The Wounded among us

Remembrance Sunday,    November 9, 2014

It’s an all too familiar story.  Andrew, shortly before retirement from the military. He and Susan have bought a small ranch in BC, a lifetime dream. He is a model soldier, a man of huge integrity, hard-working, responsible, disciplined. But something got broken during his last tour in Afghanistan. Now he is struggling with depression, with anger, with anxiety. Meanwhile Susan is struggling to manage the ranch, to hold down a job, to raise the kids.

I suspect many of you know someone like Andrew. He is a composite portrait of people I know, and people I have heard about in the news. Names and faces that have taught us what we have learned over the years about the cost of our country’s wars. A cost borne by our men and women in uniform. A cost that they bear not only on the battlefield, but long afterwards.

Of course there’s nothing new here.  I remember hearing about my father’s Uncle Jim. Like most of his generation, in my family, he had fought in the First World War. He returned to Ontario, settled in a small town, and lived 40 years there alone. I remember asking my father once what Uncle Jim did.  His response: “he fought a war.”   I didn’t understand it then.  And we didn’t have words like PTSD then. Those who broke down completely, we called them shell-shocked. For those who simply soldiered on with their pain: they fought a war. But what I want to ask: who wears a poppy for them?

These are the walking wounded. And then there are those missing in action. The veterans living on the streets, unable to cope with civilian life. I haven’t seen Canadian statistics on them – in the US it would seem their numbers are massive.  Who wears a poppy for them?

And then there are the fallen, those who do not survive the pain of living with the memories. In the 12 years of the Afghan war, we lost 138 Canadian personnel killed in action. According to a DND report this September, 160 Afghan veterans have taken their own lives. That is a face of modern warfare for Western nations like ours, a pattern that seems to be repeated in every conflict since Vietnam.  More of our soldiers die by their own hand than at the hand of the enemy. Who wears a poppy for them?

How do we begin to deal with that state of affairs? We gather each year at this time at cenotaphs and Legion halls to remember the fallen, to express our love and our gratitude, and our sorrow at the horrible waste of warfare. I think we do it so faithfully because it helps us feel connected with the dead:

    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.

But can it connect us with these others?  With the broken, the anxious; those who wake up in the night sweating and weeping; those who can’t go into a crowded place without anxiety and the adrenaline pumping; those who are terrified by their own short fuse; those who find themselves looking on the families they love as though from afar, from behind glass, emotions strangely muffled. How do we honour them, how do we support them, how do we help them heal?

Certainly better veteran care is crucial. We as a nation have failed them. We have not kept faith with them. Better services, more resources, a more generous spirit in responding to their needs is called for.

But this is not just a political problem.  It is a spiritual one, too.  It is a truth as old as Cain: that, however dominant our violent tendencies may be, we have not been created for violence.  So that whenever we are in a situation where we have to shed blood, or witness blood being shed, it takes its toll on our own better nature.

For the truly violent, perhaps this is not a problem. They have suppressed their better nature completely.  But for us, our neighbours, our friends, our brothers and sisters, our military personnel, people who want to and deserve to live full and complex emotional lives with full and complex relationships, it can be a challenge.  How do we support them?

What resources does our culture have? Certainly there cant be much help in Hollywood movies, which still glorify violence, ever more violence, as the path of redemption.  Not much help there.  And patriotism, I would suggest, can only go so far.  It may have been sufficient grounds to go to war in 1914.  Surely, 100 years later, we have learned that it is not a reliable cause in itself.

It would be tempting just to say that war is evil, and the solution is simply to avoid it at all costs.  And maybe there is something to that.  Our last few ventures as Western nations in that direction have not turned out so well.  Certainly I believe we need to listen much more closely and carefully to the long Christian tradition of pacifism, and to Jesus’s own teaching and example.

And yet I cannot regret that this country chose to go to war in 1939, though I regret its horrific cost.  Sometimes evil needs to be resisted, as a policeman may need to shoot a gunman on a rampage. I am grateful for the thousands who put their lives on the line back then, in my parent’s generation.  And I am grateful for those today who are willing to serve.  What do we do with the horrors of ISIS?  If we can only believe that we could do any good in that situation, it would be hard to justify just standing by while the innocent are being slaughtered.

There are no easy answers. So we wear a poppy, to remember, to grieve, to pray.

I wear a poppy, as I know you do, to honour the dead: the heroic dead, who made a conscious decision to risk and sacrifice their own lives for the sake of others; the foolish dead, who wandered into hell without really knowing what they had signed up for; the innocent dead, whom nobody asked, who were there, and are there today, wherever the bombs fall.

I wear a poppy, as I hope you do, to support the wounded among us, those scarred by what they have seen. I wear the poppy for them, not knowing if it will do any good, because I don’t know how else to express my gratitude and sorrow and hopes.

I wear a poppy, as I know you do, to remind myself anew, each year, to hate war and violence with every fibre of my being, to look the horrendous cost squarely in the face, to commit myself to finding other solutions, to pray that in God’s mercy the long nightmare of warfare might someday end.

“O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”