The C-Word

This C-Word has been the hardest to narrow down, thus the lateness.  I want to talk about childcare, clothes, children, compromise, church and all sorts of things.  But suddenly on Sunday, I realised something I wanted to talk about.  Something big and important and basically one-sided. Our vicar's dad, a bishop, spoke to us on Sunday.  He spoke about war and remembrance and pointed out that the RE-membrance was an ongoing process of past, present and future.  One thing that struck me was that the present and future bit were about hope of a world without war, and a life without fear of death.  Everyone is talking about what the Centenary means and represents, without actually talking about what it means and represents.

So to start a conversation, I'll let some pictures be worth a thousand words.  I want to show you some art.  One, you will mostly likely have seen or heard of, because it's probably the biggest thing to happen to British popular art since department stores started selling Banksy knock-offs.  The name of it is officially Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.  I saw dozens of Facebook photos of people with their kids in front of it.  Because it was haunting and beautiful and interesting.  It made people talk about the 866,246 people who were killed during World War I.  Look at it.  It's breathtaking.

Here's a video of it from the air:

It makes me feel kind of staggered by the sheer number of lives lost on the British side during WWI.  That's clearly the point of it.  But it's also beautiful.

Now I want you to look at this other piece of art, painted at the height of that conflict in 1917 by a soldier who served for two years at the French front at Argonne.  

Is this as beautiful as a field of ceramic poppies? No.  But this is what a soldier painted to describe the Great War as it was happening.  I saw it in person in Atlanta around 2007, and a Frenchman who was giving a talk about it got choked up, for reasons that seemed strange to the assemblage of people who were listening.

In 1916, this soldier/artist, Fernand Leger, was almost killed in a mustard gas attack at the Battle of Verdun.  If you haven't heard about that particular battle, let me tell you something about it.  It lasted almost 11 months.  MONTHS.  It was such a small area of land that by the 3rd month of fighting (also filled with a record amount of rain) that they began to fill the shell craters with bodies just so men wouldn't drown in the mud.  Here's a quote by a soldier about the conditions:  

Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!

The Battle of Verdun is for the French what the Somme is for Brits. To put it in perspective, about 350,000 British soldiers were lost in the Somme offensive and about 370,000 French were lost at Verdun.  A French historian said that "Like Auschwitz, Verdun marked a transgression of the limits of the human condition."  There were so many bodies that over 200,000 were unable to be identified.  They planted a forest to cover them, not unlike the sea of poppies around the Tower of London.

For me, the poppies are great, and I see people constantly wearing them in November, reminding people of that great sacrifice of life.  But I fear that if all we see are seas of poppies, we actually risk forgetting completely about the "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red."  What have we actually learned about war in 100 years?  We've made it so much about technology and precision that Leger's painting is probably more appropriate now than it was then.  

Leger's style of cubist painting, as I was told by that Frenchman, was an acknowledgement that the world, by the technology and military precision of the Great War, had changed forever.  The reason we have to remember is because war has not been the same since then.  The casualties changed from infection and disease in the 19th century to mass graves in shell craters in the 20th.  In the same way that 9/11 changed our lives forever and redefined what war means, the Great War changed things for our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Going back to what our speaker said on Sunday, I was reminded that if we are going to commemorate something, by its very nature, we have to remember it together.  But like remembrance, commemoration is a process.  A sea of red poppies and a minute's silence can remind us, but it can't actually force us to acknowledge the disgusting, ugly nature of war.  Not just military deaths, but civilian ones due to the famine, waste, and disease that war causes.

The Quakers in Britain have created a map of what a display would look like which takes into consideration every casualty of World War One on every side, both military and civilian, including those due to the spread of hunger and disease across Western Europe, and those due to genocides in Greece, Armenia and Turkey.  Here's what it would look like, if there were white "peace" poppies across London...

It might look small in this photo, but this is MILES of poppies from the Tower of London, across all the bridges, down the Thames and covering Westminster at the Mall up to Buckingham Palace. This is assuming 50 poppies per square meter.  That is a lot of death, and it is not beautiful. 

Did we learn something from the "Great War"?  Can we truly make remembrance a process to guide our future, to help us achieve peace?  Generally, a poem is read at Remembrance Services, but I thought I would end with a song, sung by Zechariah in the Message version of the Bible:

"Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
God's Sunrise will break in upon us.
Shining on those in the darkness
Those sitting in the shadow of death.
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
Down the path of peace."


Popular Posts