Today, we remember the lost, the fallen, who often lie in waters or fields unknown except to God, without recorded names – without anyone now alive who can recall their faces.
I think of Ezekiel’s vision, the Valley of Dry Bones, when dusty skeletons are clothed in flesh and rise, a vast army, to stand before us. We are about to clothe in flesh – for an hour’s communion – these honoured dead. They were the children of Israel in Ezekiel’s dream but now, they are the children of all humanity, friend or foe, resting together. For this one day, our own are standing again; we can see them on the periphery of the crowd, gathered among trees, walking down cemetery rows. They lean fold-armed beside their old comrades and circle the poppied cenotaphs; they touch the shoulders of young cadets who stand watch with heads bowed. They pass as the wind, and a teenager in immaculate uniform is moved to wonder at this; at the feeling that someone has gently touched her face in greeting. The old man beside her has no curiosity. He already knows what and who it was.
These great armies and squadrons and fleets marched, soared or sailed forth with hope and resolution, bound for their own destinies, praying they would not fail. They must have been daunted by the enormity of this task, frightened by their own frailty, unable to dwell on that fear lest they give in to it. They would have been anxious to return home at the end of it all. And while many did survive, numberless millions did not. No one endures any conflict untouched; if the body remains unmarked, the mind carries its own gashes. The living, too, have experienced a form of death. It is heavy on them; it is in them, in their eyes and hands and voices. They have given up something that most young people take for granted: some call it innocence. I believe it is, in part, the idea that there can be permanent victory or defeat with clear boundaries between them.
But in any war, although I’ve shared only in my father’s reflections rather than the actual experience, I suspect that clarity might be difficult to grasp. Who, really, is the enemy? Is it the kid who was driven to fight because his community or national leaders demanded it? The commander who knows that no matter what he might do to protect them, his men will be placed at dreadful risk and that many will fall? The artist sketching a propaganda poster in some stone building far removed from the guns? The father desperate to protect his family from threat of destruction? The German submariner who enters a Derry pub and finds himself surrounded by sailors from an opposing navy, men who offer him a foaming pint and clear a place at the bar?
We can easily recognize the brutal and corrupt leadership whose motives have forced such horrors on everyone else. They are almost unreachable and they destroy anyone who dares to confront their authority. But between these war-dealers and their adversaries, there strides that vast army of clothed bones – youth whose parents loved them, hugged them, cried when they left home. They march for the side of evil, or for the side of right and truth. We can tell the difference, of course. Or so we believe. But the lines blur over time. Monsters are destroyed, warring parties reconcile, treaties are established and the world lurches forward. The dead sleep well, even among those who have killed them. They cannot differentiate. Only we can do that.
Still, every combatant understands the price of victory.They have all paid their tokens in advance, but the coinage weighs more for some than for others. And now they come to us, full of love for this nation they have so proudly served, and asking that we remember – not for themselves, but for us. That we acknowledge the apathy, the callousness, the depths of both greed and hatred that bring devastation to humankind. That we choose to take another road and give everything we own to keep it secure.
Surely, we can promise them this. While war brings its uncertainties, the protection of peace is a choice that few can argue. We must promise them our best and finest efforts, in memory of theirs.