All Quiet on the Western Front?
I will soon be off on holiday and this year we have decided to embark upon a long cherished idea for an adventure: we’re off to France, the Somme to be precise, to have a nosy around the First World War sites. We had a brief glimpse as a family some years ago when we spent a night there on route to Spain. I remember with both delight and chagrin my two sons running around the still extant trenches at the Newfoundlanders’ memorial, pretending to shoot each other and die quite dramatically. I was delighted, because my sons were using their imagination to play around a theme that they knew little about-only the memories of X Box ‘shoot ’em ups’. I felt chagrin, because I ruminated that neither of those two young boys would have been able to run around in such a way had not my own grandfather survived every major campaign of that ghastly war (he was in the Royal Engineers): sometime after his death and a good while before the birth of my sons, I took part in our school play when we enacted ‘Oh What A Lovely War’. The cutting and satirical insights of that play have stayed with me always, and I remain distrustful of believing that every war that we are enagaged in is a righteous one. I am proud of my father’s involvement, as one of the first Commandos, in bringing down the great evil of Nazi fascism. I have less reason to believe that other conflicts that we have been involved in had such a moral authority.
On Monday last I had the great honour and privilege, but also deeply disturbing and challenging duty, of giving the Absolution and Blessing at the funeral of Captain Daniel Shepherd in Lincoln Cathedral.(www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6723889.ece) . A man of 28 years old with a young wife, he was an undoubtedly very brave man, and he deserves our respect and admiration and also our deep regret and sadness at his loss. He was part of the Explosive Ordance Disposal Regiment and had already defused some fifty makeshift bombs. He was killed whilst trying to defuse just such a bomb.
At his funeral, faced with the pomp and ceremony of the Cathedral and the Military, I had two very different thoughts going through my head: on the one hand, I thought it right that the death of someone so young who died in such a noble way should be marked by the highest and most lavish ceremony possible to express a Nation’s gratitude and regret and to speak of the hope of the Resurrection even in the deepest moments of hopelessness. Daniel’s wife, family and friends all had a right to the best the nation could give them as they laid their loved one to rest: the fallen in battle. On the other hand, my heart went out to Daniel’s close family who experienced the full glare of the media at the funeral and had to cosset their own private grief in the context of a packed and dramatic liturgy. I hope they get all the love and support they will need in months to come when the media spotlight dims and a nation’s mourning moves on to gather around new, fresh graves.
Four more men came home in coffins today, four more generations of young boys and girls who will now not be born. A nation and a grieving family all have the right to ask the question that we should all ask, and the nation should ask, before it embarks upon and then continues conflict: ‘Is it worth it?’ Sometimes, the answer will be ‘yes’ as, I believe, with the Second World War. At other times we will hear the answer which we should have heard before the First World War: ‘No!’ God give us the wisdom to know the difference.
In Monday’s ‘Independent’, a young soldier wrote from Afghanistan about his feelings and experiences. One passage is worth repeating here…
When you read about a ‘very seriously injured’ casualty that person’s life is never going to be the same, nor is it for the rest of their family, who will be sucked in and forever affected by the aftermath.
Sometimes it is as if we, who are not involved, are playing at war like my two sons in those Picardy trenches. The funeral of that young hero, Daniel Shepherd, reminded me that war is no game for the family and friends who are left behind and for the dead who sacrifice precious years-and that we should think hard and long before we play.