Sacrifice and Survival (Armistice Day 2018)

[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money intothe treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put intwo small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples andsaid to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who arecontributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of theirabundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had tolive on.” (Mark 12:41-44)

[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money intothe treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put intwo small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples andsaid to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who arecontributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of theirabundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had tolive on.” (Mark 12:41-44)

You probably thought that you were going to hear a sermon focused on Armistice Day today – the time being rather close to the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month – rather than a sermon on the widow’s mite. In fact, the majority of this sermon is going to be focused on Armistice Day, rather than the widow, so I probably should have begun with a disclaimer rather than with the reading.

Please understand that the views about to be expressed are mine and mine alone. They are not necessarily the views of other members of this church, let alone do they represent the views of the bishop (as far as I know). I can’t even guarantee that my expressed opinions reflect the views of God, though I’m pretty sure they do! 😉

My disclaimer is, of course, with reference to my views on Armistice Day – on war, Queen and country – rather than my views on the widow in today’s Gospel reading, though she too may have been a subject of controversy in her day. Here is a woman who gave of herself completely, and you have to admire her for that (as Jesus does). At the same time though, she gave it all up for the Temple, and a great many people – Jesus and His disciples included – would surely have questioned the value of giving anything to that corrupt and oppressive institution.

I suspect that you have already intuited the sort of connections I make between this woman’s actions and the issues we reflect on today on Armistice Day. Even so, let’s stick with the woman for a little longer.

I’ve known people – elderly women in particular – who have chosen to bequeath everything they have to the Sydney Anglican Diocese upon their deaths, and you’ve got to admire this sort of selfless generosity. At the same time though … actually, let’s focus on Armistice Day, as my views on that may be less controversial!

On Armistice Day, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we remember the end of World War I – the greatwar, the war to end all wars’.

We refer to it as the greatwar though, of course, it was not great for anyone who live through it. The horrendous death toll is perhaps the clearest indication of that:

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was about 40 million. Estimates range from 15 to 19 million dead and about 23 million wounded. You know that you’re dealing with unimaginable carnage when you round off to the nearest million. Nine to eleven million of the dead were military personnel. The civilian death toll was about 8 million, including about 6 million due to war-related famine and disease.

It is impossible to imagine carnage on this sort of scale. What can be more readily envisaged are individual names, like those names that appear on the honour boards at the back of our church building, and individual stories, such as that of the Rev. Digges La Touche, formerly of this parish, who died at Gallipoli and is remembered still in the stained-glass window built into the side of our building. Still his memory is a source of light for us all!

The stories of heroism are indeed as inspiring as they numerous and it’s entirely appropriate, I believe, that we celebrate and revere their sacrifice, just as Jesus celebrated and revered the sacrifice of the widow. At the same time though, just as Jesus called into question the institution for which the widow sacrificed herself, we too must question the governmental and political systems that sent so many men, women and children – but young men in particular – to their deaths.

We called it the war to end all wars, and so it should have been – surely – and yet, twenty years later the world headed back into an even more deadly conflict! Total casualties for World War II were around 60 million – half as many again as World War I (around 3% of the world’s population at the time), and for those of us who think of that War as being primarily a European war, be assured that around two-thirds of those who died were citizens of either the Soviet Union (26.6 million) or China (20 million).

The casualties-from-war figures since World War II are a little more encouraging, at least on the surface. Politicians such as Bill Clinton have been keen to point out that the raw death-rate from wars since World War II has been in constant decline. Statistics though can be misleading. I’ve read some articles that estimate that as many have died due to war since World War II as in World War II, and according to the maths done by journalist James Lucas, the US alone has killed more than 20 million people in 37 nations since the end of that conflict.

We who are alive today are experiencing what I assume to be the tail-end of the wars of the United States. Certainly, the remarkable thing about the US-led wars since the infamous 9/11 incident of 2001 – the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Venezuela and the Ukraine – is that the US hasn’t won any of them. Indeed, it’s hard for most of us to see any winners coming out of any of those wars, with the very notable exception of the arms manufacturers who are doing really well indeed.

And so we must ask, did we learn anything from the Great War? Surely all those good men, and all the men, women and children who suffered and died in that Great War did not die in vain? Surely humanity learnt something from that conflict?

My answer to that question is that I’m not sure. What I am reasonably clear about though is that two things changed from that point on in military history, and even if humanity didn’t gain a lot from that terrible conflict, things did degenerate from the end of the first World War onwards due to two particularly terrible developments.

The first of those developments was a change in strategy – namely, that after World War I military strategy started to explicitly include the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. The second very significant development, of course, was the development of weapons of mass destruction.

Let me pause here and say that my understanding of military and political history since World War II has been particularly influenced by two books I’ve read this year.

The first is James Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable– a book primarily about the assassination of US President, John F. Kennedy, and related issues such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but one that tries to analyse broadly how the US war machine works. This book was recommended to me when I was in Iran earlier this year and met with a number of former CIA operatives and former US government officials. They said to me if you want to understand how our system works, read this book.

The second book is Daniel Ellsberg’s recently published, The Doomsday Machine. Most of us would know Ellsberg from his publication of the The Pentagon Papersin 1971 – a publication that revealed the extent to which the US government had been lying to its people about the war in Vietnam.

For blowing the whistle on his government, Ellsberg was put on trial and charged with conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property. In the book he says that one thing he wasn’t asked at the trial, thankfully, was the question of how much time he had spent copying down classified government material. He says that if he had responded to that question, it would have been obvious that he’d made copies of a lot more classified material than just that dealing with Vietnam. In fact, he had also made copies of papers pertaining to the development of the US nuclear weapons program, but he then waited until the end of 2017 before publishing that material.

These two books, in particular, have given me some insight into these two terrible developments since Armistice Day – namely, the deliberate targeting of civilians and the development of weapons of mass destruction – and these two developments are, of course, intricately related. If there could be no targeting of civilians, weapons of mass destruction could never be used. Having said that, the targeting of civilians didn’t begin with the atomic bomb, and there’s some controversy as to who started it.

I was brought up believing that it was the Nazi’s who first targeted civilians. According to Ellsberg though it was the British, followed by the Americans. At least in terms of written orders, the suggested date is February 1942, when the Royal Air Force, under Sir Arthur BomberHarris, was ordered to shift its focus toward destroying “the morale of the enemy civil population” which led to the aerial bombardment of Berlin and the retaliatory bombing of London.

Probably the most infamous civilian bombing raids of World War II were the attacks on Dresden and Tokyo, both of which made use of incendiary bombs and the weather. Extensive research was done so as to ensure an inescapable firestorm for the residents of these cities. In both cases the results were spectacularly successful.

Dresden, which is in the east of Germany, was targeted, not because of any military significance, but because it was then home to huge numbers of civilian refugees, fleeing the Russian advance from the East. Between 22,700 and 25,000 people were killed in the Dresden attack. In Tokyo, where many of the houses were made of paper and wood, the casualties were far higher – at least 100,000 dead and a million homeless. Stories from survivors of Japanese mothers trying to find refuge with their children in troughs filled with water that had been dug into the streets, only to become flaming human candles, curdle the blood.

The mass targeting of civilian populations, as I say, did not start with the dropping of the atomic bomb, but the development of nuclear weapons did indeed take the targeting of civilian cities and infrastructure on to a whole new level.

The single bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed somewhere between 129,000–226,000 people between them, mainly civilians. Even so, I was brought up believing that these killings were necessary because, had these bombs not been dropped, as many as a million US military personnel might have lost their lives had the war been continued via conventional means.

That figure goes back directly to US President Harry Truman, who justified the dropping of the bombs in this way. More recently declassified material though calls his calculations into question. Indeed, a more up-to-date estimate on the number of casualties that might have resulted had the bomb not been dropped is zero, as the Japanese had by then apparently been trying to surrender for some weeks.

Former candidate for the Democratic nomination for US President, Dennis Kucinich, quotes the great General MacArthur as saying that while he was never consulted about the dropping of the bomb, he saw no military justification for it. The war might have ended weeks earlier, according to him, had the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the Emperor.

I won’t continue further with these questions of history, but I do want to highlight a key point that Ellsberg makes in The Doomsday Machine– namely, that the destructive potential of individual nuclear weapons has developed enormously since World War II, as has their total number. What hasn’t been developed though, according to Ellsberg, who once worked at the heart of the US nuclear weapons program, is any real plan on how to contain their destructive capacity.

Ellsberg recounts a meeting with US military staff where it was pointed out that the retaliatory nuclear strike that was planned against the Soviet Union, should incoming missiles from the USSR be detected, would kill an estimated 300 million residents of China (around a third of the country’s population at the time) in addition to Soviet Citizens, and many in Europe, who would be unfortunate collateral damage. Ellsberg says he asked one of the Generals what the plan was if the Chinese weren’t involved in the military aggression towards the US. He said that the general got very agitated, suggesting that this surely wouldn’t happen as it would require a whole new plan!

Ellsberg says that the people who make these plans aren’t bad people, just as the scientists who design the bombs and the engineers who manufacture them are not bad people individually. Even so, collectively, they produce something entirely demonic, and something that he believes will almost certainly bring about the end of all human and animal life on this planet if it is not somehow constrained. I believe that the onus is upon us – on us most especially as people of faith who believe in the real possibility of peace – to become that force of constraint.

I could talk on this subject a lot more, and I think we need to talk on this subject a lotmore, but not now. My message for today is a simple one – lest we forget. I see thenames on those honour boards – each the name of a young man who once warmedthese pews – and I see their families sitting here in prayer, mourning their loss andsaying to us ‘No more war! No more war! Never again! Lest we forget!’

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 11th November, 2018.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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