Remembering well in the cause of peace

By Jill Segger
November 7, 2015

War is failure. The failure of diplomacy, of politics and, in John Steinbeck's words, of man “as a thinking animal.” If we lose sight of this, we cannot remember well. And if we are unable to remember well, yet another failure will be added to the vast catastrophe of human conflict.

The 1914-18 war killed around 10 million military personnel and seven million civilians. A further six million were listed as missing, presumed dead. The figures for the conflict of 1939-45 are respectively 20.8 million and 27.4 million. Yet almost all our ceremonies of memorialising are centred around military pageantry. It is right that those who died under arms should be remembered with respect for their courage and deep sorrow for their young lives cut short. But this focus does not help us in owning grief for the deaths of non-combatants or for devastated landscapes and ruined environments.

All the pity of war and the ruin and hatred which it hands down the generations, demands a willingness to think anew. We must make our ceremonies of memory more inclusive, re-examining the quasi-religious and often tendentious language, the familiarity of which may be a protection against truth. A more reflective choreography could enlarge our understanding. Imagine regiments, squadrons and ships' companies standing silently, without battle honours, glittering insignia and martial music. Among them, politicians with ashes on their heads, shoulder to shoulder with men, women and children of the 'other side' as well as with their own compatriots, all united in penitence and mourning. For if we focus only on our own, we reinforce the very nationalisms which generated so much destruction and if we are unable to look beyond well-practised conventions, how shall we ever challenge ourselves to undertake the radical discomfort of transforming the future in the cause of peace?

Selective remembrance, mired in 'tradition' invites us to take refuge in comforting falsehoods and half-truths. Remembering with integrity requires sufficient humility and courage to face the painful questioning which will be its consequence. These centenary years of the 'war to end all wars' seem a good time for renewal and for reminding ourselves that only truth will set us free.

*This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Magnet under the title of Reimagining Remembrance and is reproduced with acknowledgement.

* Magnet


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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