The Morality of War

Published: Tue, 01/23/24

Last week I took a walk around St Martin’s cemetery on the west side of Beverley. As long term readers of my posts may remember I find cemeteries interesting places to explore, and peaceful environments to walk and contemplate in. Part of the interest is in reading the inscriptions which catch my attention and wondering what the stories are behind the few brief words carved onto the stones.
St Martin’s Cemetery does not seem to contain any recent graves, although some people have been interred into family plots in the past 20 years or so. One memorial particularly caught my eye. A gentleman had died in 1950, aged 78. His wife had joined him when she died in 1971 aged 98. Nothing special there, until in 2000 their daughter was buried in the same grave having died aged 86. Then, added to the bottom of the grave stone was the name of her husband, an RAF pilot officer who had gone missing in action in June 1941 aged 27. A widow for 59 years and then not even sharing a grave with her prematurely deceased spouse.
Further on in the cemetery I found four or five war graves dating from late 1918 to 1920. There is a similar scattering of the distinctive white stones with regimental insignia in the grave yards surrounding Tickton and our local St Nicholas Churches. The local military stones are very rarely dated before November 1918 and I assume that the reason is that the deceased were wounded in action, repatriated for treatment, and died near enough to their homes to be buried within their own communities. During the Great War itself there was a strictly followed policy of burying the war dead near to the battle field. Indeed, the vast military cemeteries in Northern France are a sobering sight to behold.
The dead were not repatriated for burial in their home communities for several reasons. Firstly, the sheer number of fatalities would have created a massive logistical problem in simply transporting the coffins to burial sites all over the UK. Secondly, having the British public witness the constant arrival of coffins containing their sons, husbands, brothers, and friends, being expected to attend frequent funerals, and watching the local cemeteries fill up with war graves would have been a severe strain on national morale. Thirdly, relatives could not be relied upon to refrain from opening the coffins for one last good bye to their loved ones. To have observed the horrific ways that their young men had actually died would have ended any support for the war effort.
To have received the dreaded telegram must have been a devastating blow to a family and reason for deep grief. On the other hand the absence of a body, a funeral, or a grave kept the grief as a relatively private affair. After the war ended memorials and annual remembrance events created a strange cult of the glorious dead. The familiar verse from Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ is recited at every Remembrance event:

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.”

Has this verse has become an incantation which transports the fallen servicemen into a parallel dimension where they continue their glorious struggle of good against evil for all eternity? Although these young men never returned from war, the absence of a body, the lack of a funeral or grave, the cult of ‘remembrance’, including the names inscribed on standing stones, blunts the reality of precious lives cut short.
Sometimes I take my 4 year old daughter for a walk in a grave yard with me and she finds them interesting spaces to explore. I have tried to teach her to recognise a war grave when we come across one just as I show her war memorials and try and explain what the monument means. Neither the plain white grave slabs or the public standing stones mean anything to her, and why should they? It is her father who is of a generation whose whole cultural and social reality was shaped by the experience of the wars of the earlier part of the 20th century. We knew of the older generation’s experience of war, either in service or on the home front. We could see the lingering effect on the fabric of the nation. When I was a child parents could still pull a ration card from the back of a drawer, bomb sites were still awaiting redevelopment, and there was a concrete pill box, still patiently awaiting the Nazi invasion, at the end of our street.
Parents and grand parents talked of the ghosts who could not be part of family events because they were eternally fighting evil and never ‘growing old or becoming weary’. We were fascinated by stories of the Battle of Britain and the D Day landings and a military career, whether as a regular, or in the TA, seemed like a way of honoring the true religion of 20th century Britain. I mean the religion whose shrines are the standing stones with their lists of names.
A lifetime later and reflecting on my child hood some realities become apparent. War means death. Sometimes the demise of the young, brave, and strong. The very young men who should be devoting their lives to building a better world. Nothing new here, the ancient Scandinavians put up standing stones honouring their dead and told stories of those who fall in battle being specially chosen by Odin, taken to Valhalla, and awaiting Ragnarok, the ultimate battle between good and evil. Too often the death of non-combatants, including children and their mothers.
To risk, or even sacrifice, one’s own life to defend the innocent may be the most noble thing a human being can do. To pursue war for financial, political, or any other selfish gain is work of degenerate people. The creation of a cult of the ‘glorious dead’ in order to cope with the trauma of the great war in understandable, maybe it was even necessary at the time. At the present time, as we watch destructive conflicts all around the world being justified by a cult of death, it is time to move on emotionally, psychologically, and especially, spiritually.
PS In Stav teaching we have the Ethical bind rune which teaches about the use of force. However, the emphasis is on protection and not aggression. I will be exploring the significance of the Ethical bind rune and how we can apply the five principle of Stav to fulfil the imperatives it teaches at the courses coming up this spring: 9th March, Salisbury and 6th of April, East Yorkshire,

Graham Butcher
21 Beaver Road
Beverley East Yorkshire HU17 0QN

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