Remembrance Day 2019: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
What we now call Veterans Day, was once known as Armistice Day or, I think more appropriately, Remembrance Day for truly it is a day to remember and reflect.
On Monday, 11 November 1918, at precisely 11:00 am, the guns of the Western Front fell silent. In the Western capitals of Paris, London and Washington, there was anything but silence as crowds spilled on to the streets. In London, it was estimated that over a quarter million people filled the streets. The cities, darkened for four years, exploded into light. They were celebrating the end of what they believed would be the “war to end all wars”.
There was, however, a different feeling in the trenches of the Western Front which zig-zagged their way from the Swiss Alps, across northern France and Flanders to the North Sea and the English Channel. The feelings there were more of those of relief and exhaustion. One young American officer (my wife’s grandfather) wrote home to say, “The silence was deafening, none of us could really believe it was over…”
Between the years 1914 and 1918 the nations of the world would mobilize some 61 million men in their armed forces. Of that number, over 9.5 million would die and 18 million would be wounded. France would lose 700,000 homes destroyed and 20,000 factories, together with 50,000 kilometers of roads and railways made unusable and 4.5 million acres of land devastated. Even in 2019, some land is still considered too dangerous for development. The US, a late entry to the war, sustained the deaths of over 100,000 in the space of a year, with over 300,000 wounded. By the end of the war, the government of Russia had collapsed and a Bolshevik regime had been established – a regime which would be responsible for the deaths of more than twenty-million of its citizens in the two decades that followed.
When the Great Powers met at Versailles in 1919 to bring peace to a war torn planet, they thought it would be possible to guarantee tranquility through the humiliation, not the reconciliation, of Germany. Justice was denied the defeated and compassion was withheld from the vanquished. Germany was left impoverished and resentful, a breeding ground for nationalist extremists. The seeds of hate were harvested in Poland and France a generation later. In 2019, we still live with the failures of Versailles and the later decisions of Potsdam which built upon them. The real cost of the First World War, in terms of human tragedy, is inestimable.
Yet, it is interesting to note that the First World War, was among the most “Christian” of modern wars. Germans marched to the front with the slogan “For God and the Fatherland” stamped on their belt buckles. In Moscow, the Patriarch spent 14 hours blessing troops as they marched past the Cathedral of the Annunciation. In Paris, a French priest reported to the newspapers that he had a vision of St. Joan of Arc leading the garrison militia beneath the Arc de Triomphe. In England, recruitment posters appeared bearing images of St. George, Christian Crusader knights and angels bestowing laurel wreaths and the “crown of life” on the brows of fallen soldiers.
Amazingly, this continued even after the realities of war were encountered. Even after the appalling losses of the Somme and Verdun where over 600,000 died; even after the carnage of cavalry charges against machine gun emplacements; even after the release of mustard gas above the trenches; some continued, even then, to consider the war a “great Christian adventure”. As always, the generals had promised a “short and quick war”. Lord Kitchner spoke of the “Christian duty” to volunteer – and from 1914-1916 over 2,467,000 Britains answered his call.
For most at the front, however, the idea of war being a “Christian adventure” slipped away as the casualties mounted. Many came to believe that God had little to do with the holocaust they encountered. In the real world of mud, blood, boredom, fear, endurance, carnage and mutilation, the soldiers at the front learned to live and survive under appalling conditions with a mixture of faith, stoicism, bravery and humor much more impressive than the innocent heroics with which the war had started. To survive, that is, until they were killed, wounded, cracked under the strain or finally went home with their questions of faith tucked behind their relief of having survived at all.
So, we are left with the question, “Where is God in the face of war?”. Some would say that in war God has abandoned humanity to its own devices and folly. Some will say that God is on the side of the right, but in war all claim to be right. The theologian Paul Tillich served as a chaplain in the German army in the First World War and was plagued with this very question, “Where is God?”. Finally he resolved that God was not distant, nor had God abandoned mankind, nor had God taken sides, but that God was there in the midst of the conflict – in the midst of death there was always the promise of life. In as much as God has revealed himself to us, it has been in the form of one dying a painful and excruciating death on an instrument of torture, the Cross.
Yet, what are we as Christians to say of war itself? If the First World War introduced the concept of “total war” we have, in the past century perfected the concept. We even have a new vocabulary of “shock and awe” and the sterile “collateral damage” with which we describe or justify our actions. It was not a pacifist, but the commander of the British forces in World War I, Field Marshall Earl Haig, who said, “It is the business of the churches to make my business impossible”. Yet, in the present era, the churches are increasingly either pushed to the sidelines or, sadly, caught up with the jingoism and nationalism that carry within themselves the seeds of conflict.
So today, November 11, we should take a moment to remember. Yet as we remember, let it be with sorrow for the lives taken from us and those irretrievably altered by these wars that seem to go on without end. More than mere remembrance, let us also pray and resolve to work for peace in our generation for the sake of generations to come.
In his famous sermon, “The Unknown Soldier” Harry Emerson Fosdick, himself a veteran of the First World War, made a pledge to the soldier of Arlington “known only to God”. We might consider joining our pledge to his.
I renounce war. I renounce war because of what it does to our own men… I renounce war because of what it compels us to do to our enemies… I renounce war for its consequences, for the lies it lives on and propagates, for the undying hatred it arouses, for the dictatorships it puts in the place of democracy, for the starvation that stalks after it. I renounce war… O unknown Soldier, in penitent reparation, I make you that pledge.