World War I (WW1) broke out one hundred years ago. An armistice was signed four years later. Yet WW1 continues to be fought today in contemporary conflicts which can be traced to WW1 and whose direction can be influenced by the way that WW1 is commemorated over these four years. Three conflicts have been dominating the news over recent weeks.
First, Iraq and Syria are struggling with an attempt being made to form an Islamic State (a caliphate) across the borders of those two countries. The borders in question were drawn after the political realignment following WW1. Britain was influential in the discussion at the time, anxious to have power over one of the region’s most significant assets – oil.
The second conflict whose fuse was lit during WW1 is that between Israel and Palestine which has erupted in the present bombings of Gaza and Israel. In 1917 Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour confirmed the British Government’s support for the establishment in Palestine of a homeland for the Jewish people provided that the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities were not prejudiced. Britain played a significant role in the shaping of contemporary Israel/Palestine.
In addition to the Middle East, another dispute during WW1 which prefigured a contemporary struggle involved the Ukrainian people. Sandwiched between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, many Ukrainians fought for Russia and some for Austria which meant that the Ukrainian people were at war with themselves. A similar situation prevails today.
There will always be wars and, all too often, one war begets another, but the spirit in which wars are commemorated and remembered can exacerbate or reduce the possibility of further conflict. If WW1 had been remembered in different ways over the last century, perhaps, just perhaps, we would not be witnessing jihadists slaughtering dissent and opposition in Syria and Iraq; perhaps, too, the tension between Israel and Gaza may not have erupted into such a lethal conflagration; and perhaps, just perhaps, the territorial battles involving Russia and Ukraine may not have ignited. The commemoration of WW1 over the next four years will influence and be influenced by contemporary events in the Middle East and in the Ukraine.
It is possible to commemorate in ways that are likely to bring reconciliation just as it is possible to commemorate in ways that bring about enmity. This reflection (the first of three) considers the significance of how we remember.
Ways Of Remembering
The way we remember dictates the way we move forward into the future or whether we remain stuck in the past.
The National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) is situated in the middle of England and is the UK’s Centre of Remembrance. It helps us remember in a different way. At the heart of the site is the Armed Forces Memorial which lists the names of all those who have died in service since the end of the Second World War, around 16,000 women and men. There are two sculptures which, in a very moving way, bear silent witness to the cost of armed sacrifice. One depicts a mother and child holding each other and an elderly couple clutching each other in grief, weeping over their husband, father and son whose body is being carried by his comrades. The other depicts a woman and some Gurkha soldiers preparing a fallen warrior for burial – a figure before double doors points to a world beyond where the warrior will rest as another figure chisels the name on the memorial.
The alignment and axis of the Memorial are significant. Drawing inspiration from prehistoric monuments, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, Remembrance Day, the sun’s rays stream through the door of this sculpture, illuminating the wreath in the centre of the Memorial.
There is nothing triumphalist about the way the NMA remembers those who have lost their lives in the service of the country. One group is not regarded as inferior or superior to the other. War is not glorified, but, regardless of whether it can be justified, war’s cruelty, injustices and sheer inhumanity are themes playing not far below the surface. The NMA ‘remembers’ war as a place where heroes are to be found but not as a place of glory, for, if it were a place of glory that would be a justification of all the killing. Above all, the National Arboretum is a place where the nation thanks families for giving their loved ones in the service of their country.
The National Memorial Arboretum ‘remembers’ in a distinctive way. There is something deep in the human psyche which requires every person and every nation to honour the memories of their departed loved ones and fellow citizens. This is the reason that memorials are erected and flowers are laid at places where death has occurred, whether by war or by accident. The NMA remembers in a spirit of humility and thanksgiving: while remembering the departed, it is expressing the nation’s gratitude to the families of the departed. It is not scape-goating and demonising an enemy, placing on them all the blame for the death and destruction: this way of remembering will lead to further conflict as people will want to avenge their dead. The NMA’s way of remembering recognises that all parties need to share some of the responsibility for the failures that led to war and so the focus is not on the enemy or even the victory over the enemy but on a thanksgiving for the departed. Such ways of remembering enable people to move forward towards reconciliation.
Politician and philosopher Michael Ignatieff takes this thinking a step further. He argues that revenge is a ritual form of a community’s respecting and remembering of their dead. If citizens are killed in conflict, there is a primal urge to honour their memories and sacrifice and justify the cause for which they died. This can manifest itself as revenge. Urges for revenge can lie sleeping beneath the surface for many generations before they eventually flare up, but flare up they will. Breaking the cycle of revenge and working for reconciliation will only begin when communities once at war with each other can learn to remember together and to mourn their dead together. NMA is wanting to remember in ways which does not store up potential problems for the future.
The way we remember is key to reconciliation. It is possible to remember an event in a way that will lock us in to the past by wanting to avenge the wrong perpetrated in the past. Alternatively, it is possible to remember in such a way that the event of the past does not imprison us there but liberates us to move forward. Giving thanks for the sacrifice of those who have died without glorfying war, not demonising our former enemies, recognising that all parties may need to share some of the responsibility that led to war, remembering and mourning the dead with our former enemies will enable us to move forwards towards reconciliation. Futhermore, the ways that we remember in our commemoration of WW1 will shape, not only the way we move forward, but our attitude and understanding towards other conflicts such as those in the Middle East and Ukraine all of which western powers have had a hand in shaping.
The next reflection (on recognising shared humanity) will be posted in October.
My book, ‘Reconciliation – The Journey of a Lifetime’ was published in June by SPCK.