November 6, 2011

ON WAR AND DEBT

Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
   at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie on 6 November 2011

“War is much too serious a thing to be left to military men.”  So said the Frenchman, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, except that he said it in French.  He had a chequered career, as a Roman Catholic priest and bishop, before being excommunicated by the Pope, prior to becoming a diplomat and serving as foreign minister in the Royal Governments of France and Russia, but at separate times.  And he proved the wisdom of his words by securing a peace treaty in 1814 that secured the interests of France at the expense of the four victorious nations that had brought Napoleon Bonaparte to defeat. 

“War is the trade of kings.”  So wrote John Dryden, the Poet Laureate appointed by Charles II, in a poem that he called, “Song of Venus”, composed after he had become disillusioned with the way in which kings brought turmoil to their subjects by going to war in their own self-interest and pretending it was for national glory. 

“War’s a game, which, were their subjects wise, Kings would not play at.”  So wrote another poet, William Cowper, in the eighteenth century.  He is arguing that the people let their rulers get away with too much, or, in our terms, the people fail to hold their rulers, president, congress, prime minister or Parliament, responsible for their actions.  Like sheep we all together follow those we have elected to lead, even though it is to our national and personal detriment.

“We’ve a war, an’ a debt.”  So wrote another poet – not a European, not an Englishman, but an American, a supporter of the G.O.P., who in the course of his career, because of his support of Republican Party Presidents, was made Ambassador to Spain and then to the United Kingdom – James Russell Lowell. 

Most of us here have experienced war, whether at first hand or second.  Some of us have experienced it at both hands.  And most of us would, to some extent, agree with the opinions of these four literary men, men who were acknowledged for their patriotism (in the best sense of that term), but men who realized that war is not the answer to the issues that divide nations and peoples, even peoples within nations. 

We have here in these quotations the wisdom and the experience of thinking men over a period of nigh on three and a half centuries, and that should count for something.  And yet young men and, these days, young women are packed up and sent off to war, often inappropriately equipped.  No, it is not as horrendous as in the Great War to end all wars of 1914 to 1918, but for those who watch their loved ones go away the heartache and the anguish are of the same nature and character as those who waited during those earlier wars.

And it has always been the same.  In my schooldays, in French class, we were taught a children’s song.  It was called, “Malbrouk s’en vat à guerre”, “Marlborough has gone off to war”.  It dated back to the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century.  Its last line was, “Il ne pas reviendra.”  It is about the mother of the Duke of Marlborough looking out of her window, awaiting the arrival of her son, but the French children sang, “He’ll never return home.”  They were wrong, but the song captured the heartache and anguish of those left waiting, waiting, waiting.

And it has always been the same.  Listen to some words from a much earlier poem.

Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming? 
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?” 

Poignant words, placed by the ancient Hebrew poet on the lips of the mother of the commanding general of the King of Cana’an, whose army had gone down to inglorious defeat.  Sisera was fleeing the battlefield and took shelter in a nomad woman’s tent, and she killed him while he slept.  You can read the story in Judges 4 and 5. 

Any mother, any wife, any daughter might share the poignancy of the thoughts of the mother of Sisera.  And, I suspect and suggest that many fathers, husbands and sons might also share that same poignancy these days.  And not just these days.   Here are two passages, two laments placed on the lips of David by the writer of II Samuel.  The first is his lament over his intimate friend Jonathan. 

How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you;
your love for me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.
         How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished. 

The second passage describes his reaction after the defeat of the Israelite rebels that had risen against his rule and had given their allegiance to his son, Absalom, his favourite son.  When a messenger came to him from the battlefield to declare that the rebellion was over, David’s first and only question was, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”  Nothing else mattered.  For this father, the fate of his favourite son, even though that son had led the rebellion against him, was his sole concern.  Was Absalom safe?  Then, when a second messenger came, David’s question was exactly the same, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”  It was not, and when the second messenger reported the death of Absalom in as kindly a manner as he could, David’s anguish for his son burst forth.  “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” 

You might say that that is but literature, and Hebrew literature at that, artistically describing the supposed anguish of people three millennia ago and more.  But such anguish, such heartache, such fear, still lives in the minds of those who have seen their loved ones go off to war.  My widowed mother and my sister felt it while I was away for two and a half years in the mid 1950s during the Malayan War against Chinese Communist insurgents.  I wrote every week, but they, especially my mother, still worried.  I was due home on the night of December 1, 1958, and she sat up eagerly awaiting the sound of my key in the front door.  And she waited and she waited, until the wee small hours of the next morning, but I did not come home and I could not come home that night, because the flight from Singapore had been delayed by bad weather and we did not arrive in the U.K till very late.  But when my key went into the lock on the front door the next morning there was the sound of the rush of four feet thundering down the hallway to throw open the door and welcome me with open arms and open hearts and open minds, and with tears of pent-up joy streaming from the eyes of two very relieved women. 

We are all familiar with the scene from our television news broadcasts when troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Those who do not have relatives who go off to war on far too many occasions can never truly feel what those parents, spouses and children feel.  There was a haunting song that Roberta Flack made popular in the late 1970s.  It did not have anything to do with war, but it did have to do with the absence of a loved one.  “Jesse, come home, there’s a hole in the bed!”  Each night, young women, and some not so young, go to bed and there is no one there to cuddle up to, no one there to listen to as he snores!  A widow once told me that the most beautiful sound that she would like to hear again is the sound of her husband snoring.  When he is there she might cuss him out in the morning for keeping her awake with his snoring, but if he is not there, there is always that little niggle, “Will he ever be there again?”

And then there are the children, those too young to really understand.  “Where’s Daddy?”  “When will Daddy come home?”  “Will Daddy ever come home?”  These are the questions many a young wife has to answer as best she can and in such a way as not to betray the relationship she has with her child should it happen, perish the thought, that Daddy never comes home, or that he comes back such a changed person because of the trauma of injuries sustained in a foreign land that he is no longer the Daddy his son or daughter remembers.

Parents, spouses, siblings and children do not ask their loved ones to go off to some foreign land to serve in wars that are really no different than those described by Talleyrand and Dryden, by Cowper and Lowell.  Nationalist jingoism may encourage the feelings of pseudo-pride in the bosoms of those not directly involved.  But then the parade is over and we can get on with our lives.  The tearful reunion fades from our television screen and we can watch the next commercial for a fancy car or a fancy lawyer or the latest calorie-laden burger from some fast-food joint.  The coffins are unloaded at Dover Air Force Base and when we have finished casually glancing at the scene we can switch to watching vastly overpaid athletes or vastly over-rated actors and actresses doing those very safe things that they do and receiving millions of dollars, while a service widow ekes out a living on a measly pension, a grieving mother or sibling is left with just tears and memories.

When will we ever learn!  I know a little boy who wants to walk down the street hand-in-hand with his Daddy.  I know two sisters who want to be able to tease a brother or to share precious thoughtful moments with him.  I know a mother whose eyes light up should a deep, growling voice come on the line at any hour of the day or night.  I know a young wife who tries to go to sleep each night even though there is a hole in the bed where her man should be and whose sleep, should it come, will be undisturbed by his snores.

Celebrities all too easily let the words, “Thank you for your service”, roll off their lips should a uniformed veteran appear on their show.  That’s nice.  That’s polite.  But any country at war owes a far greater debt to the parents, the children, the siblings and especially the spouses, of those who are sent off to war.  James Russell Lowell said, and I repeat, “We’ve a war, an’ a debt”, but that debt is more than a nation can ever repay to those who bear the real cost of war, the loving ones left behind.