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We Will Remember them. But Why?

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    Posted: 10 Feb 2012 at 11:55
The following speech was given by Professor Nigel Biggar (Professor of Theology at Trinity College Dublin) at Anzac Day Services in Dublin in 2007.
The Association inserted the following note as a disclaimer.

"By kind permission of Nigel Biggar, Professor of Theology, Trinity College, we are publishing the address he made at the 2007 ANZAC commemoration service. The topic is a delicate and emotive one and while not everyone might agree with the contents we are sure that everyone will find it thought-provoking. "

We Will Remember Them. But Why?

April the 25th, the date ninety-two years ago when the British (who then included the Irish), the Australians, the New Zealanders, and the French landed at various points on the Gallipoli peninsula in a bold, if fatally ill planned, bid to seize Constantinople and bring the First World War to a more merciful conclusion than that allowed by the grinding battles of attrition on the Western front.


Thats the event that we commemorate here on Anzac Day. And as with Remembrance Day on the 11th of November in Britain, so Anzac Day is proving, I believe, increasingly popular at just the time when many feared that it would die along with the last of the veterans.


Many of us feel the need to remember. That much is clear. What is not so clear is what it is that we remember, and how we remember it. The truth is that on this occasion we do a variety of things. What’s more, different people do different, sometimes even contradictory things. Indeed, sometimes it feels as if the contradiction runs not only between us, but through us. For Remembrance ceremonies like this conjure up a gaggle of emotions, some of which can embarrass and confuse us.


So let’s see if we can throw some light on the confusion. Some people feel that Remembrance ceremonies are by their very nature militaristic, and are therefore unchristian, and should be avoided. This seems most plausible when church services, like this one involve military personnel in uniform and carrying flags. My own view is that not everything military is militaristic. One can carry a flag without waving it. And if you’ve ever watched the Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph in Westminster, then, notwithstanding its bemedalled veterans, and its military bands, and its regimental flags, I think you’ll agree that the prevailing mood is not jingoistic, but sombre. Even the uniforms are dull, tending toward the black, and not just on account of the season. And, if I’m not confusing my ceremonies, are not the flags made to bow their heads to the very earth?


Remembrance ceremonies need not be militaristic, and I don’t think that we need feel embarrassed by them on that count. We needn’t feel contradiction or tension running right through us at this point.


This is all the more so, when we observe that one of the main things that we remember on these occasions are the evils of war. We remember the dead. We remember young lives cut short. We remember very young lives cut short. If you visit military cemeteries of the two world wars the most striking, even shocking thing is the age of those who were killed, many of them much younger than the actors who play them in the war movies; 18, 19, 20, 21.


War causes great damage, great loss, and great evil. And it’s important for us to remember that, so that we don’t take for granted the peace that we now enjoy. My grandparents suffered two world wars; my parents suffered one. I have suffered none. For me, peace is normal. Wars, if they happen, happen elsewhere. But that hasn’t always been the case. And we ought not to assume that it will always be the case. Peace is fragile. It needs our active care and attention. It needs our work. And remembering the evils of war reminds us of that. So this kind of remembrance is salutary. It is pacific. It makes for peace.


So far, I think I can presume that we are agreed. So far I doubt that there is difference between us. But when it comes to the issue of war as an instrument of justice, I imagine that we will find ourselves disagreeing.


I am in the habit of visiting military cemeteriesas I will be doing when I make a pilgrimage to Gallipoli next month. One cemetery that I’ve visited in recent years is the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof the German military cemeteryat Maleme in Crete. Maleme is where the decisive battle was fought in May 1941 between, on the one hand, British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops (led, as it happens, by a Gallipoli veteran), and German paratroops on the other. At the cemetery, there is a very well presented exhibition, and part of this exhibition tells the story of three brothers. All three were in the same German parachute regiment. The two younger brothers hero-worshipped the older one, and followed him into his elite regiment. All three of them were killed on the same day at Maleme. The youngest one was still in his teens. A heart-breaking story. A very tragic story. And from this story, and others like it, the exhibition at Maleme draws the conclusion: War is evil, War is the great plague, War it is that we must resolve to avoid absolutely and everywhere.


At this point in the exhibition, however, I found myself reacting in a stereotypically Anglo-Saxon, and rather un-European, way. Because I thought to myself, Well, yes, but no. For one thing that the exhibition didn’t touch on, it was disingenuously silent about the awkward question of what young Germans were doing dropping out of the skies onto Crete in May 1941. And that then raises the sharp question of how those on the ground were supposed to respond to them. The only way to have avoided war absolutely and everywhere would have been to allow Hitler’s armies to do as they wished. And if in Crete, then also throughout Europe. But with what consequences for the Jews, for the Slavs, for the communists, for the gays, for the gypsies, and indeed, for any decent humanist and for any committed Christian?


It’s true that some people think that non-violent resistance, such as was effective against the British in India, could have been used successfully against the Nazis in Europe. Some of you may think that. I, for one, remain sceptical.


But if you don’t think that, and if you share my scepticism, then you will entertain the possibility that war, with all its undoubted and great evils, might still be the only effective way of stopping even greater evils. War as an instrument, a terrible instrument, of justice. War as an instrument so terrible that we should seek to avoid it at great cost, but not at all costs.


Fine, you might say, perhaps the war against Hitler and imperial Japan was justified; and so we can remember those Britons and Irishmen and Australians and New Zealanders who served and suffered in the Allied cause then with pride and gratitude. But what about the First World War? Surely that was a futile war, an imperialist war whose motives and aims have no moral justification? How can we remember that with anything but embarrassment and shame?


Well, embarrassment and shame have their place on an occasion like this. Even justified wars have their shameful moments: the war against Hitler had its bombing of Dresden. So perhaps we should mingle pride with shame. But to mingle is not to eclipse. Maybe loyalty to the truth of the matter requires that we learn to live with the tension of both pride and shame


But before we buy into the common and popular view of the First World War, let me make three points on behalf of the justice of the Allied cause then. First of all, to observe that the Allied cause in the Great War involved imperial interests is, to my mind, not to say anything very illuminating. And that, by the way, is exactly how L.A. Carlyon, the author of the recent, popular, and very gripping account of the Gallipoli campaign, dismisses what the Anzac troops were fighting for: Gallipoli, he writes breezily, “was all about the British empire, which is as dead as Rudyard Kipling and just as quaint.”


Well, there are empires and there are empires. And some empires, like nations, churches, and individuals, have mixed moral records. The British empire, for example, occasioned the brutal rampages of the Black and Tans in 1920s Ireland; and yet eighteen years later that same empire offered the only effective opposition to the Fascist domination of Europe for two long years from 1939-1941. And if the British empire did give rise at times to disgusting racial arrogance, it was also the first body to abolish the slave trade and to enforce the ban internationally, as we are commemorating in this bicentennial year. Whatever Britain’s imperial interests in the first war against Germany, British, Irish, and Anzac troops would not have found themselves landing at Gallipoli, had not the Kaiser’ s Germany, unprovoked, invaded Belgium and France in 1914.


My second point in favour of the Allied cause in the Great War is this. It is common nowadays to refer to the First World War as futile, meaning that it achieved nothing worthwhile. Well, that’s not how most of those involved at the time saw it. At the time most people believed that it was necessary to fend off aggressive, Prussian militarism. Even the famous War Poets wrote of the piteousness of war, but not of its futility. True, Siegfried Sassoon protested that it should be stopped; but not because it should never have been started, rather because it was being prolonged, in his view, unnecessarily. And that was a view that he later recanted. To most of those at the time the Great War was terrible, tragic, piteous, heart-breaking but necessary. And that, as far as I can judge, is also the view that now prevails among contemporary historians.


But surely, you say, nothing could have been worth all that slaughter? Well, that raises an important and difficult question: how much is justice worth? When are its costs too high? But think on this third point: the rate of lethal casualties suffered by the British and Irish at the Somme in 1916 was less than that suffered by the British and Canadians in Normandy in 1944. Famous Normandy was more costly proportionately than the infamous Somme. The reason that the First World War looks by comparison so excessively expensive of British, Irish, and Anzac lives is because in the Second World War the Irish Free State was neutral, Britain and its empire never fought in the main theatre of action, and it was the Russians on the Eastern Front who paid most of the enormous costs. So if we reckon that the War against Hitler was somehow worth it, despite its enormous overall cost, some 62 million people are reckoned to have died in it, hen the fact that the Great War involved terrible slaughter does not, alone, prove it unjustified.


All of this excursus into the Great War by way of saying that it is not clear to me that those Australians and New Zealanders and Irishmen and Britons who lost their lives for the Allied cause at Gallipoli and elsewhere, wasted them. It’s not clear that either the cause or its instrument were unjust. So maybe pride and gratitude can raise their heads even as we remember them.


Together we remember and lament the terrible evils of war. Together we remember and lament the tragedy that envelopes ordinary people in wartime, be they antipodean or Turkish or British or German. Together we remember and lament the fragility of peace. And out of our remembering and lamenting, together we resolve to work for the peace that is only ever an achievement, never a natural, default state.


Beyond this, however, we divide. Some, having drawn pacifist conclusions, will resolve to oppose all war everywhere. Others of us, believing that war can sometimes be an instrument of justice, will be proud of those who have served and suffered justly, and grateful to them. But, remembering that war is only ever a terrible instrument of justice, which brings great evils in its wake, we will resolve to use it very sparingly indeed, and only as a very last resort.


Nevertheless, those of us who believe in the possibility of justified war will recognize that there are two temptations, not just one. Certainly, there is the temptation for nations that possess military hammers to presume that all problems are nails. Such nations would be, pre-eminently the USA and, to a much lesser extent the UK. But there is another temptation facing nations that have no military hammer: namely, the inclination to pretend that nails don’t exist.


It is possible to go to war too late, as well as too soon. For example, in 1999 during a debate on Nato’s military intervention in Kosovo at the General Synod of the Church of England, the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, said this: “Terrible things happened earlier, especially [the massacre of 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica] in Bosnia. Should we have intervened earlier at that point? If we did not intervene at that point and should have done, how much responsibility do [we] bear for failing to face up to evil and [to] support the necessary stern measures?”


And, of course, in Rwanda we didn’t go to war at all. Which was good for us. But not so good for the Tutsis.


So, in addition to remembering and lamenting, and resolving to work for peace and resolving to resist going to war too soon, some of us will also pray for the courage not to go to war too late, and for the wisdom to discern when the moment for dreadful action has come.


Here, then, on Anzac Day, we’re doing a variety of things. Some of them we do together; some we do apart. But all of us, I think, have good reason why, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we should remember them.


Canon Professor Nigel Biggar, Trinity College Dublin St Ann’s, Dawson St., Dublin Anzac Day, 25 April 2007

Edited by Mal Murray - 10 Feb 2012 at 11:56
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