THIS year will be marked by the biggest war commemoration ever:
the centenary of the start of the First World War, which led to
sacrifice and slaughter on a massive scale. The statistics still
shock: the first day of the Somme offensive alone led to the death
or injury of 60,000 British soldiers.
Britain has pledged £50 million to mark the anniversary.
Selected students from secondary schools will have the opportunity
to visit the killing fields, and a centenary crop of books is
already available to help them understand the Great War and its
Before the main commemorative events of the summer and beyond,
however, we need to consider what exactly we shall be asked to
remember, and why it matters. When the nation first fell silent for
two minutes in November 1918, the mourning was intense and
personal. The Manchester Guardian reported "a silence
which was almost pain".
In the decades that followed, the theme of Remembrance began to
incorporate all those who had died in war. The personal gave way to
the universal, and increasingly, the horror of war was condemned.
The uncompromising words "Never again" gradually became an implicit
part of the official refrain "We will remember them."
This blurring of the nation's memory and the double intent at
its heart has recently led Sir Hew Strachan, the Chichele Professor
of the History of War at the University of Oxford, to remark: "On
Remembrance Day, we're not actually remembering anything."
THE bluntness of his comment serves a useful purpose, reminding us
of the need for moral clarity on the part of anyone who cares about
this momentous anniversary. Quite soon, we shall be invited to call
to mind the "glorious dead" inscribed on countless local war
This year, however, the familiar rituals will assume a deeper
poignancy, and move us more intensely. The monuments to the fallen
that adorn churches, village greens, and great cities will invite
our serious attention.
The names recorded there evoke the long, idyllic summer of 1914;
the stench and pity of the trenches; the old age denied to brave,
sometimes impetuous, and often frightened soldiers who fell young,
and knew no grandchildren. In such instances, we should remember
not only lives forfeited for no great cause, but also promise
Our commemoration should embrace lamentation for the misery that
nations have strewn along the way, and the terrible military
choices that led to much avoidable brutality. Sorry facts must be
recalled, along with heroic deeds, in order to learn from them.
In our honouring of the dead, and our shared sense of their
absence, lies the possibility of a pact for the sake of the future,
and a renewed commitment to fashion a peaceful world. In this view,
households of faith and all those who care for humanity are bound
by an ethics of memory that seeks to safeguard the earth for coming
AN ETHICS of memory reflects the unique significance of the
individual which is easily diminished as we contemplate a war that
cost nine million lives, and many more, if we take into account the
tragedies it left in its wake.
A notable theme in the Old Testament is the fear of being
forgotten, of one's name being "cut off" or blotted out after one's
death. Avashai Margalit, who has written sensitively in this area,
out of respect for his parents, who had many members of their
family killed in the Nazi Holocaust, tells the story of a senior
officer in the Israeli army.
In his earlier career in charge of a small unit, he had lost one
of his men to friendly fire. When interviewed much later, after his
promotion to the rank of colonel, he could not remember the
soldier's name. His assessors were dismayed that the name of the
victim was not written on his commander's heart.
The story may prove instructive later this year, when we
participate in events or services that, if we so choose, will
amount to more than a warning message from the past, or our
collective resolve to do better. Embraced and properly understood,
they can represent a form of moral obligation to the fallen as
individuals, and a duty of commemoration that sheds light on our
As a species, we have a troubling taste for wars and slaughter,
but no less significantly, we also weep when we remember such
follies, and shed tears for victims we have never known.
In part, our negotiation with the dead of bygone conflicts
discloses important truths about the riddle of our human situation:
on the one hand, it reveals the sense we have of the highest good,
to which we give the name God; and, on the other, it demonstrates
the attested need to atone for our human frailty.
Our preparedness to heed all over again the catastrophe that
engulfed the world a century ago is reassuring. It suggests that we
turn to the darker manifestations of history not simply in order to
know how to behave, or even to excel, but, as the distinguished
Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once put it, "to know who we
In commemorating the Great War, we shall be holding up a mirror
to our morally conflicted selves - an undertaking that, combined
with our duty to the dead and our hope for the future, constitutes
a moving and morally coherent form of remembrance.
Canon Rod Garner is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport,
and Theological Consultant for the diocese of Liverpool. He is the
author of several books, including On Being Saved (DLT,
2011) and How to be Wise (SPCK, 2013).