Thursday, November 12, 2009

War and Rembrance

Yesterday was Veterans Day, the US modern incarnation of Armistice Day, which ended World War 1. “I always thought we should have kept the name Armistice Day. The implications were somehow a little more profound, a little more hopeful.” - Walt Kelly (Pogo cartoonist)

Europe is still observing the Armistice. A NY Times article on the observance in Paris put the death total of WW1 at 16 million---8 million military, 2 million missing in action (presumed dead) and 6 million civilian. The numbers are surreal. It is no wonder that 91 years later the children of the carnage are still trying to make sense of it. The rift that the Great War caused in modern history cannot be overstated.

And so it is historic and meaningful that German Chancellor Angela Merkel became the first German leader to attend the ceremonies in Paris. In England, the Queen led the country in observing a two-minute silence at 1100 GMT for the "passing of a generation": Bill Stone died at 108 in January followed by both Henry Allingham, 113, and Harry Patch, 111, in July.

Along with looking at the distant past, the ceremonies, particularly in England, focused on the soldiers dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. Andrew Sullivan reported on the 200th British soldier to die in battle.

Veterans Day in the US is a federal holiday (no mail), but the day has not had much cultural weight. That may be changing. There are VFW parades across the country, as there always have been, but the day is getting more recognition than the ubiquitous store sales. The tragedy at Fort Hood focused more serious attention on the day this year, as does the debate about increasing our troops in Afghanistan.

To find some meaning myself I attended a Concert of Remembrance at St. Thomas Church tonight. The Episcopalians in the Anglican communion (at least for the moment) do this very very well.

The world-class men and boys choir sang several motets, including the exquisite Byrd Justorum Anime and shimmering Tavener Song for Athene, which was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral, but the highlight was the Durufle Requiem. Based on the plainsong from the Mass for the Dead, it is a sublime piece of music that is an extremely emotional and poignant experience to hear live. I have sung it myself, so I know it from the inside.

Throughout I tried to hold in my heart the idea of all those who have died in service to this country. My most sincere honor for them is to appreciate and exercise the freedoms their lives have paid for us all, and to pray deeply for those who are making decisions about putting more lives at risk.

And it occurred to me: it took France and Germany 91 years to come together fully to mourn their dead of the muds of the First World War. Those two countries have more in common as cultures than differences. In that light, how long will it take the United States to come to terms with the Middle East, where there are significant differences of culture. It's a daunting thought.