The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was when the Armistice was signed at the end of The Great War, the war to end all wars. So Remembrance Day was the day when work stopped at eleven o’clock. To remember the futility of war.
Between 1914 and 1918 soldiers dug themselves into trenches and emerged to battle it out on the field until one side was victorious among the dead bodies. Such was the scale of death that a new mood arose: it was inconceivable that nations would ever be so foolish as to repeat the tragedy. People wore red poppies to remember. Never again!
It was not to be. The Great War instead turned out to be only the opening chapter of a destructive and murderous century. Later, instead of the trenches, war was fought with bigger and bigger machines. Entire cities and nations would be left in ruins. Today, of all the people killed in war, nine out of ten are civilians.
The First World War was a shock to European culture. After a long period of comparative peace, when they were telling themselves they were making progress, becoming more and more civilised, what happened was the opposite of civilisation.
The Second World War was different. It followed not a period of peace, but a succession of threats, claims to racial superiority, military dictatorships and invasions. When this war ended the public mood, while lamenting the tragedy of war, celebrated victory over an evil power.
Different experience, different values. When a culture celebrates victory war does not seem an unmitigated tragedy. It may even seem glorious. The celebration of soldiers, and in particular our soldiers killing their soldiers. When a culture changes like this the prospect of a future war comes to seem less tragic, more exhilarating.
The first time I took a service on Remembrance Sunday I was a new curate in inner city Manchester, an area where many families had sons in the army. While I took the service my wife Marguerite took the Sunday School. She taught the children to sing Tom Paxton’s song ‘Peace Will Come’. After the service, when the adults found out what she had done, they were livid. Wanting peace was the opposite of what they thought Remembrance Sunday was all about. One of them told me the war years were the best years of his life. He travelled the world, saw lots of interesting places, never saw any action, had a great time. I don’t know how his wife felt about this. She was sitting next to him while he was telling me this, and she didn’t marry him till after the war.
15 years later I was the new vicar in a small country village which had its own branch of the British Legion. I prepared an order of service for Remembrance Sunday and they didn’t like it. They insisted that we had to sing O Valiant Hearts. I didn’t want this hymn because I thought it was over the top in glorifying war. Stiff letters were exchanged, and it soon became clear that a weakling like me didn’t stand a chance. I was dealing with tough ex-soldiers. I gave in.
So we kept to their tradition: a service in church and then a procession to the war memorial in the middle of the village (pictured here) to lay the wreath, listen to the bugle and hold the two minutes’ silence. As we stood there, silently remembering, I was panicking inside in case I had inadvertently done something else to offend these tough ex-servicemen.
And then I noticed. As we stood there observing our silence these military characters, who had so put the wind up me, had tears rolling down their cheeks.
I began to understand. What they had gone through in the war was far worse than anything I had ever seen. Unlike the men in my earlier parish who were quite happy to talk about their wartime adventures, these British Legion members had seen military action, and they knew what it was like. They never talked about it. Talking about it would have been too painful. It would have brought back too many memories. Better to forget it. Instead they stood there, and cried.
We did the same every year, with the British Legion and the congregation standing in the road surrounding the war memorial in the middle of the village. From time to time a car would drive up, see what was happening, and stop to wait. One year we had a driver who refused to wait. He blared his horn and kept driving forward until we all had to step out of his way. Some of the congregation knew who he was. He ran a pub in the next village. Word will have gone round. His action won’t have encouraged the locals to give him their custom.
Today remembering can still do two different things. It can remind us that war is a tragedy, and inspire us to work for peace with our neighbours. Or it can remind us that we won and perhaps we’ll win the next one.
Is the next war inevitable, or is it realistic to hope for a future without wars? I believe a peaceful future is indeed possible, and I think it is possible because of what I believe about God.
Human beings have evolved with a range of different instincts. We have instincts to defend ourselves and fight when we feel threatened. We also have instincts to help other people and care for them. Our instincts can motivate us to fight each other, or to care for each other. They can make us hate foreigners, or like foreigners. Other animals have them too, but humans have the capacity to think about our instincts and override them when we think there is a better way to live.
Some people think we shall always fight because we all have selfish instincts. I believe we have been created by a god who has greater designs for us. The freedom God gives us, our ability to override our instincts, makes it possible for us to stop ourselves doing selfish and hateful things, and do something better instead. God allows us to live well or badly. We have within us the power to discipline our aggressive instincts and develop our caring instincts.
At the present time a world without war seems impossible because so many powerful people use it to achieve their ambitions. In each country the media enccourage the population to idolise their own side and demonise enemies. On the other hand, if it is true that the human race has been made by a good god, and designed for greater things than we have seen so far, we have reason for confidence. It is possible to live in peace. We continue to hope, and work for a better world.
As the people who remember the tragedies of past wars grow old and die out, it becomes easier for younger people to treat Remembrance Sunday as a time to exult in wartime victory. Or to ignore it altogether, go about their business as though it was a thing of the past, and drive impatiently through the crowd at the war memorial.
There is no law saying we will have a Third World War. Neither is there a law saying we won’t. It depends on what we all do. It depends on what values we live by and what kinds of governments we elect. Do we and our governments demand a better life for ourselves without caring about the the bombs being dropped on other countries, or do we look for ways of living in harmony with them?
Except for the very powerful, each of us as an individual can only play a very small part. But between us, our society establishes the direction in which the future will take us. It may be a peaceful future. It may bring new wars. It depends on what we and everybody else decide to do with the freedom God has given us.
So once a year, on Remembrance Sunday, we pay attention to what war is really like. We remind ourselves that whatever the newspapers say about foreigners, God made them and loves them just the way God loves us. If like me you never knew any of the people whose names are read in your local act of remembrance, we still remember that God made them and loved them. If like me you have never seen military action at first hand, all the more reason for keeping Remembrance Sunday. Lest we forget.