“Somebody should visit John’s grave”. A vivid childhood memory is hearing my granny urging that a family member pay respects at her brother’s grave in France. It was 1969 and John had been dead for 51 years, but she often reminisced of how he died of “wounds and gas” on 15 October 1918. He had been serving Mass in the trenches as poison gas wafted onto the miserable congregation, closely followed by German soldiers with bayonets.
Well, we didn’t get there while granny was alive but in 1986 a family group did track down John’s final resting place, assisted by the records of the War Graves Commission. How well soldiers are looked after in death. His clean, white block of stone, fronted by a blood red rose, stood in Plot 5, Row F of the beautifully tended Terlincthun cemetery near Bologne. John Magee, Private 44205 serving with Northern Ireland’s 7th and 8th Enniskillen Fusiliers, lay alongside others unfortunate enough to die in the closing weeks of the First World War.
I don’t recall my granny perceiving John’s death as anything other than a personal and family tragedy. He wasn’t a dead hero. He was simply dead. My family has only one photo that still exists of John. Brown and wrinkled with age, it was taken in Belfast during the summer of 1918 when he returned to his County Down farm on leave. After describing the terrible conditions in the trenches, some in the family suggested he shouldn’t return, but the photo shows a man resigned to re-embarking for France within days. Dressed in his uniform, seated beside a brother and sister smiling into the camera, he stares solemnly beyond the lens to what awaits him.
As we remember John and the millions like him in Britain’s commemoration on Remembrance Sunday, I wonder whether the commemorations truly pay tribute to them. Are their perspectives on war acknowledged? Have we as a society learnt from their experiences? The Wilfred Owen poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ describes the death throes of a Great War soldier choked by gas and his final journey in “the wagon we flung him in”. It could have been John. “If you could hear at every jolt, the blood come gargling from froth-corrupted lungs,” says Owen “you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country). Of course, Wilfred Owen also died in the First World War.
The Churches tend to support the establishment view that war is a necessary means for resolving problems. Does the predominance of men in positions of power in the religious as well as in the political sphere have something to do with this? Christian peace organisations such as Pax Christi and the Fellowship of Reconciliation have banged on for decades promoting peace education and alternatives to war. Yet, still in our churches we often remember the dead whilst endorsing the view that today’s young people should be prepared to participate in violence on behalf of the state. We thank God for the sacrifice of the dead soldiers. We don’t mention the witness of conscientious objectors. Nor do we mention Britain’s role as a leading player in arms trading which fuels current wars, and the dead civilians who comprise at least 80 per cent of the casualties of modern warfare. The dead soldiers are presented as victims, but victims of the militarism of foreign powers, not as victims caught up in the global entrancement with war.
A cartoon has been catching my eye recently. Playing on the famous First World War poster, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” the same picture carries the caption, “Daddy, what did you do to stop the war?” I’ve seen it in Christian peace publications, but not displayed in any churches. Perhaps it is something to do with being political – strange for followers of Jesus who was executed for being a political agitator – or it demonstrates an understanding of patriotism which itself needs a re-think. When I reflect on the security of my country, I feel most concern about the impacts of climate change and the loss of biodiversity on our small island home.
Wars are not inevitable, says the Movement for the Abolition of War, in which former Catholic priest Bruce Kent is a key figure. They happen as a result of the decisions of a few powerful people, require vast sums of money, the obedience of troops and money. The decisions could just as easily be made not to declare war, but to seek justice through the UN, International Court of Justice and International Criminal Courts. The $1,000 billion per year military expenditure could be used instead to feed, house and educate all the peoples of this world. Wars these days carry massive social, economic and environmental costs. Indeed, an escalating nuclear conflagration could destroy life on the planet as we know it.
There are many organisations and individuals – often faith-inspired – with a great deal of expertise in preventing and resolving conflict and in reconciliation work. Some have a strongly pacifist philosophy but most accept that a diverse range of skills, expertise and activities is needed to transform violent conflict, rebuild civil society and establish real security. Peace activists are often portrayed as naive idealists, but, in my view, they are the realists. More than that, they are realists with a positive vision and a long-term perspective on what true security really is.
John Magee was one of the world’s first victims of chemical warfare. But he should have been protected by an international agreement, made at The Hague in 1899, which prohibited the use of projectiles filled with poison gas. Despite it, 1915 saw the first large scale use of chemical agents on the World War I battlefields in Belgium. By 1918, the use of over 100,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals during the war had resulted in the deaths of 90,000 soldiers, and had caused more than a million casualties. Chemical and Biological weapons are banned and just last weekend the Treaty to ban nuclear weapons was ratified by 50 nations. These international initiatives should be heeded. Let us respect the peace mission of the United Nations.
The Catholic movement to delegitimise weapons of mass destruction and war – Pax Christi – is supported by the Columbans. After all, five Columbans were killed during the Second World War in the Philippines, and seven during the Korean War in 1950. In Britain the Columbans are always represented at the London commemoration of conscientious objectors every 15 May. Columbans promote a culture of peace and nonviolence, supporting the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative of the past three years. The Columban Peace Policy laments, “expansion of military presence around the world and the arms industry erodes at the culture of peace which Columbans work to cultivate.”
I always wear a white poppy. Produced in Britain by the Peace Pledge Union, this alternative poppy dates back to 1926, just a few years after the red poppy came to be used in Britain. A member of the ‘No More War’ Movement had suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint ‘No More War’ in the centre of the red poppies and, failing this, an alternative flower should be produced. Wouldn’t a fresh commitment to peace – which involves no less than a paradigm shift in our collective thinking – be a fitting tribute to our war dead?