We are too wedded to war
“It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war,” reported Erich Maria Remarque in his 1929 classic novel from WW1, All Quiet on the Western Front.
This is what war does to you.
Ron never spoke of his experience at Arnhem, where the Allied forces failed to fight their way into Germany towards the end of WW2. And he simply refused to watch with me the Richard Attenborough film of the battle, A Bridge Too Far.
This September Jacqui and I visited Oosterbeek, where the 1st British Airborne Division, were finally surrounded. There, looking over the fast-flowing Rhine I had a half-memory of Ron, a close friend of my mother-in-law, once telling me that in order to evade capture he managed to swim this same river. Sadly Ron died some 15 years ago and took his memories with him.
Like many of his generation he had been traumatised by what he had experienced and more than likely, by what he had done. And he sought refuge in denial as he sought to excise those memories from his life.
Some years ago I read Remarque’s remarkable novel, written from the German perspective, in which a group of fresh-faced schoolboys become desensitised by the terrors of trench warfare. I recall one discussion in which they decide that the best way to kill an enemy soldier is with a spade.
And this is picked up in the brutal opening sequence of the recently-released Netflix remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Modern cinematic techniques allow us to vividly experience an all-out assault by the German infantry on fixed French positions. And the soldier we are following kills with his spade.
We then see legendary German military efficiency in practice as this soldier is killed and his uniform removed from his corpse, washed and mended with all the others and then handed out to raw recruit Paul Bäumer, just 17 years old. The dead man’s name tag accidentally left on the collar as if to say “Your turn next!”
It’s a film worth watching (assuming you have access to Netflix), very much in the style of Apocalypse Now and especially Platoon. We are relentlessly confronted with the futility and terrors of war and how it brutalises a group of friends. As the Guardian reviewer comments: “These vividly-drawn characters are suddenly rendered indistinguishable: a commentary, surely, on how war reduces young men to indistinguishable killing machines or targets.”
So in the original novel, we hear their confession. “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”
So the Netflix film concludes with General Friedrichs ordering an utterly futile assault simply to assert German honour even in the closing minutes of the war. And once again, many men die, all for one man’s hubris.
My daughter was deeply moved by the film and simply couldn’t understand how anyone, certainly not anyone from Germany who had read the novel, would ever countenance going to war. In fact, the book sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first 18 months in print. Surely “a war to end all wars” to quote H.G. Wells’ Times editorial.
No wonder that when in 1933 the Nazis rose to power, All Quiet on the Western Front became one of the first ‘degenerate’ books to be publicly burnt.
The sad truth on this Armistice Day is that going to war is part-and-parcel of human nature, or as the apostle Paul describes “an act of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:19). Tragically, even with the United Nations and the Geneva conventions, war is a fact of life. It just takes one Putin.
Jesus says as much when he teaches: “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Mark 13:7)
For the Christian, an entirely realistic view of life and of our fallen human nature. No way are we capable of giving peace a chance. We are too wedded to war. We are the problem, you and I.
“Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from?” asks the brother of Jesus in what may be the earliest text of the New Testament. “Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves.” He continues: “You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.” (James 4:1-3, the Message)
So we pray, not in desperation but in hope: “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” As Christians we long for God’s glorious future when in the words of the Psalmist: “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.” (Psalm 46L)
For it is the cross of Jesus and the cross of Christ alone which brings healing to the nations and to lives broken in battle.
Meanwhile as his disciples of Jesus, we are entrusted with his Holy Spirit who inspires us to minister to lives broken and torn-apart by war, to offer hospitality to the refugee and to support those, who like Ron, continue to live with the scars of war.