Sorrow for those who die in wars is not the same thing as soldier-worship…


Picture from The Guardian.

Another remembrance Sunday is upon us. Images of all those thousands who died like cattle in the first world war will flood the screens, along with a Spitfire fly past. Our more recent maimed young soldiers will be wheeled out, or teeter out on the carbon fibre blades that replaced their legs.

There was a great article in the guardian today which used the phrase ‘soldier worship’ to capture something of what tends to happen at these times. A quote;

We should not feel compelled to point out that those brave men and women are fighting in Afghanistan to secure our safety every time the military is mentioned. First, because it is not true that they are; and second, because such blustering at the merest glimpse of camouflage clothing is an obvious and embarrassing capitulation to dogma.

What is the dogma being referred to here? I would like to suggest that it is the myth of the hero-soldier, fighting for our freedom, our way of life, our nationhood. True reverence (or true worship) for the heroic sacrifice they make on our behalf is to elevate the soldier onto a public plinth. This is not necessarily the same thing as rewarding individuals, rather it becomes a political hermeneutic through which we view current wars.

We in Britain have been evangelised into this new religion to a certain extent by what happens in the USA. It seems to me that it is only a recent thing that the word ‘hero’ was used each time a soldiers were mentioned in this country; not so in the USA where ‘veterans’ are regarded as we might someone who walks in to a burning building to bring out children.

Is it just me who feels a little uncomfortable every time I see the words ‘Help for Heroes‘?

I think I should be clear that I am NOT saying that soldiers should not have our respect, or our assistance in the event of injury. Even the shameful conviction of a Royal Marine commando this week for torturing then shooting a prisoner should not suggest that soldiers like killing people, or have universally lost their humanity. What it tells us rather is that war brutalises, damages and degrades everyone involved in it, even (and perhaps particularly) those who are victorious, all powerful.

In my years as a therapist in primary care, I saw a lot of ex-servicemen. The area around Bolton and Wigan has always been a big recruiting ground for the army in particular. I remember their stories, fractured and halting as they were, vividly. Mostly they were seen backwards through broken relationships, alcoholism, even prison. A man who had served in Cypress, unable even to describe the terrible things he has seen. Another man describing the slaughter of Iraqi conscripts in the first Gulf War. These were men for whom the war itself was almost the best part of them. But it was also the end of ease, comfort and self assurance. Part of this was always guilt for what they had done- sometimes personally, sometimes collectively, often just because they survived when others did not.

Are these men heroes? Some of them may well be incredibly brave, and had dreadful experiences. however, to continue to espouse soldier-worship does something to the way we view war itself. Despite telling human stories from war, it does not humanise war; it runs the real risk of idolising it. By viewing conflict only through the eyes of the mostly masculine gadget-laden machinery operated by our own heroic boy-adventurers is a remarkably effective way of taking our eyes of the nature of the conflicts themselves.

Think of all those war films- even the ones that are regarded as ‘anti-war’. Who are the lead characters? Whose life and death experiences hold our fascination? Almost every one of these films, brilliant and moving as many of them are, are long hymns sung in the church of soldier-worship.

A few years ago I wrote a post entitled Losing small wars, but not not learning lessons. I tried to outline some of the myths that we were being asked to swallow in relation to our current war making;

We have been brought up to view our own military misadventures as essentially good versus bad- the plucky resourceful Brit against the Towel-head/Hun/Jap/Red. We always triumph in the end- true character always does.

This ignores all the evidence to the contrary- the mounting body bags, the torture of prisoners, the resounding “NO!” echoing from the population of all these countries that we are supposedly liberating.

Then there is the stench of post imperialist self-interest, and the feeling of being manipulated by murky spinners of media messages- all of that gung ho ‘smart’ bombing and ‘shock and awe’-ing.

The discussion mentioned above identified some key myths that we really should watch out for (along with a few of my own suggestions)-

  • “Failure is not an option”- we will win. We. Will. Win. Or at least give it the appearance of victory.
  • “This year is the pivotal year”- as each one seems to be.
  • More money will win ‘hearts and minds’.
  • You can’t trust the locals.
  • The hero myth- glorious death. Dulce et decorum est.
  • War will solve our problems.
  • You can fight a war on terrorists by terrorising their communities in return.

The only way to humanise war is to understand that the enemy is flesh and blood too, has children, dreams, fears, irrational and rational passions and beliefs. We have to remember the hundreds of thousands of people, men, women, children, whom have died very un-heroic deaths in our recent wars. Whom have lost un-heroic limbs and have very un-heroic disfigurements.

In the meantime, this Remembrance Sunday, it is right to remember all those who died.

But let us not use the word glory– the first world war killed that one.

Neither let us use the word honour- their is no honour in war. World war two made this clear.

And as for the word hero, let us use this word sparingly and apply it most fervently to those who make peace in the face of violence.

Remembering those who died at arms…


Another Remembrance day. Another 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Bands and sober crowds with the occasional glint of gold on the chest of men in blazers and regimental ties.

For me, this day always sets off cognitive dissonance. Remembering this kind of death can easily become a kind of glorification; an elevation of war to the great heights of human endeavour. The mass death of men in the flower of youth is so much more marketable than the quiet work of peacemakers, be that in our neighbourhoods or around a table at the UN.

But die they did, and whilst I can not rejoice at their death, nor pretend that being gutted by a shard of shrapnel can ever ennoble, I can pause and pray that we might yet learn something from all the carnage.

And I think the Bishop of London said it this morning quite well- the greatest lesson for us is to acknowledge that war happens when we allow poisonous hatred to flourish in our societies. When we scapegoat, when we point fingers, when we place ourselves inside and others outside.

The endless fascination with the second world war (which I share in part) always takes place with an underlying assumption about how plucky England fought a lonely crusade- a holy war- against the evils of fascism. Our Knights rode Spitfire steeds to slay the Teutonic dragons.

In this stained glass portrait of war it becomes impossible to feel the shame of all the empire building, the asset grabbing and the dreadnought building that Britain indulged in for hundreds of years beforehand- factors which any high school historian has to acknowledge as the fertile fields in which the seeds of both world war were nurtured.

So on this 11th day of the 11th month let us see war for what it is- a terrible failure. Each life lost paid the price of this failure.

Each battle won obscures the failure slightly but failure it remains.

Remembrance Sunday- and our capacity to destroy…


Today is Remembrance Sunday.

Old men will cry

Women will open up old cupboards of loss and let the sepia light leak out a little

Young kids will be distracted by brass bands for a while then fidget through silence that seems much longer than a minute

Politicians will assume a pose of media-appropriate sombre dignity

Most of us will feel a familiar ambivalence-

War is terrible, but we continue to make war. Peace is a blessing, but we are stirred by stories of gallantry and self sacrifice that only seem possible in the context of brutality and slaughter.

Our inherited memories of the last war are of a nation forged together in terrible adversity in heroic struggle against the rise of pure evil. The fact that we triumphed at terrible cost is for ever something that makes us proud. Those that died so that we might have escaped the fate of so many other countries deserve our deep respect.

But we also know that the story of war is rarely one of good and evil. It is about evil and still more evil.

And evil has a history- it has the big scale history of previous armistice and forced accommodation and compromise. The sort of history that we can read about in books- Empires rising and falling.

But there is also small history that tells the story of how we as humans seem to have such a propensity to breed hate for one another.

How we look at difference and see danger. How we segregate so easily into ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. How we demonise those people whose prominence threatens our own.

Most of us will have little influence on big histories- and my generation have been blessed to see few of ours names on war memorials. But if we are honest, those same engines for hate and war work within is all.

So this Remembrance Day, let us remember those who fought and died.

But let us also stand in examination of our own failures to follow the way of peace.


A time to hate

There is a time for all things under heaven…

One summer evening I lay on my back as the light leached from the passing day
And watched the stars slowly flicker into the frame of the darkening sky
At first one here, another there
Then all of a sudden the sky was infinite
Full of fragile tender points of ancient light
Some of which started its journey towards us before there was an ‘us’
And I wonder
Is there someone up there
Raising his tentacles to the night sky
And using one of his brains
To wonder about me?

And should this unseen and oddly shaped brother across the huge expanses
Seek contact
What would he make of us?

I heard an astronomer speak once about the possibility of life elsewhere
In this beautiful ever expanding universe
He had come to believe that intelligent life will always
Find ever more ingenious ways
To destroy itself

And I fear the truth of this
That somewhere in the messy beauty of humanity
We nurture an evil seed –
Grow it in an industrial compost of scientific creativity
Water it with greed and avarice
And hot house it in a mad competition for the first fruits
Lest our neighbours get to market first
And once we work up production
There is no going back
No squeezing back the genie into the oil can
There is only the need for bigger, better

And the defending and defeating
And the ranging of rockets
Exploit whoever
Denude wherever
And if anyone should get in the way
Or destroy
Set up barb wire borders
Teach one another
To hate

So for the sake of green men
And Scottish men
May we yet stand before the eternal night
And decide that truth and beauty and grace will be our legacy
In this fragile passing place that God gave us

May we decide that now is not
The time
To hate

From ‘Listing’- here.

Remembrance day and war poetry


Michaela and I have just sat and listened to the Remembrance day ceremony from the Cenotaph in London. This ceremony is held every year, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, to honour first the dead of the ‘great war to end all wars’ (1914-1918) and then the subsequent second world war, along with all the post-empire skirmishes and border confrontations that our soldiers have died in ever since.

We were silent first through the emotional beauty of laments played by brass bands, then for the official minutes silence

I have had a mixed relationship with the ceremony. At worst, it seems to glorify and exalt the business of war. For a while, I refused to wear a red poppy, finding instead the white ones with an overtly pacifist stance to be more appropriate. It seemed to me the only response that followers of Jesus could take.

I spent some time working as a therapist in GP surgeries, and met several ex-soldiers struggling with post traumatic symptoms years after conflicts in Cypress, the Falklands or the wars in the Gulf. I heard their matter-of-fact stories of broken bodies and a culture of brotherhood, booze and easy violence that was both intensely supportive and ultimately destructive to the rest of their lives. I now wear red poppies with respect and humility.

But still, this balance between remembering those who suffered and died, whilst wanting to de-glamourise war and pursue peace- this is a hard thing to find at times.

This was highlighted too by my reaction to the front page of our local paper- the Dunoon Observer. In a creative response to Remembrance day, they printed a famous poem from the Great war on the front page. It is this one;


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lt Col John McRae

This poem was written in 1915, after a terrible battle, but still in an early part of the war, when glory still beckoned, at least for some. McRae was a staff officer, and the second verse always seemed to me to fit uneasily alongside the first. Some have called it ‘recruiting office rhetoric’- handing on the torch to others to have revenge…

But I applaud the Observer for printing poetry. I just would have preferred them to print another famous war poem- the one below.

I remember reading the first world war poets at school- Seigfreid Sassoon, and most of all, Wilfred Owen,

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

who was killed by a snipers bullet at just about the very end of the war. It was these men who first showed me that poetry can be something powerful. It can be healing, challenging, therapeutic, revolutionary, beautiful and harrowing- all at the same time.

This poem captures the whole thing of war for me. Here it is (with some notes pinched from here.)


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares
2 we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest
3 began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped
5 Five-Nines6 that dropped behind.

Gas!7 Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets
8 just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime
9 . . .
Dim, through the misty panes
10 and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,
11 choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent
14 for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

8 October 1917 – March, 1918

1 DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country

2 rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.)

3 a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer
4 the noise made by the shells rushing through the air
5 outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle

6 Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells
7 poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned
8 the early name for gas masks
9 a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue
10 the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks
11 Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling
12 normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew; here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth
13 high zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea
14 keen
15 see note 1