Sunday, November 11, 2007

Armistice and Remembrance

a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Armistice Day, Sunday November 11th, 2007

In 1933, the members of the Oxford Union, a student debating society affiliated with England's Oxford University, voted the following proposition: "Resolved, that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King or Country." In his subsequent history of the Second World War, Winston Churchill pointed to this "shameful" resolution as an example of the "lethargy and blindness" which caused the British nation "to cower from the menace of foreign peril, frothing pious platitudes while foemen forged their arms." He added: "It was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations."

One of the supposed lessons of the Second World War, which we have heard repeated so often in our own time to justify American military operations in foreign lands, is that the appeasement of tyrants by reasonable men and women only fuels the fires of their evil aspirations; that peace is best maintained through strength, and by constant vigilance in the defense of freedom. But the students of the Oxford Union in 1933, who as children had helplessly witnessed from afar as their fathers, their uncles, and their elder brothers perished senselessly in the mechanical slaughter of the trenches along the Western Front, had drawn from that experience very different lessons of war and peace. Their resolution reflected not their decadence, nor their degeneracy, and certainly not their cowardice (as they would so shortly have the chance to demonstrate), but rather their profound commitment that never again should the civilized world allow itself to become engulfed by warfare.

Today is Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of the First World War. And I want to use this opportunity to talk a little about issues of war and peace in a larger context, because it seems to me that much of the original spirit of this holiday has been lost in recent times, and especially in recent days. We now celebrate "Veterans Day,” on which we honor the sacrifices of those who served in wartime; we talk about the heroes of the “Greatest Generation,” who defended freedom and democracy from the threat of Fascist totalitarianism a half-century ago, and how their legacy has now descended on to us. We talk passionately of the need to “support our troops,” regardless of how we may feel personally about the policies of our government which have put them in harm’s way. But we tend to ignore the original sense of the word "Armistice" -- literally, a setting aside of arms. And I personally would like to see a little more of that sentiment observed on this holiday.

The desire for genuine peace, it seems to me, is a universal concern among religious people of good faith, and has been for as long as human history has been recorded. "Blessed are the Peacemakers,” it tells us in Scripture, “for they shall be called God's Children." Peacemaking is more than just the elimination of the threat of war. It is also an active, dynamic, creative way of living which seeks to cultivate the seeds of true harmony and justice even as it cuts away at the roots of conflict and discord, and thus it invariably operates at two distinct levels. The first level might be thought of as one of policy -- the pragmatic things which governments or other organizations do or fail to do to in order to avoid the possibility of war. The second level is one of individual contribution and commitment -- a devotion to peace based on values and principles which are fundamentally religious in nature.

These two levels of peacemaking -- policy and personal commitment -- are quite distinct, although they are also profoundly interdependent; and both of course are subject to the "judgment of history," to which our politicians so frequently appeal. Yet the lessons both of history and of religion are by no means always clear or unambiguous. If, indeed, Churchill was correct in attributing at least some of the blame for the Second World War to the strident pacifism typified by the students of the Oxford Union, it is equally important to remember that it was the similar sentiments expressed by students and others in the 1960's which eventually brought an end to our nation's military involvement in Southeast Asia, just as it was a naive application of the opposite "lesson" which got us involved in that conflict in the first place. Familiarity with policy without the corresponding personal investment simply reduces us to the status of "armchair strategists" -- war and peace become somebody else's problem, while we stand around the sidelines and second-guess. And likewise commitment and action without a solid understanding of the lessons of history leaves open the very real possibility of becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution -- resulting in a situation where well-intentioned acts merely serve to create the opposite effect from what was intended.

The tragic irony of our current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is rooted in precisely this kind of “disconnect” between the pragmatic and the idealistic. I am enough of a historian to know that there are times when the use of military force is an appropriate option. There are times, in fact, when it is the only option. But the methods we use to pursue our goals must never be allowed to undermine the very values we aspire to defend. How can be claim to be champions of freedom and democracy when we so freely disregard the same democratic liberties that so many American veterans have fought and died to protect? When emotions run high, as they did in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, it is easy to motivate people to follow a course of action which promises to strike decisively at the heart of the problem, and then to justify those actions with the claim that desperate times call for desperate measures. But the real lesson of history is that actions, ultimately, speak louder than words; that rhetoric can only conceal reality for a limited time; and that when our deeds contradict our cherished values and principles, our values and principles become the ultimate losers, and we ourselves become our own worst enemies.

By the 11th of November, 1914, a mere three months after the outbreak of hostilities, the Great Powers of Europe found themselves locked into a stalemated war of attrition which none of them had wanted, but which national pride and rigid mobilization schedules had drawn them to like moths to a candle. After the initial German offensive was blunted by French reinforcements literally rushed to the front in Parisian taxicabs, and the bloody battles in Flanders during the "race to the sea," in which four-fifths of the original British Expeditionary Force were killed, the conflict became deadlocked in a seemingly endless routine of bombardments, raids, and "standing to," in which 5000 men might perish on a "quiet" day, and casualties soared into the hundreds of thousands during "major" offensives, which often resulted in only a few hundred yards of territory lost or gained and the "exchange [of] one wet-bottomed trench for another."

Writing in her book The Guns of August, historian Barbara Tuchman observes that: "...with the advent of winter came the slow deadly sinking into the stalemate of trench warfare. Running from Switzerland to the Channel like a gangrenous wound across French and Belgian territory, the trenches determined the war of position and attrition, the brutal, mud-filled, murderous insanity known as the Western Front." Only after both sides had succeeded in slaughtering an entire generation of young men, while at the same time bankrupting their economies and subjecting their civilian populations to various degrees of hardship and privation, did the influx of fresh troops and war materiel from across the ocean help break the stalemate and cause the German government to sue for peace.

Twenty-five years later, French and German armies once again faced each other along the Western Front, from behind the fortifications of the Maginot and Siegfried lines, in an episode which became known as the Phoney War or "Sitzkrieg." This time the French soldiers were under orders not to fire at Germans they observed moving on the other side of the no-man's land -- because, after all, it would only encourage them to fire back.

Subsequent historical analysis suggests that had the Allies acted decisively within the first few weeks or months of the war, Hitler might easily have been defeated in short order -- indeed, the officers of the German General staff, who also recalled the terrible lessons of 1914, were ready to dispose of their Fuhrer themselves and sue for peace at the first opportunity. But instead the Allies refused to act, and when the Blitzkrieg finally fell in the west, in the spring of the following year, the fortifications of the Maginot line were rapidly bypassed by the German Panzers, France fell in a matter of weeks, and only the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in small, civilian-owned boats from Dunkirk preserved the possibility of any resistance in the west.

Perhaps no one could have foreseen the coming of a Hitler in 1918, when at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns stopped firing along the Western front. Confined to a military hospital recovering from a poison gas attack, this insignificant Austrian corporal felt betrayed and disgraced by his country's surrender to the Allies; while the punitive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles created more than enough resentment among the vanquished to enable his later rise to power on a platform of cultural pride, ethnic hatred, and restored national honor.

Had the victors of the Great War agreed to a just and honorable peace, Hitler might simply have remained a failed artist and frustrated member of the lunatic fringe. It's difficult to say about these things. But the inevitable temptation to punish our enemies rather than behaving generously in victory is rarely a pattern conducive to real peace. Peacemakers everywhere might well take to heart the sentiments of Abraham Lincoln, who served as Commander in Chief during America’s bloodiest and most bitter war, that one best destroys one's enemies by making them one's friends.

That opportunity existed on Armistice Day in 1918, and in many ways it should remain a valid agenda for all peacemakers today. Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points," first articulated shortly after America's entry into the Great War, provide an insightful context for the understanding of such a peace which has not lost its currency even after four generations. I know 14 points may seem like a lot -- in fact, a French diplomat at the time, Georges Clemenceau, pointed out that "The Good Lord had only ten!" -- but the essence of Wilson's vision can be summarized without the need for delving in to his specific proposals for individual nation-states.

Wilson called for an end to secret treaties and military alliances, and their replacement by "Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at" and diplomacy which "shall proceed frankly and always in the public view." He insisted on "Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas," and "the removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace." He called for a general reduction of national armaments "to the lowest points consistent with domestic safety," and for the "free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all [territorial] claims," with "strict observance of the principle that in determining questions of sovereignty, the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined."

Above all, Wilson called for the formation of "a general association of nations...under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to the great and small alike." This basic framework of international law, embodying so much of that simple schoolhouse ethic of fair play on a level field, is the legacy which the college professor and Nobel Laureate who served as our 28th President has left to posterity; and on many levels it might still serve well as a foundation for our nation's current foreign policy.

Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” articulated many of these same sentiments in a much more simple and straightforward manner. To the traditional American liberties of Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Belief, FDR added “Freedom from Want” and “Freedom from Fear” – two very tangible benefits of basic personal and economic security which flow from a long and lasting Peace, and perhaps define in pragmatic and palpable terms, the “blessings of Liberty” we hope to secure for ourselves and our posterity. And yet it seems to me that something is horribly wrong when we believe that our own liberty can only be secured through the violent domination of others, and at the expense of their safety and prosperity.

When it comes to the more personal, spiritual aspects of Armistice Day, the lessons are not so easy to summarize. The experience of war on almost any level frequently results in two almost entirely contradictory realizations. The first is a healthy level of cynical skepticism concerning anything which has not been adequately tested by fire; and the second an equally irrational optimistic hope that the sacrifices made by one’s self and one's comrades have not been in vain, and that beyond the unspeakable horror of the battlefield lies an equally unspeakable promise of a better way, which somehow can and will redeem the lives of those who have suffered and died on our behalf, and bring meaning to an activity which is intrinsically without meaning.

Without this optimistic belief in the redemptive power, not so much of violence, but of personal sacrifice, perhaps there would never be another war. Yet without it there could certainly be no hope of an enduring peace either -- for without a willingness to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, in time the innocent would once more fall victim to the ambitious, and fear and avarice again displace the values of tolerance and compassion at the heart of our society.

And so we must continue to speak out in defense of those whose voices have been silenced, and who are no longer capable of defending themselves, in the naive expectation that somehow, someday, it will all make a difference. This skeptical hope, this cynical optimism born of suffering and sacrifice, is perhaps the most critical legacy of Armistice Day. It is a lesson we simply cannot afford to forget if we truly wish to create a safer, more prosperous, more peaceful world....

“In Flanders Fields the poppys 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. 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. 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....”

In his ground-breaking work of literary and social criticism The Great War and Modern Memory, former Rutgers University professor and World War Two veteran Paul Fussell draws a sharp distinction between the somber tone of the first nine lines of John McCrae’s famous poem, and the “recruiting poster rhetoric” and "propaganda argument...against a negotiated peace....” articulated in the final six. “Words like stupid and vicious would not seem to go too far,” Fussell rages. “It is grievously out of contact with the symbolism of the first part, which the final image of poppies as sleep-inducers fatally recalls.”

And yet sometimes keeping faith with the dead is far more complicated than simply renewing old quarrels, and taking up the torch from failing hands and carrying it once more into the breach. Sometimes holding high the torch demands an entirely different set of actions and attitudes altogether....

{the following bracketed passage was dropped from the sermon preached on Sunday morning, in the interest of time}

[In a on-line essay written just this past week, military historian Lt. Col. William Astore (Ret.) describes a scenario in which “...the world's finest military launches a highly coordinated shock-and-awe attack that shows enormous initial progress. There's talk of the victorious troops being home for Christmas. But the war unexpectedly drags on. As fighting persists into a third, and then a fourth year, voices are heard calling for negotiations, even ‘peace without victory.’ Dismissing such peaceniks and critics as defeatists, a conservative and expansionist regime -- led by a figurehead who often resorts to simplistic slogans and his Machiavellian sidekick who is considered the brains behind the throne -- calls for one last surge to victory. Unbeknownst to the people on the home front, however, this duo has already prepared a seductive and self-exculpatory myth in case the surge fails....”

“The United States in 2007?” Astore asks. “No, Wilhelmine Germany in 1917 and 1918, as its military dictators, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his loyal second, General Erich Ludendorff, pushed Germany toward defeat and revolution in a relentless pursuit of victory in World War I. Having failed with their surge strategy on the Western Front in 1918, they nevertheless succeeded in deploying a stab-in-the-back myth, or Dolchsto├člegende, that shifted blame for defeat from themselves and Rightist politicians to Social Democrats and others allegedly responsible for losing the war by their failure to support the troops at home.....The German Army knew it was militarily defeated in 1918. But this was an inconvenient truth for Hindenburg and the Right, so they crafted a new ‘truth:’ that the troops were ‘unvanquished in the field.’ So powerful did these words become that they would be engraved in stone on many a German war memorial....”

“Given the right post-war conditions,” Astore concludes, “the myth of the stab-in-the-back can facilitate the rise of reactionary regimes and score-settling via long knives -- just ask Germans under Hitler in 1934. It also serves to exonerate a military of its blunders and blind spots, empowering it and its commanders to launch redemptive, expansionist adventures that turn disastrous precisely because previous lessons of defeat were never faced, let alone absorbed or embraced. Thus, the German military's collapse in World War I and the Dolchsto├č myth that followed enabled the even greater disaster of World War II....”]

I profoundly doubt that the nine million French, German, British, Russian, Austrian, Belgian, Italian, Turkish, and American soldiers (I could go on)...soldiers who were slaughtered in the carnage of that Great “War to End All Wars,” rested much more peacefully knowing that within a generation, another estimated seventy million soldiers and civilians would be joining them in that euphemistic “sleep” from which no one ever wakes. The danger of appeasing foreign tyrants is only half the lesson; for the other half, we must look to the Students of the Oxford Union, who understood in ways which we can never fully understand, the dangers of forgetting the unavoidable horror of war itself, and of blind obedience to authority which is out of touch with the human consequences of its commands....

READING: The "Four Freedoms"
Franklin D. Roosevelt's Address to Congress January 6, 1941

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want -- which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear -- which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor-- anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

To that new order we oppose the greater conception -- the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.

Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change -- in a perpetual peaceful revolution -- a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions -- without the concentration camp or the quicklime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.

To that high concept there can be no end save victory.