THE TUMULT and the shouting has died. And though the captains and the kings may not have departed, they have, for the present, disappeared from our screens.
The power-pageant of throne and altar has rightly been much anatomised and discussed, both in these pages and many others. This will continue to be examined for as long as there are those who do not understand that the relationships of Establishment are inimical to the Gospel.
The overwhelmingly military dramaturgy of the Coronation ceremony manifests that lack of understanding. From the display of synchronised marching through the ceremonial quarter of London, to the ritual bearing and presentation of swords and spurs within Westminster Abbey as symbols of monarchical rule, there was no escaping the fact that at present, militarism is inseparable from monarchy in this country.
Though public enthusiasm for war may be diminishing, its pageantry retains a strong hold on our emotional responses. It is not difficult to see why. Military personnel on parade in a glitter of scarlet, blue and gold present a spectacle to remember, and onto which we may project nostalgia for Empire. Over 6,000 members of the Armed Forces took part in last week’s Coronation procession and the choreography was impeccable; the skill and discipline undeniable. Such trim and tackle can tug at something within us which needs to be acknowledged, even in the very moment we may deplore it. Gerard Manley Hopkins dares upon it in his sonnet The Soldier:
Yes. Why do we all, seeing of a soldier, bless him? bless
Our redcoats, our tars? Both these being, the greater part,
But frail clay, nay but foul clay. Here it is: the heart,
Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess
That, hopes that, makesbelieve, the men must be no less;
It fancies, feigns, deems, dears the artist after his art;
And fain will find as sterling all as all is smart,
And scarlet wear the spirit of war there express.
It is this uncomfortable sense of paradox with which those of us who identify as pacifists or adherents of active non-violence must sometimes struggle. Whilst never doubting that all war is, in John Steinbeck’s words, “… a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal”, I have to recognise that we inherit centuries of the illusions spawned by that failure; of Wilfred Owen’s “old lie” and of the ardour “for some desperate glory”.
It is important to me, as a Quaker, to constantly remind myself of these words from the Public Statement of the Yearly Meeting of Aotearoa/New Zealand, made in 1987: “We may disagree with the views and actions of the politician or the soldier who opts for a military solution, but we still respect and cherish the person.”
Quakers are not alone in being opposed to war whilst refusing to hold enmity towards military personnel, or to take lightly their undoubted courage and skill. And I am certain that most who have seen armed conflict, abhor its horror and futility. Here, I am heartened by a recent conversation with a serving soldier, a thoughtful man who, in telling me how seriously he takes the care of the young men and women under his authority, included these words:”so long as we need soldiers…”
In our current approach to human conflict, it seems we do need soldiers. But we also need to strive towards a cast of mind which does not see armed force as the standard fallback position. For, as American theologian Stanley Hauerwas said, “As long as it assumed that war is an available option, we will not be forced to imagine any alternative to war.” The embedding of military display in both a once-in-generation event and in what has come to be thought of as ‘everyday militarism’ draws us away from considering what that might mean for wise governance and civic society.
So, a small thought experiment. When Prince George comes of age, will it be possible for him not to join one of the armed forces? Might a young man whose training will bend towards the concept of service, feel able to spend a few years working in an area of soft power? As a volunteer with a humanitarian NGO for example? Going forward a few years, must he become honorary colonel of a regiment? Must he, as Prince of Wales, wear military uniform at his wedding and as George VII, at his coronation? May he not, as the head of state to whom the military swear allegiance, have gained their respect for the discipline and courage of serving by unarmed force?
Next month, Armed Forces Day, which focuses on the excitement and spectacle of the ceremonial aspects of the military, will once again draw us away from considering these difficult matters. A good time, perhaps, to consider another stanza from the poem which I referenced at the head of this piece: Recessional by Rudyard Kipling:
“Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!”
© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, The Friend and Reform, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and is now Ekklesia’s Contributing Editor. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen