As we approach Remembrance Sunday, many people may feel quite ambivalent about the increasingly numerous and elaborate ceremonies and media coverage, but be very uncomfortable about voicing their doubts.
Over the last decade it seems that support for 'our troops' and the rightness of their actions has become a national shibboleth, an article of faith only the most perverse could quibble over.
One could perhaps say that the public attention and praise given to our military personnel has increased in direct proportion to the shakiness of the grounds on which they are sent into action.
Pointing this out, and questioning the glamourisation of sacrifice that seems to be an increasing part of Remembrance events, springs not from a lack of respect for the young men and women who put their lives at the nation’s disposal, often signing up before they are legally considered adults. It springs from compassion, fear for them and their families, and a painful awareness of what a terrible tragedy it is for any young person to lose their life, by whatever means.
The truth that cannot be spoken on Remembrance Sunday is that many lives lost in war have been wasted. Actually, we are allowed to say that, but only when the events concerned are safely in the distant past, and it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s fine to appreciate the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and deplore the slaughter of World War One, but asking whether those killed in Afghanistan have had their lives squandered is condemned as insensitive and disrespectful. If we don’t ask such questions though, how do we avoid more young men and women being sent to die for a dubious cause?
Those who volunteer and die fighting for what they sincerely believe in must be respected– but what if what they believed in was a mistake? It is often perceived as an insult to their memories to even consider this, but occasionally somebody acknowledges that this could be the case.
In 2009, for example, Conservative MP David Davis deplored the way things were going in Afghanistan, admitting, ‘we have wasted six years and many lives because of our shallow initial understanding of the problem.’ But far from calling for this waste of life to stop, he called for a massive increase in forces, saying ‘If we carry through this strategy, we will have a decent chance of creating a stable Afghan state, and of bringing this operation to a conclusion with honour and dignity.’
Does anybody now seriously believe that when our troops leave Afghanistan, they will leave behind them a stable Afghan state? And if they don’t, are we not forced to ask why so many people, children as well as adults, have been bereaved, and so many young people maimed?
In a 1964 film The Americanisation of Emily, James Garner plays a US Marine who volunteers for combat in World War Two, but soon regrets his decision. Speaking to a British woman who has lost both her husband and son to the war, he says:
‘We shall never end wars Mrs. Barum, by blaming it on ministers and generals, or warmongering imperialists, or all the other banal bogies. It's the rest of us...who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We...perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifice.’
On Remembrance Sunday, and every other day, we should feel deep sorrow for all who have died in war, and all who have been bereaved, but we should not exalt their sacrifice in a way that will justify the perpetuation of war. Our sorrow should not prevent us from asking whether those lives were squandered, and it should make us even more vigilant and determined to stop it happening again.
Read Ekklesia's Report 'Reimagining Remembrance' here:
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement.