We shall not forget those who have fallen, those who have laid down their lives for others. They who have sacrificed their lives so that we might live. This image of a Tornado F3 aircraft, adorned with the red poppy, from a few years ago may be considered poignant, given that it also had been party to sacrificing the lives of others.
My thoughts are of a friend of mine, sadly lost over Baghdad, when his aircraft was shot down. I had shared 4 months of my life with him in the Falkland Islands when we were ‘crewed’ together on a C130 detachment. I also recall the ‘friendly fire loss’ of a Tornado GR4 aircraft returning to Kuwait: I was asked to provide the last transcript of the crew using the cockpit video of the lead Tornado. It was difficult enough for me, let alone the Squadron Commander, to see the missile arc into the sky and then veer off to the right, passing the lead aircraft, as it tracked the trailing aircraft, destroying it upon detonation. In Kuwait my role was to produce data to effectively optimise the use of laser guided weaponry from the Tornado. Certain targets were selected and using intelligence staffs we would scientifically determine both the weapon release range, the impact trajectory and the fuze settings. With laser guided weaponry we also could use the video imagery to determine whether the attack was a success or not. This could be seen by certain media as great war imagery but often we would see footage of bombs which failed to track continually the laser guidance and would ‘miss’. Then again these bombs were designated as missiles, hence their raison d’être was to ‘miss’ but they had sufficient explosive charge to cause the necessary damage, known as lethality. This lethality radius, the range that the weapon was ‘effective’, could then be used in scientific mathematical models to establish the percentage of any collateral damage. Sounds good. The number of people whose lives would be lost but who were not allocated as targets. Sounds worse.
I also recall one pilot from an enemy aircraft who lost his life because he was flying over his own capital but which we defined as an area where he could not fly. He was flying defending his country and lost his life…..but do we remember him? I do.
I really enjoy numbers. Mathematics has played a big part in my life and I love the way that our world is bounded by particular mathematical laws. Nevertheless, people are not percentages.
This year, I have wondered what we are celebrating each Remembrance Day. Are we ‘celebrating’ anything at all even?
We appear to focus each year upon World War One, ‘the war to end all wars‘ (allegedly a quote by the American President Woodrow Wilson). There are some references to Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain as we recall the Second World War. A connection was made with Kristallnacht last year, and the US Election, and the lives lost that night in 1938. Latterly we recall the wars we have entered in Iraq (1990-91) and then Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-95), Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (2001-2014) and then Iraq (2003). But should we not also remind ourselves of Libya (1986) and the military intervention in the Arab Spring of 2011?
This year, as last year, I decided to wear the white poppy. I wanted to highlight that, even after 16 years of military service with 4 additional years in the Civil Service serving the military, I can continue to remember all those who have died in conflict. But where is the memorial for those lost outside of the military?
Can not the message that “We Shall Not Forget” include that we, those standing today, should do our utmost to remove conflict between nations?
When many face living in destitution, many suffering from disabilities, both mental and/or physical, many in dire poverty, and we can stand each year to recall the losses, whilst funding an armament industry who aim is to increase lethality.
We commit to fund Trident through an upgrade programme whilst unable to sustain those who live today in our society. I wonder whether those who fought on the muddy battlefields of yesteryear would welcome a world where war is to be promoted and profits made.
Does the Church have a role to play here? We have military chaplains in the services. They seek to support those members of our Armed Forces who have to fight on the front line. Recall these days that the front line can be thousands of miles from any battle ground. The pilots of the drones operating across Iraq and Syria are based back in the UK. They can be ‘flying’ for many more hours than a conventional ‘fighter’ pilot. They also can loiter post the strike above the target to obtain intelligence on the effectiveness of that attack. Their imagery is high quality due to the capabilities of the drone to fly slower than a fast jet with a host of additional sensors. Therefore the pilots get to see far greater clarity of the imagery of the after effects of the weapon. But does that leave the church as the means of counselling, what of prior to the attack?
There is a tension between the Chaplain blessing the impending battle and blessing the soldiers entering that battle. We can think of Joshua Chapter 6 as the Priests herald the walls of the city crashing down but is this truly where the Church should be in this context? As alluded to by Andrew Todd (1) we live in an imperfect world, the role of the Church should be to ensure that battles are fought as humanely as possible and “every opportunity be taken to lessen the consequences of future conflict”. It is most certainly a tension but one that needs to be so actively pursued.
So what do we do next?
Well, according to the press, next is Children-in-Need and then Christmas…
Do we forget this Day of Remembrance to observe the fallen until next year or do we do something more constructive throughout the year?
Can we agree to raise up our voices in protest at the continual bombing of Syria where the battle lines are so blurred, we may have already lost the mission objective?
Can we consider the implications of entering that fray within Iraq in 2003 where we did not have a resolute plan to bring peace to the community post the removal of its then President, thus leaving a chaotic mess of differing religious and cultural factions?
Can we learn lessons and implement them after incursions by the Soviets and then NATO in Afghanistan and the battle still continues?
At ceremonies across the nation we may hear:
When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today.
Afterwards the Poppy may be removed and put back in the kitchen drawer until next year, especially those of a metallic construction, but the statement “the war to end all wars” remains – will it be our promise as well?
(1) Military Chaplains in Contention Ed by Andrew Todd, (London:Routledge, 2013), p. 125