In London, on the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day (11 November) which marks the end of the First World War, a similar display takes place along Whitehall. It begins with music played by massed bands and pipes. At 11 o’clock a single shot salute is fired from First World War guns and a two-minute silence begins at the Cenotaph. Wreaths are then laid around the Cenotaph and a short religious service of remembrance is held.
Then, to the music of the bands, a parade of veterans begins to march past the Cenotaph. There are veterans from World War II (a dwindling number of course), Korea, the Falklands, Persian Gulf and other conflicts. They are all dressed smartly with their medals on display. They wear their regimental berets with pride. But if you look carefully, not everyone is marching. Some are not even walking but are being pushed in wheelchairs. As they reach the Cenotaph there is the command ‘Eyes right’. All turn to the Cenotaph and salute it by looking that way to pay tribute to all those fallen comrades it represents. There are no missiles or armoured vehicles, no new assault rifles to be admired by those who look on.
This is the National Service of Remembrance. One purpose might be to bolster national pride in the armed forces, yes, and there’s nothing much more impressive than a well-organised military display. But more important, it is designed to help the people of the UK and elsewhere remember those who gave their lives or their health in war in order to protect the nation. Officially it commemorates “the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts”. This year, of course, the whole event was scaled back, but in essence it was the same.
On the surface, the parade in North Korea and the march past on Whitehall have similarities. They are both impressive pieces of military organisation involving large numbers of people. They both have the potential to create national pride in those who take part and those who watch. Both show homage being paid but there is a great difference in whom it is being paid to. In North Korea, it is to a leader who wants to remain a leader, who demands loyalty and punishes disloyalty. In London, it is to ordinary men and women who served their country at great cost to themselves. In North Korea, the homage is shouted in loud voices; in London it is shown by a silent look of tribute.
It might be legitimate to ask why there is a march past in London, why the trappings of the military. World War II, the most costly war of all time which involved 3 continents, more than 30 countries and cost 16 million lives, ended 75 years ago. There are few alive now who were involved. Why not just forget it, consign it to history? Because that would be dangerous. As George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I was reminded of this a few days ago when I watched a TV programme about the French Revolution. The French have tried to forget that part of their history but one of the French historians interviewed explained that they were having to remember it. Each time something happens in the world, as they look back to their revolution, it helps them to make sense of today.
We remember because we do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Wars have not ceased. Military and civilian personnel still die in conflict. By choosing to remember, we choose to recall the horror and cost of war and maybe that helps nations and individuals to take the pursuit of peace more seriously. God commends those who strive for peace rather than just longing for it. As James writes in his letter: “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
One day the Prince of Peace, whose coming we will particularly look forward to in the season of Advent, will return to rule the world. Until then, as Christians, we have the responsibility to do all we can to bring Kingdom values to our world.