Seeing War Anew

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, cannons fell silent in the War to End All Wars. This epithet crafted to describe the First World War, at first glance, seems a claim of arrogance. It might appear a pompous prognostication by those who imagined it, as if they were able to fight such an effective confrontation that no additional wars would be necessary. Such a conclusion—both that the epithet is the product of arrogance and that the war ended all wars—prove false. The claim was not a claim out of arrogance but out of hope. Those who experienced the perditory horrors of trench warfare, who saw the gruesome aftermath precipitating from the reign of mustard clouds, who trudged through impromptu wintered-graveyards of countless frozen soldiers on the Eastern Front were not claiming that they had ended all war but crying in desperate hope that no one would take up arms in anger ever again.
Last year, I lived in the United Kingdom. Living in the UK, the tragedy of war lingers everywhere. At some prominent corner or central gathering point of most every town, tall war memorials punctuate countryside, town, and city. Acting as cautionary exclamation points, names of the fallen are engraved on these monuments, reminders in stone of their past sacrifice and a call to the future for peace.

In the UK, what we call Veterans Day they call Armistice Day. The Sunday immediately before Armistice Day is known as Remembrance Sunday. Last Remembrance Sunday, each congregation in the town where I served participated in a silent march to the town’s war memorial. As we did every Sunday, our service started at 10:30am. At 11am, members from the congregation silently left their seats, filing into the noiseless column passing our front door. Methodists stood next to Baptists who stood next to Catholics and Anglicans and Jews and Muslims and agnostics and atheists and anyone wanting to share in this solemn moment. At the Mortimer, Berkshire war memorial, wreaths were laid, prayers were offered, and the Laurence Binyon poem—cited above—was shared, collectively, from memory.

This event was not a moment for a community, for a kingdom to celebrate victory. It was not a moment of honor. Rather, it was a moment for a kingdom to recall a disaster. For a people where more than 6% of the population was a casualty of the First World War (a number equivalent to 18 million Americans, today), such an event serves as both remembrance and warning. These markers and the events of that Sunday offer the community the chance to share in the joint sacrifice of soldiers on the field, civilians caught in the middle, and families at home and to remind us all that we must resist all reactionary, presumptive returns to war. The decision to wage war, as a retired military speaker reminded us that Sunday, must never be taken lightly. While we might commemorate war’s sacrifice, we must not celebrate it. Whenever the first shot fires, he commented, both sides have already lost. That Sunday and his words will remain with me for a very long time, especially at a time nearly one hundred years removed from that first Armistice Day, after knowing of the millions more sacrificed to war since that first Armistice Day, and in a country currently engaged in two wars.

As we gather this week for chapel on November 11, Veterans Day, we welcome Reverend David Hamlyn. David is an elder in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference and a former military pilot. David will speak to us out of his own experience as both military officer and officiant in the church. He will challenge us. He will encourage us. He will compel us to faithful action. Please join us, and welcome him. Have a wonderful, reflective week.

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