Remembrance Day: human cruelty and destructiveness is enough to make you despair
Mary Copping and Liz Stuart, 14 November 2021
Micah 4: 1–5; James 3: 13–18; John 15: 9–17
LS: Mary, I think this day has personal meaning for both of us.
MC: Yes, it does. For me, my husband Pete was in the army for 22 years, and we were married for 14 of those. We had some good times but also a lot of worrying times, when the men would go away to various parts of the world on duty for months on end, and the wives would be left at home – no mobile phones then, no facetiming, just a shared phone on the camp and queueing to take your turn to call. Or letters, which would take days to get there but which the soldiers would love to receive. Though we were advised not to worry them by telling them anything negative. We had to be positive as they needed encouragement wherever they were serving. If they were away for many months, they were allowed a couple of days home for R & R, rest and recuperation. There was always a Families Officer on camp to help the wives and families while their husbands were away.
The men would go away to various parts of the world on duty for months on end, and the wives would be left at home – no mobile phones then, no facetiming, just a shared phone on the camp and queueing to take your turn to call.
LS: What was the hardest time for the wives?
MC: Well, in the 70s the soldiers were deployed to Northern Ireland in the midst of all the troubles, 3 or 4 times, for 3 or 4 months. They were often in danger – really difficult for them and very hard for us wives left at home, wondering if they were alright, just watching the news. The worst was when we would see on the news and they said, ‘A soldier has been killed but the family has yet to be informed’. It wouldn’t happen nowadays but it did happen then. So we’d wait and if we saw the padre walking up the path, then we knew it was bad news. The relief when the men came back after a tour was immense, for them and for us.
When the soldiers came back, sometimes they would have strong reactions to loud noises, perhaps duck or flinch if a car backfired. Now this would have been diagnosed as PTSD but then they just got on with things and hoped for the best.
We as families also lived in Northern Ireland for a tour, in a gated compound. This was almost better than when the men went on their own and left us behind. At least being there we’d know day to day what was happening instead of relying on the news or the infrequent phone calls.
LS: So what does Remembrance Day mean for you?
MC: Pete and I sometimes went to the cathedral war memorial for the 11 o’clock Act of Remembrance and there we would meet other comrades from our regiment and think of those who had died as well as those of other regiments who had died in the two world wars and since. Having lived through some of the things we did in the army, we felt an affinity with the families and those who fought before and continue to fight.
We also knew of the courage of the soldiers as they did their duty no matter what. There was also a huge respect for the army chaplains who would accompany the soldiers on tour, there to be a support and listening ear, and sometimes they would even be asked by a soldier to pray for them or with them.
You come from a service background, too, don’t you Liz?
LS: Yes, I come from a strong naval family. My grandfather served in the Great War and won the Victoria Cross and my father served in the Second World War and won the Distinguished Service Cross. And my mother was an ambulance driver in the Blitz.
MC: So, what does remembrance mean to you?
LS: I think for me it means honouring the memory and giving thanks for those who gave their youth, their health and their very lives for our freedom. I find it deeply moving, almost unbearably moving, and like you I find it deeply personal.
I also reflect that we remember by recalling people in our memory, but God remembers people literally, re-members them – he puts them back together again in a new life.
War, I think, is always a sign of failure and it is an unholy mess, a mess of misery with a long tail of pain and suffering. Some people think war can never be justified; others take the view that though war can never be good, it can be just, and therefore sometimes justified.
One of my favourite theologians, the German Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during the war secretly worked against Nazism and was eventually found out, kept in a concentration camp and hung, naked, as they could hear the Americans approaching the concentration camp to liberate it. He thought that war and violence was always sinful, but in our fallen world sometimes we have to take sin on ourselves for the good of others. That’s one of the ways in which we love one another in a fallen world, according to Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer thought that war and violence was always sinful, but in our fallen world sometimes we have to take sin on ourselves for the good of others.
For me, war demonstrates how much we need God. When you see how cruel human beings can be to one another and how much destruction we are prepared to wreak on one another and on our earth, it is enough to make us despair. Only God can save us. Only God can turn our hearts to love and to peace. So today for me is about remembrance with gratitude and pride but it is also about a prayer to God to save us from ourselves, to lead us from hate and violence into love and peace. Amen.