"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for November 2015

Sonnet of Remembrance

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On 11 November, OCdt 26681 Jester Ladia spoke for those graduates of RMCC silenced by the guns of war. Ladia was selected by the College to read his own sonnet to the gathered crowd at RMCC’s Remembrance Day Arch Ceremony, a sonnet written in his 2012-13 English 100 class on behalf of OCdt 875 Lt Alexander Hewitt Bostock, who was killed in action at Mount Sorrel, Ypres on 26 July 1916.

In his introductory remarks, Ladia made a powerful connection between RMCC’s past and present, and the acceptance of responsibility and duty when choosing a life of military service that has remained unchanged in its cadets: “As men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces, we are tested daily, whether this be in a combat theatre, in a leadership role, or even experiencing stresses at home. In the case of Lt. Bostock, he answered these tests with bravery, courage, a sense of duty, and in the end, with his life. In short, the duties of one wanting to serve his or her nation calls upon a very important question that we all can relate to: Can you, and will you, carry on?”

With the writing and reading of his poem, OCdt Ladia honoured not just Lt Bostock, but also his fellow fallen soldiers whose portraits look out from the College’s Memorial Staircase. There are still many more poems to write on their behalf.

How much does it take?

They say you were different from the rest:

You had a higher calling, to be brave;

Your nation is what you wanted to save –

What did it take to pass this daunting test?

Forward and onward you commanded them,

Thrust into the darkness of the unknown,

This was the life you chose, didn’t you know?

They were yours. All yours. Loyal gentlemen.

But there was always something in your head:

Your family, your loved ones, those at home.

A small post card saying “I am quite well”;

Still, beyond the paper, you were alone.

With a heavy heart, you marched, and then fell.

You passed the test, who would have ever known?

Written by sameo416

November 16, 2015 at 7:41 pm

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What is your choice? Life or death?

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My brother priest preached a startling sermon today out of James 4:1-12, contrasting the world’s way of death with Christ’s way of life. He didn’t utter those words, but that was my abstraction that came through clearly in his preaching.

I’ve been reflecting in this direction since starting my preparation to preach on remembrance Sunday last week.  Today’s sermon served to highlight that direction even further, and left me with a realization: every choice we make in life, large or small, significant or middling, ultimately comes back to one fundamental dichotomy…are we choosing a path of life, or a path of death?

Heavy on my heart these past weeks have been some leadership challenges, and those too come back to that same question.  I generally operate in the realm of participatory, democratic leadership, because I mostly work with highly trained professionals.  That leadership style generally works very well.  However, if you have someone who constantly makes choices that move to death rather than life, that approach needs to be shifted quickly into something more directive.

Those sorts of choices seem far less significant that I’m making them out to be, but it is amazing how disproportionate the impact of those insignificant things can be in the midst of a community.  One person who consistently chooses death over life, can reduce an otherwise high-functioning place into a sea of distrust and frustration.

What sort of choices am I speaking of?  Well, every minute of every day a leader is called to make value judgments about things that they encounter.  How you present those value judgments back to the external world is where you have to think about choosing life or death.  So, someone asks a question in a meeting that you think improper — do you choose life (by redirecting the conversation in the meeting to a different direction and then following up with the person later) or do you choose death (by openly chastising them in the meeting)?

You can recognize these two types of leaders easily by the way they treat their followers, their peers and their bosses.  The ones that choose life take adversity with a positive response…sure this is not what I wanted, but how can I use this moment to build up by followers, my peers and my bosses.  The ones that choose death instead turn inwards and ask, why are these negative things happening to me?  Why are all these people against me?

The ones that choose life use mistakes by those around them as an opportunity to learn and grow even, and particularly when, those mistakes are committed by bosses.  A leader choosing life means accepting responsibility for things that you have no control over, because that responsibility allows you to re-characterize the adverse situation into one that benefits everyone.  A leader choosing death instead externalizes the mistake, disavows any involvement, and seeks to blame others (“I’ve told him about this many times and he keeps doing it!”  Maybe it’s time to stop telling, and to start building relationship).

This applies in all aspects of our lives, as ultimately each choice we make is either a choice to bring life, or to bring death.

Written by sameo416

November 15, 2015 at 3:18 pm

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A Sermon of Remembrance

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Remembrance Sunday, 8 November 2015, SJE

Daniel 2:1, 26-28, 31-45; Psalm 2; John 18:33-19:11

We are pausing for a moment today as a community of faith to consider those who have suffered the violence of conflict.  Our national day of Remembrance, November 11, is specifically focused on the memory of soldiers, but as Christians our call is broader as we are to intercede for the entire suffering of the creation.  I usually preach on this day, partly because of twenty years of service as a soldier (not a chaplain), but also because of my own life-long engagement with the intersection between faith and violence and the cost of that violence.  Through the grace of God and this community, I’ve also been progressively working through the impact of military service on my life, as I seek God’s grace in that question of how violence shaped me.  These are never easy to deliver, because it involves me opening parts of my life I would rather not deal with.  We have cause to be thankful for a personal story of soldiering this day, from the Horncastle family, as we look on these two chandeliers in a new way.

We start with Daniel’s prophetic revelation to King Nebuchadnezzar about a dream that has caused the king much troubled thought and no small degree of insomnia.  Nebuchadnezzar has seen an image of a remarkable statue: huge, brilliant and extraordinary.  The statue is made of all the known metals from precious to plain, with feet made partly of clay.  It is a strange thing to see as the feet of a metallic statue, but more on that in a moment.  A stone is cut out by God, which strikes this extraordinary statue and destroys it so that no trace of any of the metals can be found.  What is left is the stone which became a great mountain that filled the whole earth. This is a prophetic unveiling of what is to come, the rise and fall of kingdoms and kings, ultimately to be replaced with God’s kingdom that will never be destroyed.  God will prevail.

Ultimately all the kingdoms of the earth have clay feet, and as magnificent as we see the great things that we can do, these will fall.  I’m keenly aware of this as an engineer, as I have already seen in my short years the passing of things which were great, to something forgotten and abandoned.  Daniel’s retelling of the vision is a reminder to us that our ultimate hope rests not in the smarts of humankind, but in a lonely God who died on a lonely hill in the Middle East, only to rise again as the saviour of all.  It is easy now, with Daniel’s vision in mind, to perhaps simply dispense with all of the wars and rumors of wars as the feet of clay of humanity, knowing that it will all become as chaff on the threshing floor.  I’ll suggest that we, as Christians, are called to more than a simple forgetting.  Because we follow a suffering Christ, we are also called to engage the suffering of the world in a way that is as radically different as all aspects of our faith.

Unfortunately, the church’s relationship with soldiers have varied from the one extreme where the church endorses all the military does (thinking here of the consenting Lutheran church in Germany just prior to WWII), to rejecting all soldiers as un-redeemable because they have chosen a path of violence.  Neither fulfills the call of Christ.  In the past I’ve talked about how my faith was formed primarily through my training as a soldier…sure I’ve done a bunch of schooling and learned lots of fancy terms and theology, but the actual day-to-day hard work of being a Christian in a sometimes hostile world and of being a priest…well, that I learned through my formation as a soldier.  It may be a very challenging thing for you to hear if you’ve never thought about the military as a crucible of faith.  In particular, my time in uniform left me with a visceral theology of suffering, in fact, it is what keeps me going as a person who still bears the pain of military injuries.  Those military things, redeemed by Christ, have made me the person of faith I am today.

I’ve also talked about our calling as professional rememberers.  One calling of the church is to remember the sacrifices of others, and the cost of violence, and to call our nation to recollect those things.  But what are we supposed to make of these soldiers?  By stereotype, these are rough men and women, who do things that we would not dream of doing.  We are also called to a place of prayer for all those who suffer, which includes not only the victims of violence, but also those who are undone through exposure to that violence.

But, we are uncomfortable with these people of violence, and so we remake soldiers into people that are easier to deal with by removing the blood and the mud.  A fine example of this is John McCrae, the author of In Flanders Fields, a famous Canadian soldier that has almost been completely sanitized in our remembrance.  McCrae served with the artillery in the Boer war, and attempted to enlist for the First World War as a gunner.  When he was told that physicians were in greater demand, he arranged to join an artillery unit as the deputy commanding officer and as battalion surgeon.  This is very unusual.  Just to be clear, what this means is that McCrae was also second-in-command of an artillery unit.  This is maybe not the perspective we have come to know about this iconic Canadian poet.  Reading more of McCrae’s history it becomes clear that he saw himself first as a soldier, and second as a physician.  McCrae commented at one point, “All the g-d doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.”  At another time when a recovering military patient referred to him as “doctor”, McCrae was said to reply, “Don’t call me doctor, I’m as much a soldier as you”.

In an interesting book of essays for the 100th anniversary of McCrae’s poem, there is an essay by Canadian author Kevin Patterson.  Kevin served as a military physician and later volunteered to work as a civilian physician in Afghanistan.  In the essay titled, “Soldier Surgeon, Soldier Poet” Patterson comments that “Contemporary readers avert their eyes from the third stanza [of In Flanders Fields]…preferring to concentrate on the first two and drink the melancholy and grief within them.  Some people even imagine that this in an anti-war poem — just as they imagine that professional soldiers fight reluctantly.”  As with most things in life, McCrae is far more complicated that our often two-dimensional images reflect.

In an essay in the same book, Romeo Dallaire speaks about the significance of the poem for all Canadians, and not just those in uniform.  “It is up to us Canadians, and not just to our military men and women, to take up McCrae’s torch.  Not only to fight against sworn enemies but to protect innocents – even when no self-interest guides us. […] Perhaps the torch we are passed can be more about spreading the light than taking up arms.”  These words from another solider, and an artillery officer, sound surprisingly at home in a Christian sermon.

The week coming into Remembrance Day is always a difficult one for me, and the writing of these reflections involve a fair amount of tears.  I’ll admit to being a bit more undone than usual this week, partly because of a visit with an old friend last week.  As we were walking she commented about “our friend”…now we had lots of friends in common, but I knew exactly who she was speaking about.  Our one common friend who had died in an IED blast in Afghanistan in 2010, Geoff Parker.  I was about to comment to her that it was significant that she did not name him, when I realized that I didn’t want to speak his name aloud either.  At that moment it struck me that that was something I have never really worked through.  One of my jobs as a retired soldier is to remember Geoff, and my other colleagues who didn’t come home, because remembering is a way of recollecting what others have been willing to give and resolving that I will live my life in a way that honours their sacrifice.  This is answering the challenge of another soldier, poet Siegfried Sassoon, who ends the poem “Aftermath” with these words: “Have you forgotten yet?…Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.” Geoff and others are part of my never forgetting.

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is if I think that Afghanistan was “worth” it.  I’ve never given a straight answer to that question yet, because I really don’t know.  What is worth the cost of a single life on the field of battle?  Is it worth it to show a nation living in tyranny that there is a different way?  Nicola Goddard served in Afghanistan and demonstrated to many Afghan National Army soldiers in a way that nothing else could that there was this transcendent idea of gender equality.  I’m also aware that the question of worth is one that a soldier rarely attempts to answer.  A soldier hopes their sacrifice will have some positive effect on the world, but a soldier also knows, better than most, that the world can be a nasty place.  As an example, consider Robert Semrau’s recent book, The Taliban Don’t Wave.  Semrau commanded a 4-person team that mentored an Afghan National Army company in combat.  He writes of a dream he had one night:

“That night, I dreamed of small children playing on a haystack, having fun and laughing in the bright sun under a pale blue, cloudless sky. I was in uniform, but with no gear or weapons. I was watching them from a ditch when suddenly a massive explosion from inside the haystack ripped them apart and launched their shredded bodies high into the air. I stared as their little body parts started to fall all around me like rain…and then I fell to my knees and started screaming.”

Semrau, at least in the tone of his book, has weathered these challenges.  I have no doubt that such things have left a mark on him that he will carry for life.

One of the other reasons we are called to witness to the cost of warfare is because of the damage that violence does to the human soul.  If you’re been exposed to violence in any form, it leaves behind a mark that becomes a part of you from that day forward.  You may learn to deal with it really well, and life may become very normal again, but it will be there in the quiet of the night.

That quiet of the night is not always weathered well, and service in Afghanistan continues to claim lives.  The father of Corporal Jamie McMullin said of his son, “He went through things a lot worse than I went through, and I did a tour in Croatia. I did Bosnia,” Mr. McMullin says. “Jamie didn’t come home. Jamie left his soul in Afghanistan.”  Corporal McMullin committed suicide on June 17, 2011.  The death of his son led his father Darrell McMullin, who had served in Bosnia in the 1990’s, to seek treatment for his PTSD. (Globe & Mail)

We see this cost in the continuing deaths of soldiers even though we are no longer conducting a mission in Afghanistan.  The Globe and Mail published the results of a challenging investigation it conducted into the deaths of Canadian Forces soldiers…challenging because the reality is that no one actually knows how many soldiers that served overseas have taken their lives, as no one is tracking them once they leave service in uniform.  So we have no idea what the real number of deaths might be.  The Globe’s results initially contrasted 158 deaths in theatre with a subsequent 54 deaths by suicide, a number that changed to 59 suicides within days of the first article being published.  Duty in combat continues to kill even after the shooting stops.

Our Gospel reading today is the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus that contains Pilate’s rather infamous reply, “What is truth?”  Jesus had just said to Pilate, “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  If you want an interesting exercise someday, go through John’s Gospel and note all the times that Jesus speaks of truth.  Right from the start of John’s Gospel you hear this clearly: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  John brings this aspect forward, including identifying the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth.  Jesus is truth.

That’s a frightening idea.  I would much rather Jesus was about peace, or social justice, or pretty Christmas lights, or pretty well anything but the truth.  Almost any other Jesus I can craft into supporting my own idea about what He was about…which allows me to slip into a comfortable idolatry that serves nothing except to reinforce my own need to feel like I’m a good and holy person.  But truth?  Well, know I move to a place where I actually need to look deeply into my own motivations and brokenness to understand why it is I do certain things.  There is no bending a Jesus of truth to my ideas, because the truth of the Spirit stands apart from all of my too-human notions about righteousness.  So what does truth mean to us in light of 59 soldiers who have taken their lives after serving their nation?  What about all those who are slowly killing themselves in addictions that will never be counted in that number?  What is the call of Christ to us, as we consider all those who have lost so much to relentless violence?

Truth is something else that soldiers are well acquainted with.  Having people shooting at you tends to reduce your comfortable dispensations to much simpler reality.  Living without all the things you come to expect: more food than you can eat, long hot showers, smart phones, freedom from risk of violence, clean clothes, and sheets that are not encased in nylon, brings a certain clarity to reality.  This clarity is something that first-world Christians should pay attention to, as it is something our brothers and sisters in the faith who are presently facing ISIL understand better than us.  It all sounds rather hopeless.  But, I’m reminded that we are a people who understand what hopelessness really looks like: God on the cross, seemingly defeated by death.  As GK Chesterton wrote in “The Ballad of the White Horse”,

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

Our joy does not rest in a cause, and we remain in the faith even when all seems hopeless, because we know that this is the place where God can truly begin His incarnational work.  This is not a nice place to be, but it is our calling.  I’ll close with a short poem from English author Malcolm Guite, “Silence”:

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.  Amen.

Written by sameo416

November 8, 2015 at 12:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Some meditations on remembering…

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Coming into November 11 is always a time of some torment for me. Particularly when I’m preaching on our Remembrance Sunday service, which requires me to engage places that I would rather not engage. Sitting writing a sermon on soldiering and remembering (as I’m doing at this moment) brings up so many emotions and sensations that it is impossible to put it into words. Yet, the sacred task of preaching requires that I enter into the heavy lifting of that moment, so that I can share God’s insights manifest through my suffering. A holy task, but I would be a liar if I did not say I would rather be in the woods, or on the pistol range.

I’ve realized particularly this year that I have not yet fully worked through the death of my friend Geoff. Geoff and I did post-grad studies together, the only two wanna-be microwave engineers in our year. We stayed in touch off-and-on over the years, usually through a periodic email in the military mail system. He was a good man, and a good soldier, and died a soldier’s death from an IED. I did not know his wife, nor his two children, but I still grieve for their loss.

Just last week I had a chance to connect with an old friend that I had not seen in 11 or so years. She was a part of the group of friends that circled around my two years of post-grad, a group that included Geoff. At one point on our walk she referred to ‘our friend’, and I knew exactly who she was referring to. I first wondered why she didn’t just speak his name, since we had a number of mutual friends from that time. I almost immediately realized that I did not (and have not) really spoken his name either. Which is when it hit me — Geoff is a topic I’ve been avoiding, because it brings me to a place where I must sincerely engage the question of the impact of violence.

I’m still not ready to go through that exercise, but at least I can name the elephant in the room.

I’ll also attest to one deep, dark, secret.  I don’t typically attend Remembrance Day services anymore.  The act of dredging all this up while writing leaves me in quite a vulnerable position, and unable to contemplate standing up in public.  My colleagues in arms, many of whom actually commanded in combat and lost soldiers, can sometimes go…which I think makes them stronger than I.  I was comforted a bit when I read that Romeo Dallaire does not attend public services, because these serve as a trigger for him.  My act, my fulfilling the oath I took to never forget, is usually done in silence and solitude…just me, and a suffering God.

So, my usual mode of encountering remembrance starts with contemporary media stories. Thanks to the Globe and Mail for publishing a series of very powerful articles on the question of soldier suicides. They have managed to uncover that there have been 59 suicides involving soldiers from the Afghanistan campaign. Compared to 158 deaths in theatre (which includes 6 suicides), that is a startling number.

It is hard to quantitatively assess the significance of that ratio 59/158, because there hasn’t been any real data kept from past warfare. How many WWI or WWII or Korean vets took their own lives? How many who served through Bosnia or “peacekeeping” service have also died by their own hand? How many more died from the ravages of alcohol or drugs? We really don’t know because that data was never kept. Even today, the CF is almost completely unable to keep track of what happens to soldiers after they leave the military. I’ve written before about the seemingly deliberate obscuring of suicide numbers with serving soldiers, by the military’s past practice of listing suicides as ‘unknown’ causes.

Globe and Mail Articles (these links will likely die in a few months):

First one by Romeo Dallaire, the soldier who through his own PTSD, created a reality that even Veterans Affairs could not ignore.

A second article on the investigation they conducted into soldiering suicides.  And a later update that added 5 more suicides to the count.

A third article written by physician and author Kevin Patterson. “Shattered Minds: The Invisible Wounds of War”.  I went to high school with Kevin, and hung out with his twin brother Tom, so this is an interesting personal connection as well.

The next place I go after media is to poetry, because only poets can capture an aspect of the full range of emotion and reality behind remembering. Each year has a different focus. This year it has been mostly with WWI poets, and particularly our own John McCrae.

I started with a book from last year titled, In Flanders Fields: 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance.  (ed. Amanda Betts)  This was a series of essays published for the 100th anniversary of the title poem, written from a variety of perspectives (and by coincidence both Dallaire and Patterson have essays here).

McCrae is a particularly interesting figure for me.  As set out in the title of Patterson’s essay, McCrae was a “Soldier Surgeon, Soldier Poet”.  I was shocked a bunch of years back to read a history article in Legion magazine (by Tim Cook?) on McCrae, as that was the first time I realized that McCrae was in theatre as Battalion surgeon, but also as the DCO (deputy commanding officer) of the battery.  Reading more of McCrae’s history I realized that he saw himself first as a soldier, and second as a physician.  McCrae commented at one point, “All the goddam doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.”  Elsewhere when a recovering patient referred to him as “doctor”, McCrae was said to reply, “I’m as much a soldier as you”.

It is interesting that our Canadian approach to McCrae has removed from him the soldiering side, and he is portrayed as a healer who was struck by the death of a friend.  Until this latest read, and I was unaware that McCrae had fought in the Boer War as a gunner, and originally had attempted to enlist for WWI as a gunner until he was told that physicians were needed far more.  Appointing him as DCO and surgeon solved both (as a side note, this would not be permitted under the law of war as it exists today, as medical personal must be non-combatants).

In Patterson’s article he highlights this, noting “Contemporary readers avert their eyes from the third stanza…preferring to concentrate on the first two and drink the melancholy and grief within them.  Some people even imagine that this in an anti-war poem — just as they imaging that professional soldiers fight reluctantly.”

In Flanders Fields is in no way an anti-war poem…it certainly captures a glimpse of the horror involved in organized violence.  McCrae’s parting sentiment is not to exit the fray, but rather to find new resolve to continue the fight.  It’s why that poem has (incorrectly and unfortunately) been used as a war-promoting text, often in some horrible ways.  I don’t think that’s McCrae’s point.  Rather, for him, the loss and horror is cause for renewed focus on the actions that will work to end that horror.

This year’s poets started with McCrae.  I also spent some time with Malcolm Guite’s sonnet, “Silence”.

So here is how it came to be written. On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio and when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th three years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title.

Silence

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

Guite pulls in the Christian perspective, that when we undertake violence (even when there is no other choice), there is only one hope — the silence of a dying God.

Second was a poem by GK Chesterton, from “The Ballad of the White Horse”.  This is just a snip from Book I, titled, “The Vision of the King”:

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

This reference came through the curious path of unveiling that answers to prayer by preachers often come…I ended up on amazon.ca looking at a book about John Boyd.  In the reviewer’s comments I found a note from the author of the book below (Chesterton…) about Boyd and Chesterton as a correction to Boyd.  A strange path, given that Boyd is considered the father of modern air combat.

I had not realized that Chesterton had written extensively about warfare and pacifism, so I have some reading to do this winter (Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements That Led to Nazism and World War II).

Third was a poem from Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), “Aftermath” (1919).  Sassoon was a part of the group that include McCrae, WWI soldiers who wrote poetry about their experience in the trenches.  This is powerful stuff, as they capture an image of the horrors that they faced.

Aftermath (March 1919)

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

So that’s the starting landscape in which I’m walking…and considering Daniel 2:1, 26-28, 31-45; John 18:33-19:11 (What is truth?).

I also just finished reading Robert Semrau’s book, The Taliban Don’t Wave.  It’s an enjoyable read, made so by Semrau’s light and satirical writing style which nicely balances the tense and bloody parts.  Semrau was the commander of an OMLT team (mentoring ANA, Afghan National Army soldiers).  There are some profound thoughts contained in the book.  He writes of a dream he had one night in Afghanistan. This drew from an earlier experience of children playing on a haystack overtop of explosives:

“That night, I dreamed of small children playing on a haystack, having fun and laughing in the bright sun under a pale blue, cloudless sky. I was in uniform, but with no gear or weapons on my. I was watching them from a ditch when suddenly a massive explosion from inside the haystack ripped them apart and launched their shredded bodies high into the air. I stared as their little body parts started to fall all around me like rain…and them I fell to my knees and started screaming.”

This Sunday we’re also marking the existence of two memorial chandeliers that commemorate the service of Clifford Horncastle, a fighter pilot who died during a “routine” takeoff from his aerodrome in England in 1942.  This story is particularly significant for me as it follows one of my past rants about the difference between combat and non-combat veterans.  Horncastle died during the war, but during training.  Is he less of a veteran than those killed during actual combat flight ops?  The question itself is silly…I wonder why it is so easy for some to make that distinction with modern veterans?

As a footnote, this neat story from my hometown…Jillian Taylor speaking about her grandfather, a POW from the Queen’s Own.

And as little as I wanted to, my time with Dallaire brought me back to a piece by journalist Philip Gourevitch, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families”..the now infamous “Genocide is a cheese sandwich” dialogue.  This was a 2004 book that I preached a sermon about at seminary, the key passage is below:

The American tells Gourevitch that he has heard that Gourevitch is interested in genocide and he says, ‘Do you know what genocide is? A cheese sandwich. Write that down,’ he tells Gourevitch, ‘Genocide is a cheese sandwich.’

Gourevitch asks him what he means by that. ‘What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?’ the man responds. ‘Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Crimes against humanity? Where is humanity? Who is humanity? You? Me? Did you see a crime committed against you? Hey, just a million Rwandans.’

‘Did you ever hear about the genocide convention?’ he asks Gourevitch. Gourevitch says that he has. ‘That convention,’ the man says, ‘is good for wrapping a cheese sandwich.’

Romeo Dallaire, during his darkest times in Rwanda stated that what kept him going was the idea that he served in a regiment (the Royal Canadian Artillery) that kept him going.  Dallaire wrote,

As a soldier, in those moments of extremity, when the next bullet will likely be yours, you wonder what compels you to continue. I have puzzled over what forced me forward through the chaos and madness of the genocide. […] Duty was second nature, not a driving force; our training takes us beyond duty to a place where doing what we must do becomes instinctive. We live the unlimited-liability clause of our commitment to serve. […] My devotion to my country and my fellow soldiers was not what kept me from withdrawing when all seemed lost (even when I was ordered to do so), because my mission in Rwanda was not to defend my own but to protect the thousands of innocent strangers who were being so ruthlessly slaughtered. No, what compelled me in Rwanda in those moments of dire danger was the thought of the corps, the fact that I was standing on the shoulders of those who had gone before me […] It was the secure place I held within my regimental family that compelled me to do my part in its honourable history. I would not break faith.

It might be a challenge to hear Dallaire turning to the language of faith to explain why he kept going even in the darkest times.  It makes perfect sense to me.  What I find interesting is how a soldier turns so quickly to the language of faith to explain motivation.  This is one of the reasons I say that most of what I learned about faith, I learned while in uniform.

Written by sameo416

November 7, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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