"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

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.


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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