The Poet Shirley Murray died earlier this year. HONOUR THE DEAD, A Hymn for Anzac Day, is one of her finest poems. Canon Dr. Paul Oestreicher reflects on her words which you can hear here;
Honour the dead, our country’s fighting brave,
honour our children left in foreign grave,
where poppies blow and sorrow seeds her flowers,
honour the crosses marked forever ours.
They were our sons, our brothers, our lovers, our husbands. We loved them. How could we not? One Empire, ours, was at war with other empires. Their sons, brothers, lovers, husbands, like ours, were under orders like ours to go and kill the enemy, hoping to survive. All this, to maintain the structures of power. Today the historians tell us, it was a pointless, futile war. They said it was a war to end all wars – it was not. It fuelled the next, and once again young men were sent to kill and if need be to be killed.
Today the grandchildren of those who fought on both sides can hold hands and mourn together on that Turkish beach, though this year only virtually because the same disease threatens them all. There is only one humanity.
Weep for the places ravaged with our blood,
weep for the young bones buried in the mud,
weep for the powers of violence and greed,
weep for the deals done in the name of need.
In every war, the real enemy is not the squaddie on the other side who breathes and thinks and fears like you, but war itself. War makes a mockery of humanity. War drenches the good earth with good blood. There is no such thing as Turkish blood, no Maori or Pakeha blood, no German or Russian blood. No Jewish or Muslim blood. Only human blood. Are you wounded? Ask not whose blood will save your life. You need a surgeon? Ask not the colour of her skin. If you die, they’ll say your cause was holy. And if you kill an enemy, his people will believe his cause was holy. The warmakers will deck the war graves with crosses. Don’t believe their lies. Truth is war’s first victim. But have compassion for the liars, for ‘they know not what they are doing’. Weep for the dead. Weep for the living. Work to end killing.
Honour the brave whose conscience was their call,
answered no bugle, went against the wall,
suffered in prisons of contempt and shame,
branded as cowards, in our country’s name.
Those who defied public opinion and said no to the First World War because they would not kill, were few in New Zealand. Their names are known. They put humanity before nation. They were treated as cowardly traitors. Let one name stand for them all: Archibald Baxter. His account of the cruelty he was made to suffer in his book We will not Cease tells the bitter story well. It makes painful reading. Their number in the Second World War was greater. Some of them were exempted on religious grounds and the rest treated like prisoners of war. At least people now knew what conscientious objection was.
Archibald and his fellow sufferers had paid a high price for the human right to say no. There are still many countries, where that right does not exist. In Hitler’s Germany, during WW2, the devout farmer Franz Jägerstätter’ refused to kill: ‘Jesus’ he said, ‘will not let me’. His Bishop tried to change his mind: ‘You will be executed. Your children will have no father.’ ‘Are you saying, then, that I should kill the fathers of Russian children?’ He was beheaded. Half a century later the Pope beatified him. Our churches are slow to learn.
Weep for the waste of all that might have been
Weep for the cost that war has made obscene,
Weep for the homes that ache with human pain,’
Weep that we ever sanction war again.
The nations have not ceased to sanction war. Often enough on Anzac Day it is made to seem holy. It never has been, though good men have fought. Soldiers are not the problem, our mindset is. Yet long before Jesus – who taught his followers to love their enemies – the prophet Micah looked forward to the day when ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’. Look, just for a moment, at what we, all of us humans, spend on preparing for war:
The money needed to provide adequate food, water, education, health and housing for everyone in the world is about $30 billion a year. A huge sum of money. It is about as much as the world spends on armaments every week.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Honour the dream for which our nation bled,
held now in trust to justify the dead,
honour their vision on this solemn day:
peace known in freedom, peace the only way.
Honour the dead, is where this song began, began with our country’s fighting brave. Gallipoli was over a hundred years ago, but why should our honouring, if honour we must, not go further back than this British war on a foreign beach? Why not grieve for the brave of the Maori/Pakeha wars, when the original people fought for their land, this land? Do we want to forget those wars in which our land bled? Do we want to hide, that their aftermath still bleeds? But it is the dead of all the wars of all of history that make Jesus cry. To quote him: ‘They do not know what truly makes for peace’.
I was reminded of Jesus’ words in 1976 on an Anzac Day at a First World War Cemetery – you will now be surprised – just outside Berlin. with the graves of those Commonwealth Soldiers who had died in German Prisoner of War camps. My job had taken me to Communist East Berlin where the Australian Ambassador asked me, as a Kiwi, to conduct the traditional Anzac Day ceremony. In New Zealand, given my views about war, I would never have been asked. In NZ, I would have been in the crowd, wearing a white poppy.
On that Anzac Day 1976, these Commonwealth graves were surrounded by a Soviet Russian Tank Brigade. The mourners were diplomats: from India, Pakistan, Australia and Sri Lanka. It seemed surreal. In my heart, I prayed for the millions of Russians and Germans who had died in both World Wars. But publicly I followed the traditional ANZAC military protocol, bugle and all. I looked up and saw, as usual, a sword over the cross on the Cenotaph – and wept. I can only leave the last word to Jesus: ‘Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.’
Canon Dr. Paul Oestreicher is an APF Counsellor. A lifelong pacifist, he was co-founder of APF New Zealand in 1954. He is a CND vice-president, as well as a former Chair of Amnesty International UK. He has campaigned for peace his whole life. Paul splits his time between the UK and New Zealand, where he is at the moment.
Disclaimer: This blog is intended to provide a space for people associated with APF to express their own personal views and opinions in order to promote discussion of issues relating to peacemaking and pacifism It is not necessarily a place where the official views of APF are expressed.