Death, injury and damaged relationships – the sacrifices of war

Jonathan Rowe, 13 November 2022

Malachi 4: 1–2a; Luke 21: 5–19

‘Every poppy tells a story.’ It’s a great turn of phrase, drawing attention to individual flowers among the sea of red of a national act of remembrance. For people of Britain and the Commonwealth, this act has become part of our story, shaping our understanding of who we are as individuals and a nation.

The stories we tell each other each year on Remembrance Sunday are often – and rightly – of valour and sacrifice. The names on wood and stone memorials remind us that our petty day-to-day preoccupations shouldn’t occupy the whole of our horizon; remind us that others’ stories are the foundations of our story; remind us that some stories really are as cataclysmic as the events of our reading; and remind us that all stories, including ours, must end.

One of the most familiar refrains of our national remembrance is the epitaph from Kohima, the site of a ferocious battle in northern India which marked the furthest point of the enemy’s advance. Those who fought in that theatre of war are often called the Forgotten Army. So, it’s perhaps ironic that the Kohima Epitaph is one of the most evocative and memorable parts of Remembrance services across the world.

When you go home,
tell them of us and say,
for your tomorrow,
we gave our today.

‘We gave our today’ speaks of the sacrifice of war. There’s the sacrifice of death. Today we remember those who died in battle in Europe, Africa and Asia, in the Americas and on the high seas. We also remember the sacrifice of those who were injured, perhaps bearing the physical and psychological marks of battle for the rest of their lives.

In addition to death and injury, there is another way in which the Kohima Epitaph speaks of sacrifice. After war, ‘home’ may be an unfamiliar place, and the solider an unfamiliar face. When my grandfather was finally demobilised and arrived ‘home’, he knocked on the front door. His son, aged six, said to my grandmother, ‘There’s a man at the door … I think it’s Daddy’. Many children didn’t know their fathers until they were aged 4 or 5; others missed them for long years. And this, quite naturally, has had lifelong consequences for family relationships.

Through death, injury or damaged relationships, war involves the sacrifice of ‘today’. The Kohima Epitaph connects this sacrifice to hope, to a better ‘tomorrow’.

For many combatants in the midst of conflict, how a better tomorrow will be achieved is not at all obvious. The fire and brimstone of our reading seem too real, too overpowering, too impossible to resist.

There’s another problem, too. The twentieth-century Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it like this: ‘The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart’.

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.

War, then, presents a challenge not only to the nation but to individuals. We might think of it like this: fighting is an attempt to obliterate someone else’s story, either by beating them into submission so that they have to repeat the victor’s version of events, or by obliterating the other altogether by killing them.

War, in other words, is something that takes place when one person, group or nation claims that other people’s stories, and their story-tellers, are not important. That’s not just a temptation for those who take up arms; many of us refuse to dialogue or simply shout louder.

So, building a peaceful tomorrow starts with listening – not necessarily agreeing, but listening. Listening to others’ stories, listening to their pain and joy and hopes and fears, seeking to understand their point of view.

The stories of the men whose names are recorded on our memorial board came to a premature end: ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old’. As we remember them with poppies, we recall their stories; and their stories become part of ours.

We remember, too, that all our stories, whether they have been of blessing or suffering, are held by God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Amen.