There’s a memorial plaque at church, commemorating a victim of the First World War. He was 33 when he was killed in France, just weeks before Armistice Day – 33. It’s not particularly young, I guess, but that’s how old I’m going to be in a couple of weeks, and it’s a sobering reminder that a one of the main reasons that I’m unlikely to ever faced armed conflict is precisely because the generations that faced the Wars did. Heck, even in the response to terrorism, the reason I’m fairly insulated from the whole thing is because other people aren’t; we may be involved in community cohesion projects at work, but it’s not exactly the same as being in the middle of Helmand Province.
Remembrance Day always feels like the most sacred day in the secular civic calendar. The poppies, the veterens who get fewer each year, "They shall not grow old…" It would be easy to turn it into some triumphalist, jingoistic, flag-waving nonsense, but there’s an ambiguity in our attitude to war that restrains that, certainly with regard to the current conflicts in which the UK is involved – distrust as to our motives for being in Iraq and Afghanistan versus loyality to the personnel on the ground getting shot at. That’s why, when it was mentioned that the National Memorial Arboretum in Lichfield has space for another 15,000 names to be added as and when necessary, well… It’s a kick in the gut.
Sure, The West Wing may be right, all wars might well be crimes, but some people steal because they’re greedy dishonest thieves, while others steal because it’s their only means of survival, and others steal because they’re junkies desperate to feed their addiction, and what should be black and white blurs into shades of grey, and in the midst of all that, all you can really do is look for the red of the poppies and pray that one day we’ll be able to beat swords into ploughshares, and that the peacemakers will truly be blessed.
Somewhere along the line, a bird-loving saint from Assisi had a prayer attributed to him, and regardless of your religious affiliation (or otherwise), it’s hard not to recognise within it a call to recognise that peace doesn’t really come about just because a ceasefire is called:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
- where there is hatred, let me sow love;
- where there is injury, pardon;
- where there is doubt, faith;
- where there is despair, hope;
- where there is darkness, light;
- and where there is sadness, joy.
- O Divine Master,
- grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
- to be understood, as to understand;
- to be loved, as to love;
- for it is in giving that we receive,
- it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
- and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
And next year, we’ll once again stand in silence at eleven o’clock; next year, and the years after that, waiting for the poppies to grow once again, throughout the fields of France, along the canals of Basra.