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Lest We Forget: The Importance of Remembering Well

Friday, 10 July 2015  | Steve Turnbull

As a Christian minister, why would I take a leading part in a service remembering the unit that was involved in arguably the most controversial of Allied missions in World War 2?

Amongst the crowd that gathered at RAAF Base Amberley on the last Sunday in May were a small number of surviving veterans of RAF Bomber Command – Australian airmen who flew in what was the most deadly campaign of any Allied unit in World War 2. Forty-four percent of all Bomber Command aircrew were killed. Truly, they were extraordinary times. However, services such as these often draw criticism and questions such as my opening one. Some argue that these services actually serve to glorify war and those who fought in them. Are there valid reasons, particularly from a Christian worldview, for continuing to remember ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day and many other events that are part of our nation’s history?

I believe the answer lies in what we are remembering and how we remember.

George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, is often waved about in discussions such as these, and rightly so. If we do not remember our past, particularly what led to our failures, we cannot hope to do better the next time something similar occurs. If we fail to remember the cost of war, particularly in human lives and the subsequent cost on those that survive, we will never see war as something to be avoided until there is no option left. There is, however, another dimension to remembering that goes beyond being simply an inoculation against future wars.

In an interview on the BBC following a ceremony remembering the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, Archbishop Justin Welby said,

I think the key lesson we need to learn is that war is a brutalising process, that reconciliation takes a long time and is fragile, and that remembering well is essential to forgiving completely. And as a Christian we saw in this ceremony together today the way in which faith in Jesus Christ brings people together to forgive as they remember.[1]

Remembrance is not simply for the sake of remembering, but is part of the process of healing and reconciliation; both with one’s enemy and, in many cases, one’s self.

As a member of Australia’s military, I do not glorify war, nor wish it on any person or nation on any occasion. Someone once said words to the effect of “nobody wants a war less than those who have to fight it”. We do, however, choose to remember those who have served before us, who have fought before us; those whose legacy we inherit and are proud to hold in our custody. We choose to remember everyday, ordinary people, who were caught up in extraordinary circumstances and called upon to do even more extraordinary things at the request of their nation. We choose to remember people who gave up so much that we take for granted and did so willingly to stand in the face of the evil of their day.

Yet, when the stories are told by those who survived, they focus on that which many may find unexpected. As I’ve listened to many veterans tell of their times in combat, they don’t speak of death and destruction much at all. They don’t speak of the prevailing circumstances and the importance of sound foreign policy.  Instead, speak of mateship, relationship and loss. They remember the bonds that formed in the very immediate nature of combat and they still grieve at the way those relationships were so quickly and savagely torn apart, sometimes on a daily basis.

They remember the humanity in the midst of the inhumane.

My grandfather served in the RAAF in the Pacific. As a young boy, I was curious to hear the stories of war, for war did seem awfully exciting in the movies and the books, and Grandad had actually been there. Each time I asked about what it was like, he politely declined on all but one occasion. On that one time that he did open up, he spoke very little about bombs and guns and planes and fighting. Instead, he told me of his friends and the fun that they had had in the midst of all the horror. He told me the stories behind the nicknames they gave each other and the unique habits that made people stand out from their peers. During this conversation, his eyes lit up and he laughed heartily at the memories of friends long gone. He then went quiet as he remembered how a great many of those friendships were broken in untimely and violent moments, many of which I can only assume he witnessed directly.

My Grandfather did not attend ANZAC Day marches or memorials in the years immediately after his return to Australia. It was not until much later, and after a move away from the town in which he lived, that he began to attend. Perhaps the answer is found in something another veteran said to a friend of mine: “You have no point of reference. How could you understand?”

Remembrance services provide opportunities for veterans to gather again with those who share that point of reference. They meet again with those who understand and, hopefully, find comfort, solace and healing amongst those who are on the same journey.

However, they offer an opportunity beyond that. They offer the opportunity for those of us who were not there, and who cannot understand, to show the veterans that we care about them and what they went through on our behalf. It mattered that they endured things beyond which we can hope to imagine. It mattered that they experienced such pain and loss. Perhaps most importantly, it matters that they still suffer – physically, emotionally and spiritually – as a result of what their government, their people – we – asked them to do.

We remember that war is (as Archbishop Welby said) a brutalising process and that overcoming its effects requires compassion.

Whether we agree with war, or any particular commitment to war, is (respectfully) a separate discussion. Remembrance is about honouring those who died and those who survived for doing something that we hope and pray we will never have to do ourselves. It is about standing alongside them in their grief, about extending our compassion to them in their pain and about remembering and upholding the humanity in the midst of the inhumane.

As a Chaplain, I have the opportunity to enter into that space with them in some small way by taking part in such services and to offer the healing that is found in the love and grace of Jesus, who said,

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.[2]

If we are able to make our remembrance services about those things, then perhaps it will be a natural by-product that we will not repeat the errors of the past and that, in community, grief and healing can find their fulfilment.

Lest We Forget.


Chaplain Steve Turnbull serves in the Royal Australian Air Force and is currently posted to RAAF Base Amberley, Qld.

[2] Matthew 11:28-30 NLT


July 12, 2015, 12:07PM
Thanks for your words Steve; and for your ministry.

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