‘We will remember them’ are words we hear and say each Remembrance Day. We dutifully repeated them at our Remembrance Service in All Saints yesterday afternoon. In remembering, and in looking back to the First World War, informed by the poetry and other writings of that time, we held before God those who had died, those who had been injured, and those who have been mentally scarred by this tragic event in human history. But we also recommitted ourselves as followers of the Prince of Peace.
The new politics of today are bringing about new perspectives of war largely because the nature of warfare is also changing. Armies are smaller and there is a greater use of more powerful weapons guided by computer technology. But technology seduces us. Sadly the casualties will not change. There has been little change in the jus in bello. Sixteen million human beings died in the 1914-18 war of whom 7 million were civilians. There may be fewer combatants killed but now the balance of collateral damage is disproportionate.
In our remembrance we must truthfully reflect the experiences of those who took part in war and were directly affected by it. How else can we honour those we seek to remember? One of the pieces of writing we used in our service was the story from Emilio Lussu’s book A Soldier on the Southern Front (translated by Gregory Conti in Pete Ayrton’s anthology of writings from WW1 No Man’s Land). It described a scene on the Southern Front. Some Italians were facing an Austro-Hungarian patrol,
They were seven of them, walking in single file. Convinced they were nowhere near our line, out of sight, they were proceeding parallel to our own trench, walking straight up, rifles in hand, packs on their backs. They were exposed from their knees up. The captain of the 9th gestured to the sharpshooters, gave the order to fire, and the patrol crumbled to the ground.
War is like big-game hunting. Lussu said this elsewhere in his book. When the captain of the 9th went to inspect the bodies, a sound of rustling was heard in the trees. The sharpshooters aimed their rifles…. The sound came from two squirrels,
Quick and nimble, they chased each other, hid, chased each other again, and his again. Short little shrieks, like uncontainable laughter, marked their encounters each time they launched themselves with little hops from opposite sides of the trunk, the one against the other…..
One of the sharpshooters….muttered,
‘Shall we shoot?’
‘Are you crazy?’ the captain answered in surprise. ‘They’re so cute.’
Why is a squirrel ‘cute’ but not a fellow human being? I am reminded of a story about St Patrick and his peaceful invasion of Ireland. An ambush had been laid for him by King Leary to prevent St Patrick spreading the faith in Ireland. As Patrick and his followers approached they were singing the hymn or lorica known as St Patrick’s “breastplate” of faith, recited for the protection of body and soul against all forms of evil. Instead of seeing St Patrick the King and his men saw only a herd of wild deer and let them pass by.
How are we to learn not to kill? How do we step back? Violence is in each and every one of us. We speak of peace. We pray for peace. But resolutions to conflicts seem to be difficult to find. Does peace requires something from us that we’re not willing to give up? Remembrance has to be about a commitment to peace – a commitment to do all in our power prevent the tragedy of war that is witnessed by so many generations. Peace must become a greater reality and sought more tenaciously than war.