Final Acts of remembrance? Time to end war commemorations

Professor Lee Marsden writes ahead of Sunday’s Remembrance Day on why it time to end war commemorations

During the First World a popular song with British squaddies reflected the futility and human cost of the war:

‘If you want to find the general I know where he is, I know where he is, if you want to find the general I know where he is. He’s pinning another medal on his chest’.

While the colonel sits in ‘comfort stuffing his bloody guts’ and the sergeant drinks all the company rum. It is the poor old private who is left ‘hanging on the old barbed wire’.

Sunday 11 November 2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War. Across Britain, and many other parts of the world acts of commemoration will take place in places of worship, the public square and television and radio studios across the United Kingdom. Remembering the memory of those who died in that conflict as those who fought have long since departed. The celebrations and commemorations surrounding this important anniversary have become part of the defining events in the nation’s calendar but after this Sunday’s remembrance it is time to take stock and reflect about the continued relevance and salience of such events?

World War 1 was the ‘war to end all wars’ and yet over the course of the 20th Century 187 million people, lost their lives in warfare, and since the end of the Second world war a further 250 war have taken place. So why does war continue? Is it a matter of human nature, in a Christian vernacular are we all tainted by original sin and predisposed to violence.  Or maybe it is a matter of toxic masculinity where conflict can be resolved by fist, blade, gun, bomb or drone. Maybe it’s just the way it is and there is an inevitability about war as part of the human condition.

An abiding myth holds that we will always have war with us. And yet, most countries, most of the time are not at war. Indeed it appears that some countries are more warlike than others such as the United States, France, Russia, Israel and the United Kingdom. I suggest that there are three contributing factors which help perpetuate war: Glorification, sanctification and sanitisation which are encapsulated in acts of remembrance.

Glorification of war

War is presented as somehow glorious and noble. Tales of heroism and sacrifice are lauded and successful wars celebrated with the military lionised and honoured through parades and awards of ‘freedom of the city’. Remembrance events taking place throughout the United Kingdom to commemorate the fallen and maimed who were killed or injured ‘in the line of duty’ – ‘defending the nation’.

And yet, no war fought by Britain since 1945 had been fought to defend the country but rather to defend empire, advance national interests or in support of US foreign policy. The myth of glorious warfare is perpetuated by video games, politician and the media.

Sanctification of war

It is not just politicians and the media but the church is also co-opted in sanctifying war. A primordial evocation of blood, sweat and tears, which redeems and sanctifies the nation. Men and women prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep the nation safe. Casting aside the scriptural evocation ‘Thou shalt not kill’ in favour of ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.

God is called upon to support OUR side in ANY war … and called upon to recognise and sanctify the loss of life and limb.

Sanitisation of war

Conscript armies of the First and second world wars have been replaced by the smaller, volunteer armed forces called upon by politicians to fight in far flung places which we are able to watch on television in the comfort of our own homes.

War is bloody, violent and horrific. It mentally scars participants and yet through the 24/7 news cycle we become voyeurs of someone else’s suffering unfolding before our eyes.

We don’t want to think about the human cost of war and yet are mesmerised by a sanitised diet where only the ‘bad guys’ are killed through our smart weaponry and drone attacks. Without thought for the cost of each life lost and the impact on husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends and lovers. When it all becomes too much we can simply switch channel.

Glorification, sanctification and sanitisation all contribute to a perpetuation of war as somehow glorious, noble, necessary and inevitable.

100 years after the end of the First World War, war continues and we continue to remember the fallen and wounded and yet such remembrance perpetuates the acceptability of war. In another hundred years will the final verse of our First World War song still ring true?

If you want to find the private

I know where he is, I know where he is

If you want to find the private I know where he is

He’s hanging on the old barbed wire

I saw him, I saw him

Hanging on the old barbed wire

I saw him

Hanging on the old barbed wire.


Lee Marsden is Professor of Faith and Global Politics at the University of East Anglia.

Photocredit: Wikipedia , Cheshire Regiment trench Somme 1916

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