Veterans Day, Armistice Day, Remembrance Day. November 11 goes by many different labels, depending on your history or tradition in your nation. In Canada, we go with Remembrance Day. So what is it that we are supposed to remember anyway? WW1 (aka the Great War), WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq-1, Iraq-2, Afghanistan? Perhaps the end of those conflicts or others? There seems to be many options and a lot going on. Many voices saying “Remember this”. It is clearly important to remember, but what is “this”? How we answer says much about our worldview.
In my earlier years, I occasionally enjoyed watching war movies with my sons. At the time, it seemed the messages of valour, honour or defending the oppressed spoke loudly even if many of the movies may have played fast and loose with the truth. I can’t point to exactly when or how things changed but I believe two experiences had a dramatic impact on me. The first was a visit with my youngest son to Gettysburg to view the annual re-enactment of the American Civil War. Seeing the battlefield and watching the events up close resulted in an overwhelming sense of the reality of death. Lots of it, accompanied with plenty of suffering and blood. The second experience was watching a TV series called “Band of Brothers”. Again, so realistic that the sense of violence and death became tangible. One episode especially hit me like a ton of bricks – The Battle of the Bulge (episode 6). It was told from the perspective of a medic. Here is just one of many gut wrenching scenes. Tough to watch, so be forewarned. After these two experiences, I can no longer watch these types of movies. After feeling the brutal reality of the violence and the trauma of those who lived through it, it seems I can no longer hear or see anything else.
In our current day it seems fashionable to challenge and oppose war in all forms. We often hear about how governments and leaders lie to their own citizens to justify war. Saddam Hussein never had any WMD’s and therefore the Iraq war was based on a lie. Israel has no right to defend itself and is not justified in using force to protect itself. War is really driven by the military-industrial complex that must sell it’s weapons to continue to exist and therefore encourages war to do so. I’ve even heard some suggest that war could have been avoided with Hitler’s Germany and was unnecessary. With all of this, I can’t get the thought of young men and women in harms way out of my mind. Dying bloody and horrible deaths or losing limbs or being grotesquely disfigured. For those that died, their loved ones will always remember. The ones who survived can never forget.
Almost 2,000 years ago, Jesus the Christ was facing imminent death. He knew what was coming would be horrific, bloody and painful in body, soul and spirit. An experience of the full force of evil would soon be his cup to drink. His words to his closest friends on the eve of this experience seem especially relevant to me on Nov 11 –
‘The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ – 1Cor 11:23-26 NIV
Over the coming hours and days there would be many attention grabbing events happening in and around Jesus life. A betrayal by a friend, agony in the garden, torches and spears, an ear of an enemy cut off and then healed by Jesus, beatings and torture at the hands of soldiers, a dramatic trial in multiple episodes in front of Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod, denial by Peter, public execution on a cross, an earthquake and much more. One jaw-dropping event after another. Each one increasing the emotion and drama as the story unfolded. Yet Jesus focus was – Remember this. My broken body and blood.
Whatever one may think of war and the reasons for it, it can be boiled down to two simple things. Bodies are broken and blood is shed. On both sides. Enemies suffer and bleed in the same way as allies. Whatever their motivation or no matter what lies have been told to cause soldiers to take up arms, their human experience is real and is worth remembering. One does not have to agree with war, the reasons for it or the political views of those involved to take time to remember those who have paid a great price for their involvement.
It is interesting to note that scripture records many interactions with military men and soldiers who were professional dispensers of violence and killers. Not once were they told to quit their positions or lay down their swords. Here are a few examples:
1. Jesus healed a centurion’s servant without hesitation and no comment about his profession. (Matthew 8).
2. Following John the Baptist’s preaching on repentance, some soldiers asked him what they should do in response to this message. He told them “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” No instruction to lay down their swords on leave their position in the military. (Luke 3:14)
3. Cornelius, a centurion, was described as a God-fearing man and was visited by Peter based on a heavenly visitation. He and his entire household were saved with no mention of him being required to resign his military role (Acts 10).
Isn’t it interesting that while John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter and Paul all interacted with centurions and soldiers, not one of their conversations expresses any negativity about their profession? While it is certainly a stretch to suggest any of these people were pro-violence or supported war (and I am certainly not doing so), is it possible to be anti-war and pro-soldier? Why was a centurion held up as a shining example of faith by Jesus? Why did God choose Cornelius, the military man, to break out his new move into the Gentile world? How do you explain past enemies, Allied and Nazi soldiers, coming together late in life to comfort one another regarding what they had experienced?
In summary, while we may have differing views on war (just or unjust) and genuinely abhor the political agendas or manifest evil that seem to drive it in many cases, let’s take the time on November 11 to remember this – men and women in the prime of their lives who have died, shed their blood or sacrificed their bodies in past conflicts. With the possible exception of those motivated by pure evil to terrorize, kill or maim others, most (including those we would call our enemies) have fought out of duty to others and not for their own selfish ends. They deserve our honour and compassion, not necessarily for the cause they represented but for what they have gone through as human beings in performing their responsibilities and the sacrifice and suffering that goes with it. This is what I choose to remember.