Armistice Day 2013: Reflections and Silence for Remembrance

Monday 11th November 2013

Monday 11 November 2013

The school held a Remembrance Day service today to commemorate Armistice Day. The centre piece of this morning’s service was Dr Lindsay Hall’s piece, ‘Armistice 2013.’

The school prepared for this by listening to part of Richard Strauss’ ‘Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings’ while visual images of war reminded us of the pity and pain of war. Studdert Kennedy’s poem ‘Waste’ followed and the hymn, God, as with silent hearts’ ended with the call to ‘remember forward to a world restored’. The music of ‘If the war goes on’ with its half closes leaves all unfinished as the hope of peace and the reality of beating swords into ploughshares continues just that, a hope.

‘The Coventry Litany of Reconciliation’, calling out of us a recognition of of our own angers and pride, moved into a heartfelt performance of Bach’s ‘Blute nur’, from St Matthew’s Passion; Christ’s anguish at Judas’ betrayal, serpent woundings of the one who had befriended him. After prayer the two minute silence flowed into the Chamber Choir’s singing of Pericles’ 5th century oration.

‘So they gave their bodies for the commonwealth, and received praise that will never die, and a home in the minds of men. Their story lives on without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.’

Bach’s Cello Suite No 1 in G major Ist movement sent us back into lessons. Fittingly the November rain dripped and soaked outside.

Written by The Reverend Hilary Benson, School Chaplain

Please see below for Dr Lindsay Hall, Head of Classics, talk in full:

“Today the poppies we wear, representing those living red poppies that troop like ranks of soldiers across the fields of Flanders, remind us of the fallen in war, and focus our reflections on the meaning of their sacrifice and loss. This commemoration was instituted in 1919, in memory of those who died in the 1914-18 “Great War”. But in the light of World War II, and of other more recent conflicts in which British and Commonwealth personnel have fought and died, we must think of more.

It is too easy, nowadays, just to throw up our hands in horror, and scream how ghastly war is. That message is all too familiar, from the arts and history and indeed modern journalism. We study the war-poetry of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, enjoy, if that is the right word, the dramatisation in Oh! What a Lovely War of young men being sent in their thousands to their deaths by buffoonish old generals, or the wickedly sardonic anti-war humour of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, or the sophisticated bombardment of our moral sensibilities from films such as Apocalypse Now; or we look with weary exasperation on scenes, beamed into our living rooms almost daily by the broadcast media, of wars more recent, even today.

But let us step back, and consider things from a wider angle. You need only flick through portions of the Old Testament to meet vivid and sometimes gruesome accounts of savagery in war. And God is not merely recruited as an ally for the Israelites against their heathen neighbours: in one Old Testament formulation He is the Commander-in-Chief, the Lord Sebaoth, the Lord of Hosts, that is, of armies. And at the fountainhead of all European literature, Homer’s tale in the Iliad of the Wrath of Achilles is set against the (already for him) ancient story of the war of the Greeks against Troy, a story indelibly cemented into the European, indeed global, cultural heritage.

That is myth, of course. But recorded history too shows no century, no decade, barely a single year, but it is regularly punctuated by warfare. And while Homer was a poet, in the first two significant prose works of European literature war is not merely something that happens, it is their central subject. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus recounted the wars of 496-478 BC between Greece and Persia, and his younger contemporary Thucydides compiled a history of the great war of 431 to 404 BC between Athens and Sparta.

War has been, so to speak, part of the global furniture for as long as we can collectively remember. Even in times of relative peace and harmony between peoples and nations, its shadow lurks behind. Stalin once said “If any foreign minister begins a ‘peace conference,’ you can be sure his government has already placed orders for battleships and aeroplanes”, echoing both the old Roman proverb si pacem vis, bellum para (“If you desire peace, prepare for war”), and the doctrine proposed by the Prussian soldier and statesman Carl von Clausewitz in 1873, “War is but an extension of diplomacy by other means”.

In short: it is lamentable, and, for those of us who believe in a loving Creator God who wants us to live in a world of peace and justice, it is baffling, but it is an inescapable fact, that war has been a constant and ubiquitous fixture in human society throughout recorded history.

But depressingly universal though war has been, there have also been signs, right from the start, of a gentler awareness of its costs and of the moral dilemmas war poses. To return to the Old Testament: there we witness the salvation-history of ancient Israel – punctuated, yes, by war and savagery – but still shot through with the longing that one day the lion will lie down with the lamb, that swords will be beaten into ploughshares, that the Lord, in the words of Psalm 46, will “break the bow and shatter the spear, and burn the shields with fire”. The climax of Homer’s Iliad is not a triumphal victory-parade, but rather a moving reconciliation-scene in which Achilles, the warrior par excellence, sits alone in his tent with old King Priam, father of the Trojan prince Hector, Priam’s beloved son and heir whom Achilles has slain – at peace with each other, sharing Achilles’ meat and wine, and recognising after ten long years of revenge and bloodshed each other’s personal pain and flawed humanity. In Thucydides’ usually unsentimental history, death in battle is part and parcel of being a man and a citizen, and is usually simply reported as plain objective fact. But even the clinical Thucydides pauses to dwell on a shocking and heart-rending atrocity, in which a school was overrun by bloodthirsty soldiers, who for no strategic reason simply massacred all the little boys and their teacher. Even the Romans, who were among the most warlike people in history, felt a lurking need to justify their behaviour, sensing in their heart of hearts that they were committing, as we might put it today, “crimes against humanity”. Thinking writers like Cicero and Caesar tried hard to find moral justifications for the wars Rome fought. And taking his cue from Cicero above all, St Augustine tried to formulate a philosophical and theological theory of what he might call a “just war” – in other words, of when and why it might be acceptable, or even righteous, to kill people.

Augustine’s is a splendid intellectual effort to square an impossible circle. But although he does his best, and Augustine’s intellectual best is very good, there can never be a truly “just” war. But it is revealing that already in the fourth century AD, intelligent individuals were wrestling with the same ethical issues that peoples and nations confront today.

All this points to a ray of hope, springing from the emotional and moral wreckage that gives us this Remembrance Day. After the carnage of the trenches in World War I there came to this country an unprecedented national revulsion, a sense of “never again” – and when in 1939 war was once again declared with Germany, it was with no enthusiasm that Britons went to war once more, but rather with a sombre acceptance of the moral imperative of resisting Nazism. Following her total defeat in 1945, and in the light of her own 3,000,000 dead, both service personnel and civilians, Germany rose again, phoenix-like, with a strongly democratic political and social order, to become a bastion of peaceful economic development with a deeply-rooted reluctance, shared today by the vast majority of German people, to throw her weight about in any military way ever again. The post-war constitution of Japan has built-in restrictions on the size and capabilities of the Japanese armed forces, and there is no public appetite to use them. Paradoxically, the apparently aggressive post-war behaviour of the now defunct Soviet Union can be interpreted along similar lines: the Soviet government constructed around the borders of Mother Russia a protective ring of communist client-states – Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and so on – and punished ruthlessly those countries, like Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, which sought some independence from the dictates of Moscow. But this was at least partly in reaction to the unimaginably huge losses that Hitler’s invasion had caused – an estimated 24,000,000 Russian citizens died – and to prevent such a calamity ever happening again. Even in America, which has never faced armed invasion, there has been in my lifetime a tectonic shift in the moral perception of war among the public at large. In the nineteen-sixties, the USA was embroiled in the disastrous war in Vietnam, at the cost of scores of thousands of young American lives, never mind the Vietnamese. But ever since then, even the most hawkish or gung-ho of American presidents must allow for the fact that the American public will nowadays tolerate only so many televised images of body-bags being flown back to Arlington National Cemetery.

And nowadays, if governments – at least democratic governments – anywhere wish to embark on military adventures, they must bend over backwards to seek “legitimacy” for their plans through the apparatus of diplomacy and UN resolutions, not only because they want allies and international approval, but also, arguably even more so, to silence, or at least to counter, public dissent within their own frontiers, as we have seen in the continuing public arguments over the “legality” of recent military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

None of the countries I have mentioned are on the brink of renouncing their stocks of weaponry, or disbanding their armed forces; and I am not hopeful that in my lifetime the military calculations of political leaders in Washington or the Kremlin or Paris or anywhere else will be much influenced by St Augustine’s moral philosophy, rather than by pragmatic self-interest, and what they can persuade their own populations to accept (though it is better to act justly for impure reasons than to act unjustly for any reasons at all). And there are still the other countries and governments and whole regions of the globe where, even if the sort of popular feeling that we have experienced in the western democracies were to exist, it could be safely ignored or trampled underfoot by despotic rulers – North Korea, China, large swathes of the Middle East and of course Syria in particular, even as I speak. There will continue to be wars, and some will be very savage and grim and bloody.

But I believe that there is ground for hope yet. It is no accident that it is precisely among the democratic nations of the world, where the public have access to a free press and broadcast media, that popular revulsion against irresponsible militarism has been at its most vocal and influential. And I believe that this is in step with the general tide of history, to which eventually even those remaining citadels of military despotism must one day succumb – witness, in recent history, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the abandonment of apartheid in South Africa, the emergence of Burma from decades of ruthless secrecy and military dictatorship, the Arab Spring. There is a long way for humanity at large to go still: we have still to have a “War to end all wars”. But the British and Commonwealth dead whom we commemorate today will not have died for nothing, if in the end their struggle and their loss turn out to have contributed to the propagation of the democratic freedoms which go hand in hand with love of peace, and thereby bring us a step nearer to the Kingdom of God on earth.”