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Remembrance of human ambiguity

31 January 2014

Commemorating war can reveal a sense of God and a need to atone, says Rod Garner


More than a warning: the Guards Memorial in central London

More than a warning: the Guards Memorial in central London

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 kaleidoscopic causes.

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 memorials.

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 struck down.

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 generations.

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 ambiguous selves.

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 are".

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).

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