Dear Friends …
During the summer, I had a rare opportunity to visit my grandpa’s grave in Grandview, Texas, at the foot of which there sits a government-issue military stone noting his service during the Great War. He was a Sergeant First Class in the US Army Air Corps (the forerunner of the US Air Force), and though his service accounted for only a relatively brief period of his ultimately 90-year-long life — he was not a career military man — yet, of course, the time loomed large enough for him that I grew up regularly hearing all the old stories. In fact, figuring even more prominently in my childhood were the tunes — amongst the earliest that I remember — that the young soldiers and airmen sang to keep their spirits up so far from home.
Likewise, I recall my grandmother’s stories of the celebrations when news of the first Armistice Day made it Stateside — stories that are now exactly 100 years old. She never said it outright, but I always got the impression that these young women’s whoopings of delight were less about the fact that we had won (though I expect the other side whooped far less), than the simple fact that it was finally over. “They called it the war,” she told me knowingly, “to end all wars.” It was clear in her telling that this phrase was spoken at the time without a great deal of irony. Quite the opposite: it represented a genuine hope that humanity, having sunk to what was then its most brutal level, could and should emerge with the resolve never to let such a thing happen again.
That dream, we all now know, came to a swift, ugly end, as attested to by the simple existence of my father’s military footstone, just a few feet away from Grandpa’s: “Private First Class”, it says, “US Army, World War II”. The truth is that human beings have yet to learn that rattling sabres is always a case of playing with fire, and that the moment we go down that road as a means of problem-solving, we court the possibility of disaster — if not for ourselves directly, then for our loved ones, at the very least. For every young man who, like my dad and granddad, came back safe from the war, another comes back maimed in spirit or body, and yet another — someone’s husband, son, brother, daddy — does not come back at all.
If anything, the increasingly fractured radicalisation of our western rhetoric, causes me to fear that — 100 years from the Armistice — our memory recedes to the point that we forget the horrors altogether, that they become just one more thing to watch on the telly. As hatreds long past seek to become acceptable again and tribalism of all political stripes, both between and within countries, becomes the backlash to the imperfect-but-hopeful vision of the late 20th century, surely it becomes all the more important for us to remember what has gone before, and to remember by name the people we have lost not only to the enemy’s hatred, but to our own.
“In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek”, says St. Paul. It is not enough to view friends or enemies as a faceless group of “them over there” as opposed to “us over here”. On Remembrance Day, we name names. Mine just happen to be Patton Elmon Ingle and William Ellis Gillis. But you will have your own, and together we shall name them all. Because enmity doesn’t just happen to faceless groups; it involves human beings — created and cherished by God — with real lives and stories. Likewise, friendship and grace happens only when we truly hear our neighbours and welcome them as our own. One day, says God, “each man will sit under his own fig tree, and none shall make him afraid”. I don’t pretend that we can accomplish this without his intervention. But we can choose to name the names of those we have lost — and those who still live — and thus to be a sign of humanity’s hope rather than its failings.