have been many Christian soldiers who reconciled Jesus’ teaching with the necessities of protecting millions of lives from invaders, oppressors and aggressors. So we are helping Ukraine behind the lines. And Boris has a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine – like the one which rebuilt broken and devastated Europe after the Second World War.
Spiritual non-violent Christianity also calls on military imagery. St Paul did with his putting on the whole armour of God in the battle against cosmic evil, dominions and powers, the helmet of salvation, the breast plate of righteousness, the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the sword of the spirit which is the world of God (Ephesians 6 : 10 - 20). The Salvation Army does so in proclaiming the Gospel and in its social action. We used to sing ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ and ‘Fight the good fight’. The Boys Brigade and Girls Brigade are imitation armies. The term today is ‘activist’. Christians are meant to be ‘activists’ for Jesus Christ and for his Name in this world. Would you describe churchgoers as activists? We are at war, spiritual war, so that Christianity might survive. We are sent over the top by donkeys at 121 George Street and by those in the new large presbyteries. Without the training and equipment to make any difference. Without personal confession of Faith in Jesus Christ. The Church of Scotland has a wealth of gifted and able people and ministers. Why are we failing? Because we are not up for the fight and we are not inspired and led to be so.
Do you think that the men who died in the First and Second World Wars would be proud of our society today? Would they not say ‘Is this what we died for?’ Let us then rededicate ourselves to Christian resilience, commitment and activism for Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us raise the banner of our faith throughout the land and proclaim the central Christian truth ‘Jesus is Lord’.