War and Christian Memory in “In Flanders Fields”
Readings: Joshua 5:13-14; 1 Chronicles 22:7-9; Isaiah 2:1-4; Habakkuk 1:1-11; Matthew 5:9; Matthew 26:52.
In the spirit of these Scriptures, I want to reflect on the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
I admit, I dislike the poem “In Flanders Fields.” I don’t know if I am allowed to as a Canadian – it is after all our war poem – but I do. It is not that I think it is a bad poem. Its rhythm and rhyme is beautiful. It is easy to listen to. But aesthetics of form must bow the knee to higher values of judgment. In this case, the memory not of transient empires – Roman, British, American, or otherwise – but of the Christian people.
We remember our cultural memory with our scriptural memory.
The poem’s beauty is actually apart of the problem. It communicates with a certain saccharine flavor something that should taste bitter. Its form leaves us docile to its content. We prefer it to the bitter realism of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est (which in my opinion is the war poem we should be reciting).
Have you ever bothered to think about this poem, In Flanders Field? For 27 years, I have heard, recited, and memorized this poem. It is only recently I thought about it.
I think I recited it through the lens of being a Canadian committed to our military being used in peacekeeping operations, which I think everyone else I know does too. But the question is what did the poem mean at the time it was written?
Most reflect on Remembrance Day nostalgic of World War II, the war that dethroned the madman, genocidal, tyrant Hitler. Canada’s involvement in this conflict was at least reasonable. However this poem was written during World War I. The two conflicts were very different.
John McCrae, its author, was a committed military man. His father was a soldier, so he was raised with a certain religious belief that it was a matter of duty to fight for the empire. He had volunteered in the British army in Africa in the Second Boer War. The Boer War was a war fought between the African Dutch settlers and the British for nothing but pride and profit. The British annexed the region from the Dutch Empire, leaving the settlers there armed for rebellion. So they sent in the military.
This war was fought for king and country, for honor and glory, or at least that is what every soldier is told, but the truth was the Second Boer War was about making sure the African gold mines kept their treasure going out of Africa and into British banks. The British Empire was convinced as the US empire is now that what it was doing was God ordained. As a Baptist, I have a big problem with that logic. Only the spiritual unity of God’s global church can claim to be God’s nation. This is a spiritual nation. Moreover, they forgot that God says even to his own people when it come to war, “I am on no one’s side.” Their empire became a religious system ensuring their way of life, their values, more importantly, their wealth and power. As Habakkuk said, “Their might is their god.”
In many ways, I welcome the secularization of Canada, if only because in doing so Christianity will not longer be reduced to some civil religion where our God is invoked as the guarantor of the status quo of this world, masked under the vocabulary of “peace and order.”
McCrae then served in World War I. This war, despite its global scale, was no less petty. Fueled by centuries of nationalism, racism, and childish competition over superiority, Europe was divided into two sets of political alliances. When the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serbian black ops group, called the “Black Hand,” the world was reduced to but Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The death of one man from a distant part of the world, spiraled into a global war that would claim the lives of somewhere between 15 and 65 million (only 9 million of these were combatants, the rest civilians): 65 million dead from one. What else can speak so efficiently to the depravity of the humanity’s collective heart? These are figures that would make Lamech blush.
It was during this conflict – this colossal failure of diplomacy and peacekeeping – that McCrae wrote his poem, “In Flanders Fields.” It was not written after the war, when people finally counted the death toll and resolved to stop doing war this way, but during it. He wrote it after the second battle in Ypre, near Flanders.
He wrote about the battle calling it a nightmare: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. […] And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
But that part did not make it into the poem. That spoke too harshly of war’s realities. When McCrae’s good friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed, McCrae performed a burial service for him, during which he noticed the poppies growing up around the graves. Later the next day he composed the poem in the back of an ambulance.
Notice what he did and did not write about.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
It seems that in this stanza McCrae communicates that the world is quite tranquil, ignorant of the carnage humans are inflicting on each other, and humans fight ignorant had the beauty of nature around them.
Nevertheless, the poem continues…
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
The dead are described as not quite living. They “lived,” past tense, not are still living. They “loved and were loved,” past tense. Now they lie in Flanders fields. They are not in an afterlife, it sounds, just in some sort of restless nothingness. Their identities are nothing more than their crosses, their graves, the memorials of their war efforts.
Plato once said that only the dead see the end of war, but McCrae does not even give them that. The dead here in thus poem have not moved beyond war’s reality. They are trapped in it. They are not in the peace of Abraham’s bosom. They are in war’s midst still. And this is what their graves are saying.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
I, and most of you probably also, always thought this poem referred to fight evil, but remember this was written about WWI, not WWII. No side in WWI was really the “evil side.” I always thought the foe referred to Hitler or some other truly evil political force. However, the British Empire was responsible for just as much tyranny as another empire, especially in India and Africa. How much of the conveniences we take for granted today – our clothing made in sweatshops, jewelry made of blood diamonds, the gas we drive our cars with taken from middle eastern lands – how much of this is the result of us failing to recognize that we have been the foe of those less fortunate in the developing world?
But the dead, the memory of the dead, beckon for new soldiers just to take up the “quarrel.” McCrae had the decency to call it that. But with whom? A nameless enemy: “The foe.” In war, our identity becomes reduced to the quintessential false dichotomy of war: “us” versus “them.” It is the lie that we are not all humans sharing the same planet, all beloved children of God. It is the lie that we are nothing like them: all our soldiers are valiant and chivalrous, while the enemy is evil incarnate. We deify our dead and demonized theirs. War asks, “Whose side are you on? You are either with us or against us.” God said to Joshua, “I am on no one’s side.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The prophets, questioning man’s infatuation with might, insisted not only on the immorality but also on the futility of war… [For the prophets] the most astonishing thing in the world is the perennial disregard for the impotence of force. What is the ultimate profit of all the arms, alliances, and victories? Destruction, agony, and death.”
It is this lens of violence that causes the “us versus them,” where Scripture pleads with us to see our common humanity in Christ. However, we don’t see it as a lens of violence and hate. We choose to believe its myths. We see it as honoring the dead, fighting for “freedom.” The dead – the pain of loss that happens in war – cry out to us, or so we wish they would. Their death must mean something. It cannot mean nothing. Therefore the war must be good and meaningful and productive. But that is rarely the case. WWI, for instance, was created purely by the arrogance of empires and European nationalism. To remember this war and most wars, “lest we forget,” lest we forget as Christians, is to remember war’s meaninglessness. It is too often senseless industrialized killing in the name of political pride.
While good Christian men and women served in this war, the fact that they did and that this war flatly contradicts principles of just war that Christians have held to for over a millennia and a half (since the formation of this tradition post-Constantine), means those well-intended individuals frankly served not realizing their faith had something to say to their consciences.
But that is not what McCrae’s poem talks about. The poem does not cry out longing for peace. It is not like the poetry of Isaiah that longs for the abolition of warfare. It beckons new soldiers to take of the quarrel with the nameless foe. It heaps guilt on them if they don’t: the dead will no rest until the foe is beaten. It implicitly says, “Will you dishonor the dead by refusing to take up arms?” It has a subtle tingle of vengeance to it.
It is with little wonder why the modern conscientious objector, the Baptist and Anabaptist pacifists, and the witnesses of the early church were all branded as traitors, ungrateful cowards, and enemies of the state all for refusing to take up arms and buy into their empires’ mythologies, the cults and cycles of violence.
That is what war often is: a cycle of violence. Notice that we are not told what the objective is of this quarrel in the poem, only that there is one and it needs to be perpetuated. And so it seeks to pass on the torch of war rather than preserve the innocence of the next generation. It is decidedly the very opposite of what David attempted to do for Solomon in order to build the temple of God. He stopped the cycle of violence.
Veteran war reporter for the New York Times Chris Hedges writes (and I admit a few of the stories and quotations are from his amazing little book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning) about this fundamental deception war creates, “The potency of the myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters.”
As this poem says, it encourages the next generation to hold it high, hold the “torch,” a symbol of the ideals that fuel war, high. Valorize it. I think this would have been more appropriate during WWII, but not, as a Christian, for WWI, and frankly not for the current wars in the middle east.
Now this is why I say this: What the lies of war do not tell its soldiers is what it does to the human mind. Its mythology of valor blinds the truth of its destruction. War creates its own culture that dehumanizes those who see it. Chris Hedges, a person who has seen more war than most soldiers, described the effects war had on himself and the soldiers. The effects were as dehumanizing as narcotics. Soldiers living constantly under the anxiety of possible death, shocked by war’s brutality, emotionally shut down. They fixate on the rush of violence similar to how an addict fixates on the next fix, in a self-destructive spiral. Some soldiers become addicted to their own mortality. Those who live by the sword end up dying by it.
This constant anxiety of death coupled with the training the average soldier undergoes to be desensitized to war causes a person devoid of the capacity of authentic human relationship. This does not happen in every case. There are lots of well-adjusted soldiers, but we should not deceive ourselves to say this is the norm.
I should point out that Canadian soldiers, according to a friend of mine that serves in the army, undergo constant counseling to minimize this effect. American soldiers receive none. And you will notice that the following figures are American ones.
Since soldiers are trained to be desensitized to violence, but often are plugging into very rigid structure of masculinity, which equates true masculinity with rank, power and the ability to carry out war without remorse. This has created a dangerous problem with entrance of women into the fighting forces as rape as become endemic. Over the last five years, a female soldier in the US Army is twenty times more likely to be raped by her own colleges than she is killed by an insurgent.
And like I said, because war always seeks to prop up our successes, our faults are often suppressed. The US department of defense estimates 20 thousand cases of sexual assault per year, but since accusations against fellow soldiers is dissuaded for the purpose of preserving the war effort, only about one thousand of these get formally reported. Of these, less than a tenth come to trial. The reason I bring this up is that too often the valor of war clouds attempt to see to it that it is just.
But the real damage to soldiers shows itself as the soldiers return home. Many come home with broken bodies – amputees – these ones will never be able to work again. Most soldiers come home with profound PTSD or shell shock. Returning after once they have been so heavily addicted to this rush of war, the sense of courage, purpose, and valor it gives, normal life becomes banal and meaningless. Left unchecked, it causes self-destructive behavior that often means the veteran can no longer function as a husband or as a father or as an employee. The wounds of war leave many of these individuals constantly reliving the anxiety of death to the point that they cannot be around people, let alone loved ones. Wars are factories of the fatherless, even if they do not claim the life of the soldier
While I often see the bumper sticker in the US, “support the troops” the truths of the conditions of war veterans is far from, especially in the US, 15% of all homeless in the US are mentally ill war vets. 1.4 million vets are living below the poverty line because of the emotional and physical toll of war and the inadequacy of war vet financial and medical support. The medical establishment just isn’t keeping up. The money is being spent sending more troops, not caring for the ones who have come back.
I had this illustrated to me when I coordinated a soup kitchen down in Toronto. I met several veterans who were living in low-income housing. I found out they were American vets, and I asked, “Why are you not in the US then?” The person I spoke to, a vet that developed schizophrenia – his family had left him, or he them, due to his mental illness that made him prone to snapping – remarked that the homeless in Canada are better supported than the war heroes of America. I felt sick to my stomach knowing that a good man who risked his life for his country – but more than that: his mind, his family, his dignity – was now living like this.
By the way, the 2012 military budget of the US is now 1.4 trillion dollars, only a pittance of that is spent on its vets.
So do not get me wrong here. I am not against soldiers who seek to make the world a better place. While it cannot be argued otherwise that the early Christians were pacifists based on the teachings of Jesus, there are some conflicts that we must enter in defense of innocent lives. World War II is a good example. All who hated war prayed for military intervention to stop the genocides in the Balkans. Rwanda desperately needed the western powers to intervene. But there was no money to be made there, so they didn’t. However, I will spare you a very long political rant and saying that no Christian can regard the current war policies of the United States to be in line with Christian teachings of just war. I am thankful that Canada has cultivated a more principled military tradition, but I am so wary of the seductions of war; as I tell people, the best way to think about a just war is by having your default settings to pacifism.
So, again, I am especially not against veterans who have to live with the toxic effects war has poisoned them with. But this respect for these men has lead me to one deep conviction: If we truly care about our soldiers, if we refuse to see them as soldiers, but rather as our children, friends, parents, human beings, if we refuse to see them as sacrifices that guarantee our way of life (as if our way of life is worth innocent lives!), if we truly support the troops, if we truly want to remember them – lest we forget – we will do everything possible to stop them from going to war. We will do everything possible to prevent war, to remember its dehumanizing cruelty, to engage in just politics and peacemaking, and denounce the seduction of nationalistic pride and the urgency of violence.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” says Milan Kundera.
As Christians we chose to remember something else other than that torch that the dead in John McCrae’s poem. Or at least, we might say we take up the “torch” in a different way McCrae probably intended it as Canadians and as Christians:
We remember God’s no to war and yes to peacemaking.
We remember that the weakness of the cross is stronger than the might of any army.
We remember the warnings of our prophets, that our might can become our idol, and we remember their vision of hope: a world without war, where weapons our recycled into farming equipment and we “unlearn” the ways of war.
We remember that our enemies are also God’s children, same as us.
We remember the God that died for his enemies.
Lest we forget.
Well written, timely, and powerful, Spencer.
Amen. Just created this page for my book on Christian pacifism (not an ‘expert’ at these things!) https://snowfar4.wixsite.com/christianpacifism
Very interesting. Looks like you are on quite a journey. Thanks for sharing.