Remembrance Day 2009 Address

November 8, 2009

Kevin P. Clements, Director, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


This year marks the 91st anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. Most of the people who fought in that war have passed on. All we are left with now are the thousands of white crosses marking their graves in Flanders and elsewhere, and their poems, diaries, memories, films, aging photographs, paintings, histories, and stories. All a mute legacy to a cataclysmic paroxysm in history.


New Zealand mobilised and dispatched 110,000 men and women to that war. 18,000 New Zealanders were killed and 55,000 were wounded. This meant that there were 73,000 casualties in total or 66% of all those who were dispatched to the front. Almost every family in New Zealand was touched directly or indirectly by someone who was killed or wounded. Those who returned were the walking wounded. They were mentally and physically traumatised and all were scarred for life. They returned to New Zealand and elsewhere legless, armless and many were facially scarred for life.


The First World war was one of appalling slaughter. From all around the world 65 million men and women were mobilised , 8.5 million killed, 21 million were wounded 57% of all the mobilised were killed or wounded.


When my wife and I visited the Ramparts Cemetery near Ypres a few years ago (it’s a small cemetery in the town not far from what was known as sniper alley) we stood in silence before the graves of three Maori soldiers –aged between 18-23. They came from places like Gisborne, Te Araroa and Whakatane. We wondered what on earth each of them had hought about the war. We could imagine the excitement as they set off as warriors to fight in foreign places. But when the reality of war set in. What did they then think about being so far from their own homes, away from family, hapu and iwi? What did they think about their cause. Were they fighting for God, King and Country or were they simply trapped in an Imperial adventure over which they had absolutely no control? They had barely emerged from adolescence and their short lives were terminated, along with those of thousands of others , as they were ordered up sniper alley to front lines. Most who started up that road in Ypres never made it to the end. 


So why are we commemorating and remembering the First World war 91 years on? There are a number of reasons.


First, many of us baby boomers are linked to that moment in history. My father, for example, was born in 1914 and my mother in 1918. They spanned the cataclysm. It’s consequences affected their perceptions as they tried to make sense of the turbulent years of the 1920s and 1930s and as they confronted the challenges posed by fascism and the Second World War. We who are left still have to make sense of their experiences /memories /histories as they in turn have had a powerful impact on our own.


Second, it was a war of absolutely unimaginable misery and carnage. The fact that human beings emerged from the carnage with some measure of dignity intact is a testimony to the power of the human spirit in the face of appalling adversity. We need to learn from these experiences so that we understand something of the capacity of individuals to protect their humanity in the face of powerful dehumanising forces. We need to understand this carnage as a way of learning how people deal with the imminent reality of death and survive.

Third, it was the first example of what we now know as total war, fought with modern technology and with devastating consequence It gave us the Vickers Machine Gun, Tanks, Poison Gas, War Planes and other Weapons of Mass destruction. It obliterated the distinctions between civilian and soldier and the doctrines that went with this distinction.


Fourth, those who returned from that war to New Zealand, people like John A Lee, Ormond Burton, and others, people who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield -were appalled at the huge gap between political rhetoric and the soldiers realities. This was not a glorious war. It was a messy, bloody and in the end unnecessary war serving very particular imperial interests as are a number of recent wars-especially those thought of as wars of choice rather than necessity. The First World War placed a question mark over war as a means of settling any disputes and yet 21 years later the world was embroiled in another world war. So the world did not learn, it was not the war to end all wars. It was a precursor to even more sophisticated slaughter. It is salutary to remind ourselves of the hopes that emerged from the First World War to see what they might tell us about dealing with conflict in the future.


Fifth, the military men and women who fought in that war and in all the wars that have afflicted the world since understand better than their political leaders something of the challenges that war poses to their profession. This is why serving military are often much more prudent and less jingoistic than their political leaders when it comes to understanding the hazards of violent conflict and of the challenge of keeping their humanity in the face of military challenge.


Finally, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the on going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all stand in a relatively uninterrupted line of 20th and 21st century violence. If this century is to be the age of maturity it is vital that we learn from the mistakes of the past so that we are not doomed to repeat these in the future.


So irrespective of what we might think about the political merits of all these wars we must respect the memories of those who fought in them and survived and we must especially remember those who fought in them and did not return. Both have lessons to teach us about life, death, survival and the retention of humanity.


I would also like to take advantage of this moment to honour those who did not fight, This act, which was so often misunderstood at the time, also required a certain kind of courage-namely the courage to say no to the state and to public opinion at a time of national crisis. The actions of those who said no added to our freedom by creating a space for dissent which is also essential to a flourishing democracy.


I would like to honour both the warriors and the pacifists. The old testament reading from Ecclesiastes reminded us about seasons, and times for war and peace. The new Testament reading, raises the bar a bit more and reminds us of the imperative for Christians to be peacemakers. Both perspectives are vital for a balanced understanding of the complexities of war.


My own family embodied these tensions. My Uncle, Owen Gatman, for example, chose to fight in the Second World War and was killed at Siddi Azeiz in Libya. His letters have been published in a book entitled “On Active Service” In 1940 he was much cheered by the King’s Empire broadcast in which the King said “ Keep your hearts proud and your resolve unshaken. Let us go forward to that task as one man, a smile on your lips and our heads held high. With God’s help we shall not fail”. Of course German soldiers went off to war with the same thought that God was on their side as well.


My father, on the other hand, chose to conscientiously object to war and spent the duration in detention. As the war progressed and he became aware of the specific evils of fascism he was constantly plagued by anxiety about whether his decision was the right one. In the end he decided that his stand did generate a creative tension between the violent/non violent options but he always felt conflicted. Uncle Owen wrote on April 11 1941 “ I truly hope that Les Clements will change his views about Pacifism-what he sees in his glorious stand does not work very well here at the present time!” This was written from Greece just before Owen was evacuated to Crete.


One can see in these exchanges though that there was a deep tension — and still is — between those who wish to pursue Peace through force or peace through friendly persuasion. These are truly cosmic questions. What is the best path to peace is something that has engaged men and women of goodwill, from all the major faiths for millennia. Indeed the bible is, to some extent, one long record of violence and how Jews and Christians have grappled with that violence.


Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew tribes, for example was viewed as a warrior God. All of the Prophets and religious teachers, however, acknowledged that they could not live in a state of war and were equally concerned with how to generate the conditions for a just and peaceful society In particular they were overwhelmed with the dehumanising and evil effects of war and could see how it divided and brutalised people.


 Then along came Jesus who said Peace be with you. Who also said “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth….but I say to you love your enemies, do good to those who wish to do ill and do not be overcome by evil defeat it with goodness”


So we have two very contradictory impulses that lie at the heart of all Abrahamic faiths- the warrior and pacifist traditions — even Jesus said “I have come not to bring peace but a sword, to bring division into families, right into the heart of the people of Israel”….what all these prophets and others are reflecting is that the search for truth, for righteousness, for justice and peace ( or what we might call the Kingdom of Heaven) will be divisive, it will generate conflict….the challenge is how do we deal with that conflict and this is what we are grappling with in our faith traditions it is also what we are grappling with in the newly developed National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. We are looking at the relationship between development and peacebuilding; how to build capable, effective and legitimate state systems that do not need to rely on force and coercian in order to generate law and order; We are focusing on how to grapple with violence in the home, violence in schools, violence in the community. How do we ensure that we can celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity instead of being challenged by it? How do we deal with terrorist threat without declaring a war on terror—which is an oxymoron anyway given that it is hard to fight against an abstract noun! This is what we are focusing our academic attention on but it’s a challenge as well for all the Abrahamic religions as well.


How do we balance the demands of church and state/Caesar and Jesus/peace and justice? There have been a variety of answers to this through history—When the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian there was a fusion of Church and State which meant that defence of the state was also a defence of Christianity and vice versa. 


Nowadays there is much more likely to be a division between Church and State and this is how it should be. There needs to be a tension between the claims of both. Given weapons of mass destruction we can no longer claim that the interests of communities of faith are served by the interests of the state. 


We need to be able to adopt a more critical stance-we need to understand something about the causes of violence and how these might be addressed non violently. In other words we have to acknowledge that as long as there are human beings there will always be conflict. The challenge is how to deal with that conflict creatively and non-violently. If, heaven forbid, that conflict cannot be dealt with non violently then we need to know when and how to stop the violence and war and when the guns have ceased how to heal and reunite those divided by violence. How do we deliver social and political healing forgiveness and reconciliation in order to ensure that wars become less likely in the future? 


What we do know from a lot of research, however, is that once people have experienced a violent conflict-the chance of lapsing back into violence within five years is doubled and if they experience two violent conflicts in 5 years the chances of a third incidence is quadrupled. This is known by the world bank as the conflict trap.


Our challenge as Christians, as human beings, as members of human communities is to work out how to prevent such violence in the future.


We need the support of all faith communities and all who are interested in preventing the sort of carnage that we remember on Remembrance Day. To do this effectively we need what my father called love, courage and hope.


These were the qualities that enabled individuals to survive the carnage of the First World War and all subsequent wars. It is the power of love, kindness, humility and compassion that enables us maintain our human integrity, our wholeness, our aliveness our humanity. This is what enables us to live meaningful lives in the face of almost certain death. 


My Uncle Owen’s letters, for example, were all about friends, family, lovers, community and the memory of better times. They were also about the boredom of war and its nerve breaking tensions. To my great Aunt Alice just after the horrors of Crete he wrote:


“Stories of hopeless and desperate soldiers lying side by side with the hellish enemy breathing their last hours away. The sin of it all! Never again do I want to fight under such conditions. What a terrible tragedy this beast of Berlin has cast on his people and ours? What a lot he will have to account for before his maker! What a golden thread of courageous faith is this for us who recognise our ability to see beautiful things amidst the trials of battles-the beauty is sunset and dawn made one by nature. Bombs, shells, poison gas, cannot and will not wreck our faith in human nature or our love for this everlasting right. We know that whatsoever sorrows have darkened this world, beauty still remains. Beauty still remains and beauty is an expression of the mind of God. Cheer up! Dear one, be hopeful, life will not be in vain, after the storms of winter roses will bloom again. I am supremely thankful that in the kindness of loved ones, even if we are separated for a while, we can find rest and security. ” 


Thus we remember on Remembrance day so that we can find that deepest source of love, life, security and fearlessness. This source does not flow from powers and principalities or from the most sophisticated bombers, missiles, and submarines. Rather it comes from that deep affirmation of all that binds us together as human beings. In particular it flows from an enhancement of our capacity to take delight in the beauty that exists all around us and in the creative responses we make to this beauty; it requires an ability to see ourselves in webs of relationships and in communities that sustain and nurture our ability to be fully alive and fully human. Most of all it requires courage and an acceptance of the risks in peace-building.


Two weeks before my Uncle was killed he wrote (after three days of desert battle):


“It is now that I often think of home and wonder what everybody is doing, for I feel you all very near and dear to me. I appreciate the life-like pictures that are painted for me within the pages sent so regularly. I can see in my minds eye all the beauty and splendour of blossoms, flowers, roses-they bloom again within my central being, and the dullness and the loneliness of this wild desert waste disappears from my view. I am uplifted to greater and nobler hopes and desires of things that will emerge out of this chaos. I look forward to my return home with a wild longing… Lots of love Owen xxxxx”


In the face of this sentiment we who remember have a responsibility to ensure that never again will there be such chaos. We have to learn better ways of building peace. We have to celebrate life as though we are all to die tomorrow. We have to learn forgiveness and compassion and most of all we need to acknowledge that our capacity to be who we are rests on the quality of our relationships with others. There is a poem by Alistair Campbell called Journey from Despair--but it works well with a call to Christian peacemaking.


Forgiveness is a journey I must take

Alone into my childish fears, and there

Confront my fathers for my children's sake.


I must go before I cease to care,

And the world darkens and I cannot move.

Forgiveness is a journey from despair


Along a path my ancestors approve.

I must go back and with them make my peace:

Forgiveness is a journey into love!

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