We won't forget you, Harry Patch

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
7 Nov 2009

This year's Remembrance Day will be different from every previous one. For the first time, not a single British veteran of World War One is alive to participate. This is the first November since the death of the “last Tommy”, Harry Patch.

Having lived in obscurity until his nineties, Patch turned out to be remarkably controversial when the media tracked him down as one of the last survivors of the trenches. Patch regarded Remembrance Day as “just show business”, insisted that World War One “wasn't worth it” and was well over a hundred when he embarrassed Tony Blair by telling him not to invade Iraq.

Patch is one of the few prominent figures to challenge many of the assumptions about the way remembrance works. Ekklesia's report, Reimagining Remembrance, recognises that remembrance cannot be a value-free act. How we remember, who we remember and why we remember says a great deal about the way we want our society to be.

Consider, for example, the frequent references to soldiers “dying for our freedom”. This reflects the belief that certain wars were necessary to defeat tyranny. Whether or not we agree with that view, can anyone say that all British soldiers died for freedom? What about those wars that many consider futile? What about “friendly fire”? Or soldiers who died while committing atrocities?

Sincerity demands truth, so sincere remembrance requires us to recognise reality. We cannot pretend that all soldiers died for freedom. But we should remember them all. Indeed, I suggest we should go further, and remember all those affected by war.

As a Christian, I cannot accept that one person's life is worth less than another's. Itis time to remember civilians, conscientious objectors and 'deserters', as well as those who fought against British troops. Let us also remember those who have risked their lives trying to resolve conflict peacefully. Furthermore, many of those wounded, traumatised or bereaved by war are still alive, and should be able to expect support from society and the state.

As we mark Remembrance Sunday, it is vital that we do not allow our churches to be co-opted into glorifying war. Can we remember the dead without justifying their deaths? Can we offer pastoral care to soldiers, without endorsing violence? Can we urge the government to increase financial support for those injured in body and mind? As we bow our heads, can we call to mind the grief felt by mothers and fathers in Germany, Afghanistan and Argentina, so similar to the grief felt in London, Glasgow and Belfast?

It is possible for pacifists and just war theorists to sit and pray with each other, seeking God's guidance to live out Jesus' values of truth, compassion and forgiveness. Harry Patch, like millions who fought alongside (and against) him, recognised the frequent futility of warfare and hoped for a world in which conflicts were resolved nonviolently. If we truly want to remember him, let us do so in a way he would have appreciated – with truth, commitment and a determination to work for peace.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This column appeared originally in the Baptist Times on 5 November 2009.

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