Growing up American, what I learned about war reflected my country’s role in the conflict. The story was usually told from the victor’s perspective. History classes covered major campaigns, celebrating “wins” and glossing over losses. Issues were black and white, right and wrong. I left school knowing very little about World War I, and thinking World War II really got going after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was too young to understand Vietnam, and my family didn’t know anyone who had served, so that was another conflict that passed me by.
It wasn’t until I was about 40 that some semblance of reality began to sink in. Every single English village I’ve ever visited has a war memorial much like this one, inscribed with the names of those who gave their lives in the two world wars.
Yes, that’s right: every single village. That’s a lot of names; a staggering loss of life. Every Remembrance Sunday (the second Sunday in November), there’s a very moving and solemn ceremony in London. The memorials and the ceremony hit me like a ton of bricks. Here’s an excerpt from 2009:
At about 7:30 in this clip, BBC presenter David Dimbleby describes the “unconscionable millions” who died in World War I, saying that if all those British soldiers were to line up in a march starting in London, the line would end in Edinburgh, some 400 miles away. That sound you hear is another ton of bricks raining down on me.
My 2010 reading about war further opened my eyes, and strengthened my belief that war is not the answer. War is not something that’s won or lost; it’s a senseless and futile approach to solving problems. Some may feel that an act of aggression demands an equally aggressive response, but I can no longer ascribe to that belief. I live in hope that humankind will one day find ways to resolve conflict peacefully.
I guess I’m on a personal journey of learning and discovery, but I’ve only just scratched the surface. I am not sure how to turn beliefs into action, but I can start by refusing to forget. Vera Brittain said it well in her memoir, Testament of Youth :
Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. (p. 646)
There are a few things I’ll do, as a start. On Thursday, November 11 at 11:00am, I plan to find a way to observe a moment of silence even though it’s not the custom in my workplace. I’ll watch the Remembrance Sunday ceremony on the web. And next weekend I’m planning to attend a forum sponsored by a local Quaker Meeting, a panel discussion entitled, “If War is not the Answer, What Is?”
How about you? How do you “refuse to forget”?