Lest we forget

Each year proves to be a significant year for reflection and remembrance. Back in 2014 we recalled the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings and the centenary of the outbreak of the First, or Great War was marked with both national and local commemorations. Hundreds of people visited the exhibitions in the Town Hall and here at St. Mary’s and hundreds more gathered to mark the actual moment hostilities began 100 years ago.

While we recall the start of wars, we also see the end of operations e.g. in Afghanistan when British troops withdrew from Camp Bastion, handing the security of Helmand province and the country over to Afghan forces. The simple but moving ceremony marking the end of what is, in effect, the fourth war that Britain has fought in Afghanistan in the last 175 years although this most recent one, at over a decade was the longest.

Writing in the late 1970’s, the Oxford historian AJP Taylor explored these very issues. How do wars begin and end?

He noted that wars ‘have sprung more from apprehension than from a lust for war or for conquest. Paradoxically many of the European wars were started by a threatened Power which had nothing to gain by war and much to lose’ and ‘what seems defence to one will always appear as an aggressive preparation to another. This has nothing to do with human nature which is infinitely variable. It is the inevitable consequence of the existence of sovereign states.’

Throughout the years there is a veritable flood of books, TV and radio programmes about the outbreak of the First World War. There had been much tension in Europe in the preceeding decade and a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. France wanted revenge for its defeat in 1870 and Germany was gripped by Prussian militarism which feared encirclement from East and West. Into this tinderbox came the spark of the assassination at Sarajevo.

It would all be over by Christmas, but it was not of course, and the first of the British armies, that of the pre-war professionals had all but ceased to exist by December 1914 to be replaced by second army of the volunteers of the Pals battalions and then after the Somme by the third army of conscripts. It’s a heavy price to pay for ‘apprehension’.

From the beginning of a war then spring its aims. Just what exactly are we fighting for? Because without clear aims how is it possible to know when they have been fulfilled and a war might end?

I dusted off on my shelves a book published in 1914 and entitled ‘Why we are at War’ written by members of the Oxford Faculty of Modern History, the academics who were to be the forebears of Taylor. It is made clear that for them there were three over riding war aims: the restitution of Belgium sovereignty, guarantees of French prosperity against continued German expansionism and a restoration of the balance-of-power between the European states. To a large degree these aims were to be met at the Peace Conference in 1919 although that conference sadly sowed the seeds for the further conflict twenty years later.

The intervention of allied forces in Afghanistan from 2001 had, initially at least, much more limited aims: to punish Al Qaeda for the 9/11 attacks and to dislodge the Taliban from power. Both were achieved relatively quickly. It was the second phase of the operation that has taken the time. That is the building of a modern and stable state where one had never existed before. Second, and as a part of the War on Drugs rather than the War on Terror, the aim was to disrupt and ultimately destroy the production of poppies.

So far Afghanistan has sucked in $100b of aid, more than was spent to reconstruct Europe after the Second World War, and this money has bought better roads, more schools, colleges and universities and the position of women has improved to some degree. The production of opiates from poppies is higher now than in 2001.

So how do wars end? In the case of the First World War it was the eventual exhaustion of the German army, revolution at home and the material dominance of the Allied armies after the injection of fresh troops from the United States.

The Germans sought an armistice, an action we commemorate on Tuesday, but the terms of which were so severe and the following Peace Treaty so damaging that it fed the nationalism that led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s.

And Afghanistan? Britain has lost 453 servicemen and women. Over 100,000 have served over the last 13 years, a deep well of potential physical and emotional distress for veterans for years to come. Total allied deaths are 3,475 with 20,000 casualties. Every death a tragic loss, but small compared to the Great War where Britain lost 30,000 killed and injured on 1st June 1916 alone. Speaking last week, the Defence Secretary said: ‘We have denied Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorism and terrorist activities that could take place in Britain and Western Europe but there is no guarantee that Afghanistan is going to be safe and stable.’ Those are important but very limited war aims given the costs both human and material.

As allied forces have withdrawn, Afghan forces have stepped up, suffering over 8,000 casualties in the last two years alone, a figure it is generally agreed is unsustainable. A military commentator writing in USA Today this week noted ‘if you want to see the future of Afghanistan, look at Iraq.’

So the beginning of wars and their endings are messy, hard to discern and often contradictory. Is not the question then not of how such things begin and end but how they should be prevented in the first place?

A century ago it was called the ‘Balance of Power’. In our nuclear age it is a ‘Balance of Terror’.

Yet, time and time again it is evident that when diplomacy fails, when countries feel threatened or withdraw into isolation, misconceptions and miscalculations occur that can have devastating results.

Jesus was realistic about the nature of human society and its propensity to war. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ we heard today, ‘for they shall inherit the Earth’. He spoke of wars, and famines and chaos at the end of time as civil society breaks down and the Kingdom of God is ushered in.

There is an argument that Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus to the authorities was a Zealot a group we would consider today to be extremists, terrorists, dedicated to the overthrow of the state. Jesus was not the wartime leader who many wished for, rather someone who taught of the unique nature of humankind, of its place in the order of Creation and of its relationship with God.

Much of our modern world is still wracked by warfare. Who knows yet the full impact of climate change on resources, migrationary movements of peoples or food security. How can the spread of militant Islamism be stopped? What is to be done about a nationalistic and authoritarian Russia?

Is it to pull up the drawbridge, shunning organisations on the continent which were conceived and born out of the failure of international relationships in 1914 and 1939? Does security for an island come from standing alone, without friends, vital relationships impaired by politicking at home for party advantage rather than national interest?

Is war as AJP Taylor argued the inevitable consequence of the existence of sovereign states? And if that is so, is it better to voluntarily surrender some national power for the benefit of shared security and prosperity?

In 1914, the dons of Oxford seemed to have an answer when they considered the question ‘Why we are at War’?   I apologise for their limited concept of a United Kingdom but their words should resonate for us and our situation today:

“English sympathies and English traditions are here at one with English interests. They have proved that they can serve the higher interests of humanity. They have contributed to the growth of that common civilisation which links together the small powers and the great with bonds more sacred and more durable than those of race, of government, of material interest. In this fraternity each nation has a duty to the rest. If we have harped on England’s interest, it must not for a moment be supposed that we have forgotten England’s duty. But England stands today in this fortunate position, that her duty and her interest combine to impel her in the same direction.’

It is for that higher interest that men stayed and fought in the trenches, in the air and on the seas in the Great War.   It is for that higher interest that young men and women went into the cauldron of Helmand at the risk of IAD’s, of fierce firefights with an enemy that melts away. It is for that higher interest that we gather here today to remember and give thanks for all those who gave their youth and their lives for the common good.

Look to that higher interest of our shared humanity and principals when lesser voices speak only of self-interest. Not to do so is to demean the memories of those who paid and died for freedom and for the protection of the powerless from the powerful whether on the battlefields of the past or the battlefields of today. Amen.

(This is a copy of the sermon preached by our previous Team Rector at a Civic Service of Remembrance a few years ago)

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