Rev Dr Mark Davidson's reflections on Remembrance Sunday
Rev Dr Mark Davidson, author of War Cries, is on our blog today for Remembrance Sunday.
This year we mark the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice that brought the Great War to an end. At the time, many Christians hoped that it truly would be ‘the war to end all wars.’ The idea of further bloodshed on such a scale was unimaginable. There was a hope that the world’s great nations would learn from the carnage and amend their actions accordingly. But these idealistic views were short-lived. No sooner had the Treaty of Versailles been signed than commentators – including the poet, priest and practical theologian Studdert Kennedy – were already speculating about future conflicts.
Since 1918 the world has continued to engage in conflict of one sort or another, reminding us that Thucydides was right in his ancient appraisal, that wars would continue as long as fear, greed and pride remained. Within this cycle of violence, the Church has continued to speak into the situation, through international acts of aid, through chaplaincy, through protest, through its preaching and through prayer. It is this last aspect of ecclesiastical action that particularly interests me and which I wanted to celebrate in War Cries.
The idea of writing War Cries came while I was on retreat at the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre in Amport. Each year, chaplains are entitled to a four-night retreat to recharge our spiritual batteries. Although this retreat is a long-standing tradition in military chaplaincy, its value is not always immediately apparent our colleagues outside of the church. At the time, I was chaplain to the mighty 45 Commando, a tremendous unit with a long-standing reputation for professionalism and courage. I remember one night in the officers’ mess, standing toe to toe with the Second in Command for an hour, debating the value of retreat and demanding that he sign-off on my travel and retreat expenses, on the basis that spiritual exercise was as important to maintaining my spiritual health, as physical exercise was to him. Eventually, he relented, and as a result War Cries came into existence. He has since become a very good friend.
The rationale behind War Cries reflected my experiences at 45. My first few months in RM Condor, Arbroath had confirmed a suspicion I’d had for several years, namely that there was a growing cultural, epistemological, and conceptual gulf between the military, and the society in which they were situated. This was most obvious to me in the part of society with which I had most experience: the parish church.
From what I could remember, it had been very different during the Cold War. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s with two grandfathers who had fought in the War, and parents who had been born during the war years. As a Son of the Manse, I remember my father’s church reflecting a similar demography. As a boy, I was nurtured on a balanced diet of holy scripture and the Warlord, Victor and Commando magazines. As a result, I grew up with a healthy faith in Christ, and an understanding that the world could be a brutal and bloody place. This was a place in which the military played a necessary part.
Childhood encounters with 45 Commando added flesh to this vision. Growing up in the neighbouring town of Carnoustie, I remembered the Commando as being very much at the heart of Angus life. 45 were ‘our’ regiment. Whenever the winter snows were particularly bad, they would take to their skis to bring supplies to stranded motorists. As scouts, we used their dry ski slope and the gliders stationed on their airfield. Marines would visit our schools to give talks, and they could always by relief upon to field a decent rugby, football or cricket team if any of our local sides were feeling brave. When the Commando sailed for the South Atlantic in 1982, I remember the sense of pride that we felt in the county, as ‘our’ Commando went to war.
My childhood experiences were symptomatic of an era in which society – including the church – were much more aware of the military idiom. There was no sense in which the military were deified or idealised, but their existence was acknowledged, their value was not questioned, they were not presented as a tax burden, and there was no need for any sort of Military Covenant to safeguard their treatment. The military received fair treatment because they were deemed to have earned it through their daily acts of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual sacrifice.
But this had changed by the time I returned to Angus in 2013. For over ten years, 45 Commando has been engaged in war-fighting. Throughout these years, they had been either deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan… or they were preparing to deploy… or they were recovering from a deployment. As a result, their ties with the community had been weakened. This was obvious on both sides: To the majority the Commandos, Arbroath had become a place where they trained for war, rather than a home. To many of the townspeople, they were a different breed; a warrior caste who fought strange wars in stranger countries, for unclear political motives, and with ever-changing strategic goals.
War Cries was offered as a tool to help the Christian element of society to reengage with the military idiom. I hoped that the prayers would cut through much of the politically-fuelled prejudice and honest ignorance that sometimes exists in our churches, and that it would help to remind the typical Christian that the military is filled with normal men and women, who rely on their faith to strengthen them to do an extraordinary – and at times harrowing – task. The military is filled with good men and good women, and military service takes its toll on them. Many veterans return to our communities from war and from the sea, with PTSD, moral wounds, broken relationships and dependency issues.
War Cries clearly struck a chord, and I have been delighted by the feedback that I’ve received since SPCK graciously agreed to publish 3 years ago. At one level, I hope that churches will continue to draw upon it as a resource for memorial services and acts of Remembrance. However, my greater hope is that it will help to catalyse a refreshed relationship with the members of the military living in our midst, particularly those who are suffering and who have few other sources of support.