In the 21st chapter of St Luke’s gospel, amongst his warnings to his followers, Jesus spoke of signs from heaven, of wars, of nation rising against nation. For anyone who sees Jesus as some sort of otherworldly idealist, this comes as necessary correction. Jesus was a realist, he lived in the same world in which we do, he knew the human condition. He speaks of wars in the same breath as earthquakes, famines and pestilence. They are part of the lot of mankind. Yet, I wonder. There is a vital sense in which wars are radically different: the other fearful events may be termed natural disasters, wars are made by men. The most uncomfortable realisation is that in war people like me do unspeakable things to people like you. . It is what makes them so frightening, it is people like you and I who go to war. It is human, but as human beings we have choice, and that above all is why it is so important to remember.
In my earlier bog, I offered some suggestions on why we should remember. The Second World War was unprecedented. It was a clash of cultures on a monumental scale. If the First World War, with its carnage of young servicemen, had been the war to end all wars and failed, the Second World War was the war to set the pattern for wars to come and in that succeeded most horribly. It was time when the grossly unacceptable was somehow accepted: callous and cruel violence to ordinary people, the attempted elimination of an entire race, the complete disregard for the sanctity of human life. It was theft of the precious gift of life on a massive scale
My problem is how to remember. I wasn’t there; I wasn’t even alive. My experience comes from living in an army family; it is probably true to say that my parent’s lives were defined by the war. My memory of Remembrance is of cold parade grounds. When I went to school I found that I was unusual; if that was then, how much more so now. The link is getting weaker. There will be those here who do remember. I know my Mum always remembered her childhood sweetheart who died in a Japanese camp. I know from her that my Dad had nightmares of the Somme until the day he died. You will have your memories and they are both precious and painful. But, in the context of the nation, yours is an ever diminishing minority.
So do we move on? We could. Our lives and those of our children will be punctuated by the sight of young men who have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan; in time those young men will become middle aged and then old. How much better than having lives cut short; but still how awful a sacrifice. To remember them and to give thanks for what they did is perhaps enough. And we do honour these who gave their lives and sacrificed so much in these more recent conflicts. But, if that is all we do, we risk forgetting an event so unprecedented as to become almost unbelievable.
But how? We can think of the numbers involved. But they are so many millions as to numb our senses. To try to do so has sinister effect. I read of the D Day landings and watch the films. I then read that 10,000 men lost their lives. I read that it was many fewer that might have been expected and I find myself lured into saying good. Good that 10,000 lives were lost? It is the unacceptable being accepted. Of the millions there are countless lives where there is no one who can remember, whole families, whole villages erased. I can try to think of the two year old who never even reached childhood, let alone teenage or adulthood. I don’t know that child’s name but she lived in Coventry, in the East end of London, in Plymouth, in Dresden, in Warsaw, in Hiroshima, in Baghdad. We can gain a more human dimension when we think of individuals, human beings who had mums and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. For some this will come in photographs in family albums, in ribbons of medals, in a fireman’s helmet and axe, but not for everyone.
We and every community in this land have a means by which to remember; we have the names etched on our war memorials. There will be those here for whom those names conjure images, perhaps now faded by the mists of time, but images of people known and loved. For that is at the heart of war, soldiers, sailors and airmen giving so much for those they loved. We give thanks and honour them. But could I ask something of those who knew them. Please tell their stories, so that subsequent generations can see not names that mean nothing, but names of people whom they can honour. I hope that the school might be able to help in putting together a book of remembrance that can speak clearly for many years to come.
Yet to honour only servicemen and women can lure us into forgetting what is the other legacy of WWII: the loss of innocent lives on an unthinkable scale. These were not people who gave their lives; they had their lives cruelly ripped from them. This year we remember the formation of the Home Guard. These too were ordinary people, perhaps a little older some of them. They volunteered in numbers that overwhelmed the War Office. They seem to represent just how deeply the war cut into the lives of the nation. We remember them, but also land girls and nurses, and those working in factories and mines. Let us remember them all with gratitude but let us honour them by doing everything in our power to prevent such a horror happening again. This is no easy task, it isn’t pacifist, it won’t always be possible. It is about addressing the cause of a potential conflict before we reach the final solution of throwing away human lives.
Jesus may have been a realist but so much more so he taught the ways of God, that it is the peace makers who are blessed, that it is our enemy whom we must love, and, especially on this Remembrance Sunday, that greater love has no one that he who lays down his life for his friends.