Remembrance Sunday always gave me the creeps. We once - a long time ago - asked everyone at church what it meant to them. It didn't mean a thing to anyone. We thought about ceasing to observe it but the leadership we had at the time was too weak to tell the preachers they weren't to do it. We should ask again; it's the one church where I know I can say what I think about war, and all the claptrap we hear about it, and people are going to agree with me instead of getting upset.
For years, I tried to avoid Remembrance Sunday, and dreaded having to take a service that day. Then, in 1997, my girls were caught up in fighting after a coup in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, just as we'd got clearance from Immigration to bring them over. All hell broke loose, and for three days we thought Kumbi, then 11, was on some rustbucket heading for Ghana. Then we found that the ship had fled without the refugees, and that she'd been rescued by the US navy, and put on a plane from Conakry, over the border in Guinea. She'd been in the fighting, arrived very badly traumatised, and she still suffers as a result of what she went through.
Mina, then 5, was taken up country. The phone lines were down, we knew cars were being stopped on that road, and the people killed, and you can imagine how we felt for the next six weeks before we managed to get in touch, and found that she was safe. It took another six weeks to get her put on a plane from Conakry, and shortly after, the rebels went and burnt the town where she'd been staying.
After that, I couldn't handle Remembrance Sunday at all for years. I still struggle; it strikes me as a thoroughly dishonest figleaf for war. We hear a great deal about the military, and next to nothing about civilians. I'm aware of one war memorial for civilians, in Birmingham. Does anyone know any others? That was fair enough when it started; the overwhelming majority of the dead in the Great War were military. Around half the bodies on the Western Front were never found - they're still turning up now, in significant numbers - and families were desperate for closure. However, these days, the overwhelming majority of the dead are civilians. When are we going to start remembering them?
In the Great War, people were suckered into volunteering on a wave of patriotism, or pressurised into doing so; those who didn't were liable to be abused on the streets. Later on, they were conscripted. They found themselves in a war the like of which the world had never seen. It wasn't the first industrialised slaughter; that took place in the US Civil War. It was, however, the first industrialised trench war, with human wave after human wave going to their deaths. British casualties alone on the first day of the Somme amounted to almost 20 000 dead and 40 000 injured. For what, since it was a war fought over nothing at all?
We hear all about Britain and Germany, not very much about France and Belgium, and it's easy to get the impression that it was a Western European conflict. It wasn't; it started over the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo, by a Serb nationalist. There was no diplomatic mechanism which might have defused things, and, led by a poisonous mix of pre-existing treaties, nationalism, jingoism, militarism and commercial rivalry, one imperial power after another was sucked in. We need to stop the rubbish about the victims' 'sacrifice', and admit that they were sacrificed, passive tense, as victims on the altar of sheer nonsense.
In the end, the war came down to a toss-up as to who collapsed first. It happened to be Germany; they got the blame, and had the punitive Treaty of Versailles imposed on them by the victors. The Weimar republic of the 1920's lacked legitimacy; it was imposed from without rather than being an organic development. It collapsed under the pressures of hyper-inflation, caused by the immense reparations imposed at Versailles. Hitler rose to power in the ensuing chaos, and doubtless appeared as a saviour; bringing order, restoring the country's pride and prosperity.
It's not good enough to say that all the bloodshed in the WW2 was justified because Hitler had to be stopped. We need to look deeper; every monster has his Viktor Frankenstein. The Second War was a consequence of the First, and the failure to establish a viable peace. It's all very well to say that Hitler should have been stopped at the Rhineland, but that had been part of Germany before 1918, as had the Sudetenland and East Prussia. It's hard to deny the legitimacy of Hitler's original territorial claims.
When it comes to modern wars, many of them have little or nothing to do with the interests of the nation. Sierra Leone at least had a clear moral imperative behind it; I know far too much about the rebels to criticise, but then I'm biased. At least British casualties were limited to one. Iraq was a straightforward war of aggression; a disaster for the Middle East, for which there was no excuse. I won't comment on what it supposedly did to Britain's moral standing; I don't think they ever had any outside their own vainglorious imagination. Afghanistan had the figleaf of a need to remove al-Qaida, but that withers before the conveniently unpublicised fact that the Taliban offered to put him on trial, and the US refused to negotiate. Again, it was essentially a war of aggression. One again, young men and women are being sacrificed for someone else's political agenda, and for the profits of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about so long ago. Once again, it's being covered up with pious bullshit about 'their' sacrifice. And the church allows itself to be used to give added legitimacy to the slaughter, by unthinkingly participating in the cult of this modern version of Molech. Even worse in a way, we willingly spend the day ignoring the mass killings of civilians. You can't pretend they made a 'sacrifice for their country', so we ignore them altogether.
Remembrance Sunday could be made into something legitimate - I may try to do something with it at my church next year - but only if we resolutely turn our backs on the secular agenda underlying it, and make it into a genuine memorial for all the multifarious victims of mass murder by governments and their allies.