My Last Remembrance Day Service

I don’t know why I did it. Deep inside I knew it would be painful and upsetting, but I went along anyway. I guess I had hoped that Remembrance Day events in New Zealand would be a little less militaristic, less overlaid with imperial and patriotic sentiment, than the ones I had attended during my years in the UK. I guess I’d hoped that in the time I’d been away, Remembrance Day services here would have evolved and changed, perhaps into more inclusive, more truthful and pacific ways of remembering and honouring the war dead.

As I walked down Dowling Street to go to the Armistice Day service, I went past a large yellow building which still bore its original name, The Imperial Buildings, across its impressive frontage. The Imperial Buildings look out over Queens Garden, the site where all remembrance ceremonies in Dunedin are held. At the centre of the gardens is a towering marble Cenotaph. It was originally designed to reflect ‘great sacrifices’ and ‘mighty deeds’, and its inscription reads, ‘The Glorious Dead 1914-1918’ and ‘The Glorious Dead 1939-1945’. Facing the Cenotaph is a huge statue of Queen Victoria, after whom the gardens are named. She is flanked by two female figures, one of which holds aloft a broad sword. I presume it’s for smiting the enemies of the British Empire, which undoubtedly would have included the Maori people who once had settlements all around this harbor – and any other people who refused to be taxed or forced into laboring for the colonial economy. It’s noticeable that the local tangata te whenua (the people of the land), have no formal presence at this service. I can’t help but wonder if this is because remembering all who served in the military would involve remembering the British Army laying waste to Maori villages during the land wars, the slaughter of pacification. That’s one form of remembering, one truth about our military war involvement, that probably sits a little too uncomfortably in a service of remembrance. Either way, the shadow of empire hangs silently over everything we do this morning.

There are about 200 of us in a half circle around the Cenotaph, which faces Queen Victoria, who in turn is imperiously looking away over what was then part of her domain. There are quite a few members of the armed forces among the gathering, and lots of people are wearing red poppies and the war medals of relatives. I’m the only one wearing a white poppy. I feel conspicuous and defensive, although no one makes a comment or gives me a hostile look. No one seems to notice me at all.

The service is officiated by a senior padre from the military, the perfect symbol of how the church serves the state and sanctifies its wars. In Britain, I heard stories of padres blessing fighter jets on their way to bomb Muslim towns and villages. I wonder if New Zealand chaplains similarly pray for victory against enemy forces. We begin by singing ‘God Save the Queen’, which seems old fashioned, but nonetheless reinforces for me how much these kind of ceremonies function as rites of nationalism rooted in a history of empire. Asking God to save our gracious Queen, send her victorious, and long to reign over us reignites the imperial past which is all around this place, a past which continues to haunt an ex-settler colony like New Zealand. Interestingly, the service ends by singing ‘God Defend New Zealand’ which suggests to me that Queen and empire come first; the New Zealand nation is just one part of the imperial family we are here to commemorate. It also reminds us that in matters of war, it is always best to have God on your side.

The impression that this is a celebration of hard-earned, war-forged nationhood is reaffirmed when the first prayers are for the Queen, the Governor-General and the Prime Minister. In my mind, I subvert the padre’s prayer by asking God that they will one day use their voices to speak out against the sheer stupidity and inhumanity of war and call for global disarmament and nonviolent solutions to conflict, and that they will show a powerful example by encouraging their children to work for peacemaker groups rather than the armed forces. I pray that our prime minister will stand before the world and reiterate New Zealand’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and making the Pacific nuclear free.

The service is punctuated by the firing of a massive cannon. I am not expecting it to be quite so loud, and I can’t suppress a jump. Car alarms all around the square go off with the force of the sound wave; a young child screams with terror; my ears ring. People in the crowd murmur and shuffle at the sudden noise, but then there are relieved smiles and more than a few looks of admiration at the cannon. I have never heard of using loud bangs and noise to remember something sad and tragic. Tragedies are usually remembered with quiet bells, soft songs, or even silence. So I suppose this monstrous firecracker celebrates victory, and the ‘glorious dead’; but I could be wrong about that. In any case, it reminds me of how terrifying it must be to be on the receiving end of cannon fire, to see people’s limbs torn off and flying through the air. I wonder at how people can systematically build thousands upon thousands of such inhuman weapons, and more besides.

A few minutes later, a spitfire buzzes around the gathering. Again, I’m disturbed at how happy everyone is to see it, how it lightens the mood of the crowd instantly. I reflect on how overt demonstrations of military machines have become normalised at these kinds of events. Why not go all the way and parade our best missiles or maybe a line of tanks, I wonder. Someone ought to at least give a demonstration of how a flame thrower can light a man up like a huge human candle, turning him into a piece of charcoal in less than a minute.

The homily is given by an officer, his chest full of medals. He speaks about how many lives New Zealand sacrificed in the Great War. He says it was meant to be the ‘war to end all wars’, and how he was never really told at school why so many had to die. He doesn’t really tell us either; there’s no mention of empire, and fighting for the Crown’s overseas possessions, or how millions were needlessly slaughtered by incompetence and vanity. There’s no mention of how the original war remembrance services were organized around the theme, ‘never again’, and how women started the Peace Pledge Union to try and ensure their menfolk never had to suffer such horror again. I’m left saddened by the lost opportunity to speak some truth about the evil of war and the necessity of working against its ever happening again.

After this, there’s the mandatory prayer for the service men and women overseas, the playing of the Last Post and the laying of the wreaths. Then we sing the national anthem and people start for the cathedral and the Memorial Day service. I feel sad and a little distressed. I cannot put into words why yet. I’m not sure how I will get through another service, how I will feel at the end of it.

The cathedral service beings with each branch of the military presenting its Colours (service flags) to the presiding priest, who stands them up by the altar, in front of the large cross, like gifts to Christ himself. I am stunned and dismayed to see that the navy and army Colours are brought to the front of the church by servicemen carrying automatic rifles which appear to have full magazines and their bayonets fixed. The sergeant carries a sword and they march in perfect unison. The air force only has one man with a flag, but the top of the flag pole is a metal spear head. I suppose it represents a lance, which in times past was used for impaling enemy soldiers. I did not for one second anticipate that weapons would be part of a sacred ritual in a church. It seems patently medieval and slightly blasphemous to me, and I wonder if Jesus Christ himself would approve. Or, would he say, ‘put away your sword’, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. I know that some people see no contradiction in it.

Then I look around me. The Great War Memorial Window dominates the front of the cathedral. According to the service sheet, the window represents ‘Victory through Sacrifice’, and contains the Coats of Arms of the Otago and Southland Regiments, and the Arms of New Zealand and the United Kingdom. One of the top line of figures is St Michael, the Warrior Angel. Later, we will all face the window while we listen to The Last Post. The Anglican Church, as the establishment church in New Zealand and Britain, has always had a close relationship with the military, and military symbols are ubiquitous in its buildings. I suppose allowing real weapons into an act of worship is only in keeping with this close historical relationship. Nonetheless, it shocks and dismays me. I wonder if those guns have ever killed people, and if so, what were their names, who were their children, or their parents? Hopefully, they have only ever been fired at targets of humans, not real humans.

After singing ‘God Save the Queen’ again (which is described as ‘The National Anthem’ in the service sheet; apparently we have two national anthems), the priest prays the Bidding Prayer, in which one of the lines is: We affirm again our determination to put an end to all armed conflicts. I can certainly agree with this, although I wonder at the sincerity of it when armed soldiers are invited into the cathedral, and the church has a formal relationship with the military. But then the priest goes on: we express our penitence for those occasions when they become necessary; and we acknowledge with sorrow the suffering and destruction they cause. I can’t help feeling disappointed. This sounds like an excuse, a cop-out. How many times have we heard politicians say the same thing: ‘this war, like the last one and the one before that, and the one before that, is absolutely necessary. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is. Sometimes you simply have to bomb someone.’ It seems to me that this is how we get away with simultaneously praying for peace and acknowledging the sorrows of war, whilst unceasingly preparing, training and planning for the next one. In this context, committing oneself to peace clearly means preparing for the day you have to bayonet an enemy soldier or bomb his house.

After a hymn, the priest leads us in the Prayers of Approach and Confession. He says the words, Jesus Christ, who teaches us to live peacefully, but I think in this context he does not mean the Jesus who is called the Prince of Peace, and who said ‘put away your sword’, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, ‘turn the other cheek’, and ‘love your enemies’. I think they mean the Jesus who would train to be a soldier, go to war and stick a bayonet in someone before shooting them in the face; or, the Jesus who would drop bombs from a fighter jet on a house which blows the legs off a little boy playing nearby. I never saw this Jesus in the Bible, but some people claim they do.

The priest then leads us in the ‘Litany of Reconciliation’ from Coventry Cathedral. Having visited the ruins of Coventry Cathedral where there is a peace monument linked to Hiroshima, I can relate to this prayer and am happy to see it here. I silently mouth the words, even though I can’t suppress my doubts about whether we really understand the implications of what we’re saying, or whether we’re really prepared as a society to take the necessary steps to make this prayer a reality:

For the hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class;

Father, forgive us.

For the covetous desires of nations and peoples to possess what is not their own;

Father, forgive us.

For the greed which exploits human labour and lays waste to the earth;

Father, forgive us.

For our envy of the welfare and happiness of others;

Father, forgive us.

For our indifference to the plight of the homeless and the refugee;

Father, forgive us.

For the lust which uses ignoble ends the bodies of men and women and children;

Father, forgive us.

For the pride which leads us to trust in ourselves, and not in God;

Father, forgive us.

I could be wrong, but this reads like a prayer against the dangers of patriotism and nationalism to me. It sounds like a call for compassion and disarmament and an end to war and all forms of violence. Nevertheless, at the end of the prayer, I can’t help thinking that there are a few other things we ought to be asking forgiveness for:

For the incalculable treasure we have wasted on building weapons of war and mass destruction, treasure which could have been used to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, educate the poor;

Father, forgive us.

For the weapons we continue to build, we continue to amass, and we continue to spread over the whole earth through the unregulated arms trade;

Father, forgive us.

For the uncountable and nameless thousands who have died at our hands and in our name in the Middle East and elsewhere over the past ten years;

Father, forgive us.

For electing leaders who we know are uncommitted to the cause of peace and who are far too willing to sacrifice our young people in unnecessary and pointless wars;

Father, forgive us.

For allowing ourselves to be deceived by lies and distortions and fears and the lack of imagination to find other alternatives to organized killing;

Father, forgive us.

For forgetting the humanity of others and engaging in mass killing and injury in the name of political objectives;

Father, forgive us.

For forgetting to remember the names of those we have wrongly killed in war;

Father, forgive us.

The real readings and prayers continue. A man in a uniform with lots of medals on his chest reads from Micah chapter 4: They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more… I wonder how amazing it would be to bring out the guns the soldiers carried in a few minutes before and beat them into a lump of metal which could be made into a plough. What an amazing demonstration of commitment to peace that would be. It would be in all the papers. There’d be questions in Parliament for sure. I also wonder if we could announce the end of all military training; no more learning war anymore. Instead, we teach peace and nonviolence and conflict resolution. The Lord makes wars to cease in all the world; The Lord breaks the bow and snaps the spear, and burns the shield in the fire. Sadly, Western countries make new and better weapons far faster than God can break them. The world is drowning in guns, making more wars and violent conflicts likelier by the day. I also think that a lot of people would be very sad to see God make all wars cease across the world. Who would we be as a nation if we couldn’t commemorate war? From what would we draw meaning and purpose? Where would our entertainment come from?

Each branch of the military has a special prayer. The Naval Prayer asks God to Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy; that we might be a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth. The shadow of the empire returns, as does the spectre of our violent enemies. There are prayers for the Army and the Air Force, and then incongruously, the Police. I can’t help but think that this is not a coincidence or an anomaly. The Police are more and more considered part of the military now. I expect that in future they will have their own Colours and they will march to the front of the church with pistols on hips and swords drawn. We’ll be praying for victory against enemies at home and abroad.

The priest’s procession moves to the Great War Memorial Window. We turn towards it in a shuffling unison. The Last Post is movingly played, and The Ode is read aloud:

They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

We will remember them.

We will remember them.

As the notes of the sad music fade away, I feel that I really do want to remember them, and to honour them, those countless men and women slaughtered in an orgy of mass killing for King and Empire, and all the young lives lost since that ‘war to end all wars’. Many of them went to war with noble and good intentions. Most of them were probably good people who felt they were doing their duty, who wanted to serve their country and mankind. But I want to remember them in a way that cannot be used to force me into accepting another war. I want to remember and honour them in ways that will ensure that no one has to suffer like that again. And I want to honour them with the truth, not lies and distortions about how they died for our freedom, for democracy. I think it greatly dishonours them to make up stories that are patently untrue. If their deaths are to have meaning, they must involve a full acknowledgement of the truth: they were slaughtered for no good reason that we would recognize today. Their lives were sacrificed by vainglorious, warmongering leaders. This truth, that soldiers are most often sacrificed by politicians for venal and ignoble reasons, might save the next generation from these horrors, but only if we acknowledge it honestly.

I want to remember them and their victims; all the victims of war, intentional and unintentional. I want to acknowledge that the man or the child accidentally killed by a New Zealand serviceman in Afghanistan has the same right to be remembered and acknowledged as the soldier deliberately killed by a Taliban bomb. Only when we acknowledge and remember the humanity of all people, instead of treating some lives as more worthy and more special than others, can we start to break down the mindset that makes war a seemingly permanent part of our world.

When we say the Lord’s Prayer, I wonder again what God really thinks of it: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven. Apparently in God’s kingdom, people train and equip themselves to slaughter others. They drop hugely powerful bombs on cities, including phosphorous bombs and cluster munitions which kill children for years afterwards. Apparently, God’s will is that we pray for peace in church and then go out and prepare for war, making sure that we can pulverize any enemy who we think stands against us. Either that, or we don’t really mean it when we pray these radical words. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Sorry Lord, you might forgive but we don’t. We get even. If they come over here and kill some of our citizens, we certainly don’t consider forgiveness an appropriate response. We go over there and smash them instead. For every one of our civilians killed, we kill ten or twenty or a hundred of theirs.

I am so tired now. I can’t stop the waves of despair and shame and sorrow that sweep over me with every lie, every hypocrisy, every ugly distortion, every hidden violence. I feel a little weepy and want to go home. I don’t want to see any more guns in church or hear any more men in uniform with medals on their chest talk about peace and justice.

And then we sing the final hymn:

I vow to thee my country – all earthly things above –

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:

The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the alter the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

My eyes swim with tears, and I feel a heavy weight in the pit of my stomach. I can understand it now, I can see it in the words, the sheer madness which makes war, which slaughters and destroys the earth and all that’s good in it. It is that deep patriotic love which asks no questions, and that is willing to lay on the altar all that is dearest and the best, and which makes the ultimate sacrifice, for love of country. This would be mindless fanaticism in anyone else, but for us, for our society, it is noble sacrifice. At the very least, it’s unquestioned, admiral loyalty. But isn’t this at the root of war and violence? Isn’t this unquestioning willingness to kill and die for an abstract notion of ‘nation’ the madness that makes organized mass killing possible in the first place? How can we remember the sorrow of the war dead while singing joyously about this kind of sick, fanatical patriotism? How can we acknowledge that war is destructive and evil, and pray for peace, while we sing in celebration of murderous, obsessive patriotism?

I am stunned by the bitter hatred I feel towards the sentiments of that verse, how inherently mad it seems to me. How it makes me want to scream, ‘No! Stop! Think about what you’re singing! This is sheer madness! Unquestioned dying for patriotism?’ I try to concentrate on the second verse instead:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are Peace.

I wonder why this can’t be the only verse we sing of this beautiful tune, and whether anyone else notices the profound contradiction between the two verses. There is another country, one not defined by nationalism and violence, one in which peace, willing suffering and gentleness are its deeper values. It’s a country without armies, without killing, without unthinking patriotism. It’s this country we ought to look forward to, work for, try to create in our lifetime. It’s this country we ought to pledge our allegiance to.

The service ends with ‘The Act of Rededication’. The priest prays: Let us rededicate ourselves to building a world in which there is justice and peace for all, and where women, men and children live a life of full human dignity. We all respond with the words, Lord God our Father, we pledge ourselves to serve you and all people in the cause of justice and peace, and for the relief of want and suffering… I am so tired now, but I really, really want to believe that we mean it. I ache to believe it. And if the service had ended on this note, at this moment, I might well have put aside all the rest of it which seemed ambiguous, and untruthful, and militantly patriotic. I would have gone home with a little hope in my heart.

But then the priest gives a final Blessing in which he asks God to grant peace and concord to the Queen, the one who reigns over us, and for whom our ‘glorious dead’ ultimately sacrificed themselves. The empire and its lies creep back into the service once more. Next, we sing the New Zealand National Anthem in rousing voice, asking God to defend our free land. It reminds us that God is definitely on our side, especially during times of war and conflict. It also reminds us that while we might pray for peace and a world where nations do not hate each other, it is to the nation we owe our greatest love and there is no higher duty than to die in the service of one’s country. For a soaring moment as we sing, we forget that patriotism and nationalism have been the cause of more bloody wars than almost any other force in history, and that patriotism combined with religion has proven to be the single most powerful motivation for inducing men and women to slaughter each other.

The memorial service ends the way it began, with men carrying guns and bayonets who march in perfect time to the altar, collect their Colours from the priest and then slow-step back down the aisle. We all stand in a sign of silent respect as the men with guns and military flags lead the clergy procession. I am now in a deep spiritual agony and can hardly stop myself from sobbing out loud. My wife can see my distress and we don’t stay long at the reception.

I will never go to a Memorial Day service again. At least, I won’t go again until weapons of war are no longer displayed and admired in the ceremony; until the nationalistic flags and emblems which people fight under have no place in the service; until they stop singing songs of empire and nation and patriotic duty and instead sing hymns of peace and human solidarity; until they acknowledge and remember all the victims of war, not just our country’s soldiers; until they pray to God to save and protect the innocent as well as the soldiers on deployment; until they include prayers for all those killed and injured in our name; until they acknowledge those who have demonstrated the courage of their convictions by becoming conscientious objectors and anti-war activists; until they pray against all the demonic forces which lead people to commit violence, including imperialism, nationalism, patriotism, racism, greed, and fear; until they tell the truth about how many of our soldiers died for lies, and empire, and aggression; until they show they really mean what they say and actually start working for disarmament and the de-militarisation of the world; until they beat all the swords and guns into ploughshares, and radically reduce the military budget, and stop spreading weapons to every corner of the globe; until there are as many white poppies worn among the congregation as red ones; until questioning and thinking for oneself is welcomed and valued; until they allow us to remember and honour the war dead in other ways that do not reinforce the practice of war but instead break it apart.

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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