“'When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.' Then Jesus said to them: 'Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.'”
Depressing, isn't it? We long for peace, we are encouraged to make peace, and yet here is our dear Lord telling us that there will not be peace. Wars and revolutions, he says, must happen. Nations will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
And today, on Remembrance Sunday, it is still true. How many British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since we first deployed troops there? Up to 15 October this year, it's three hundred and forty-three. That's three hundred and forty-three families who have lost a child, a sibling or a parent. Three hundred and forty-three deaths – and that's just British troops. The Americans have lost nearly eight thousand, over the years, just in Afghanistan.
And what of those who have been injured, so badly, some of them, that their bodies or minds will never work quite right again. According to Ministry of Defence figures, between 1 January 2006 and 15 October 2010:
* 1,511 UK military and civilian personnel were admitted to UK Field Hospitals and categorised as Wounded in Action.
* 2,876 UK military and civilian personnel were admitted to UK Field Hospitals for disease or non-battle injuries.
* 218 UK personnel were categorised as Very Seriously Injured from all causes excluding disease.
* 222 UK personnel were categorised as Seriously Injured from all causes excluding disease.
* 3,919 aeromedical evacuations have taken place for UK military and civilian personnel injured or ill in Afghanistan.
And there have been over seven thousand Afghani civilian casualties since 2006! Civilian casualties – people who were not fighting, just trying to get on with their lives. Seven thousand! The totals are beginning to add up rather disastrously....
Yes, there will be wars and revolutions. But there hasn't been a battle on British soil since Culloden in 1745. And none of the wars our troops have fought since 1945 have impinged on our daily lives unless we happened to have a relation serving with the armed forces. In the two wars we call world wars, last century, it was very different. Everybody’s lives were affected in one way or another.
The horror of it all came home to me very vividly one holiday some years ago now, when we toured Northern France. We wandered around Alsace and Lorraine, parts of France which were part of Germany within living memory, and which changed hands twice in not-quite-living memory. People who were born before 1870 and died after 1945 would have forcibly changed nationality no fewer than five times!
Battles were fought in this area. We visited a fort on the Maginot line, which the French had hoped would be impregnable in the 2nd World War. And we visited Verdun, a town which has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times within the past hundred and fifty years that it is a wonder anything is left of it today! Just this week there was a programme on the BBC, you may have seen it, showing film and still photographs of the trenches, and of towns and villages that had been totally flattened by the fighting, not a house remaining. At least they had managed to evacuate those who lived there before the fighting started. There was one very poignant sequence filmed after the fighting had ended, which showed people coming back to rebuild their homes and their lives, and although there were no houses standing yet, the market had restarted. And then, twenty years later, it was all to do again.
How lucky we are that we have not had fighting like that on British soil. Yes, we were bombed in both wars, and you can still see the scars today: a block of newer flats among older ones in one of the streets in my part of Brixton, for instance, showing where the original houses were destroyed. I wasn’t around in those days, but those of you who were will, I know, tell me how terrible it was.
But since then, although there have been wars of all kinds, they’ve all taken place in someone else’s back garden. The tanks have rolled through other people’s streets. Yes, we have been attacked – those dreadful bombs in July 2005 are just the most recent, and the nastiest, in a long stream of terrorist attacks here.
But we didn’t have foreign soldiers walking in our streets, swaggering around imposing their will on us, perhaps even raping every woman. And maybe that’s one of the reasons we continue to remember those who fought and died for their country so long ago. My grandfather was badly wounded in the First War, and my father in the Second. Actually, the First World War must have been really terrible – I’ve read my great-grandfather’s diaries. His elder son was wounded so badly nobody thought he would live – although he did, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale – and my great-grandfather got permission from the War Office and went over to France to visit him. And then it became clear that he would live, after all, so my great-grandfather came home again, only to hear that his other son had been killed on the Somme.
My other grandfather was a career officer in the Royal Engineers, involved in both wars – my mother and grandmother didn’t see him for years during the second world war. One of his brothers was killed in action, too – he was a flyer, and the life expectancy of fliers over the Western Front was measurable in minutes. And my family's story is far from unique – most families, from every country that was involved, suffered similar losses and agony.
But this is all history. Kids study it in school. Even the oldest of us here weren’t much more than children when the Second War finished. I wasn’t even born. I don’t remember having a ration book, although I’m told I did. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t buy anything I wanted in the shops, whenever I wanted it. But I grew up during the Cold War, which the younger ones won't remember. The tension between the then Soviet bloc and the West was always there, a constant background to our lives. We understood from a very young age that one of these days, someone would press a red button and it would all be over, in what was called Mutually Assured Destruction. When the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, it felt like a reprieve from a shadow we had grown used to living with and barely realised was there until it lifted.
But 1989 brought no real peace. There was an appalling conflict in the Balkan states, and places like Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina became household names. There was a Gulf War in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and everybody else ran to the rescue. And the second Gulf War after the September 2001 atrocities. And then the war against the Taliban. And wars in Somalia, in Rwanda, in Liberia.... maybe it's easier to list countries who have not been at war!
Those casualty figures from Afghanistan I quoted are happening now, today. Our troops are still fighting. Other troops are still fighting other wars. There will be wars and revolutions, just as Jesus told us.
So what is the point of Remembrance when it is going on happening? War may or may not be justifiable, but it is always horrible and never glorious. But it is fought by people, by men and, these days, by women. Troops who have always been seen, throughout history, as cannon-fodder and expendable. We have the raw numbers – you can find them on the Ministry of Defence website, and unless we know the people, they are just numbers.
But they are not numbers, not really. Each and every one of them is a person, an individual. Someone like you. Someone like me. Someone, above all, for whom Christ died on the Cross. Each and every one of them is known to God, and loved by God. They are not perfect, any more than you or I are perfect, but they are not monsters, either. God loves them, just as God loves you and me.
In many wars, you don't get much of a choice about whether you are a soldier or not. You're conscripted, you are required to join up, whether you want to or not. Even in the last century, people who were brave enough to say “No, I don't want to fight; put me to another job and I'll do it, but not fight and kill people” were often considered cowards and even executed, although they were in many cases very brave indeed, working as stretcher-bearers to pick up those who had been wounded, and coming under fire themselves. They deserve to be remembered just as much, I think, as those who died fighting.
But there will be wars, Jesus said, and revolutions. Nations rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There doesn't seem as if we have much choice about it, given human nature.
Jesus also said “Blessed are the peacemakers”. We need to strive for peace, even knowing that there will always be war. “Strive for peace” - it sounds almost an oxymoron, doesn't it, a contradiction in terms. But St Paul reminds us that our fight isn't against flesh and blood, but against “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” It is they, arguably, who are responsible for much of the earthly conflict we see. And Paul also reminds us of the weapons we need to arm us for this particular conflict: faith, truth, righteousness, peace, salvation and, above all, prayer.
I'm sure that our prayers for peace do make a difference. As do our prayers for our armed forces. We remember what are, I think wrongly, called “The glorious dead”, as if it is glorious to be shot dead at twenty rather than dying in one's bed at ninety, but we are right to remember them; for if we remember, we shall, I hope, also remember to pray for those who are still alive, and still fighting. And to pray for peace. Wherever the conflict is, whichever soldiers are fighting, our job is to pray for them, for both sides. To lift them up to that great Captain, the Prince of Peace.
And one day, one day, perhaps, Isaiah's vision will come to pass: “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.” Amen.
Oberstdorf as Austria, 22 May
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