Disturbing images and stories ascend from the ashes in Mariupol, Bucha and other cities whose names are now familiar. We are heavy-hearted and disturbed by the horror, the brutalisation, and the overwhelming sorrow of war, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.
“Rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine,” says Pope Francis. “War is madness, please stop!” But the war doesn’t stop. We cannot make sense of such idiocy and are left feeling utterly powerless. How to cope? What to do?
It occurs to me that three components of Anzac Day celebrations in which many of us will participate next Monday, offer some practices that comfort, connect, and offer a prelude to action, in the face of the tragedy of war, indeed when confronted by any form of suffering. These elements of the Dawn Service are a minute’s silence, the Last Post, and four lines of poetry.
We can end up with too many words in relation to war. Even now in Ukraine we have endless words of analysis and justification, demonisation and condemnation, not to mention the inevitable propaganda, disinformation and fake news.
It is necessary to hear the stories, to try to understand the complex roots of the conflict, and to hold perpetrators to account.
There is a time to speak, and often in the wake of horror, the most apt and telling words and images come from the pen of the poet. Poets tussle with words that play on our thinking, imagination and feeling. Their words can comfort and confront in equal measure.
Alicia Ostriker, a Jewish feminist described as “America’s most fiercely honest poet”, says, “Writing is what poets do about trauma. We try to come to grips with what threatens to make us crazy by surrounding it with language … It has always seemed to me that to fall silent in the aftermath of the Holocaust is to surrender to it. How can one write poetry after Auschwitz? How can one not?”
The four lines of poetry, simply known as the Ode, from the Anzac Day service are familiar:
They shall not grow 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 shall remember them.
This is the fourth verse of a poem called For the Fallen written by Laurence Binyon and published just a few weeks into the First World War – a war that killed more than nine million service men and countless civilians.
How important it is to honour those sacrificed as ‘collateral damage’ by power-hungry despots.
Wilfred Owen, killed in action during the Great War famously said, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity”. His later poems expressed his contempt for old men – government bureaucrats – who blithely sent young men to inevitable maiming or death.
Kenneth Slessor’s Beach Burial says that it is death that finally reconciles opposing Second World War combatants in their shared shallow sandy graves. The elegiac Homecoming by Bruce Dawe testifies to the futility of the Vietnam War and the countless young soldiers returned in body bags to an ignominious welcome.
Already, the poets are employing their craft in response to the war in Ukraine. Young American poet, Amanda Gorman, who famously spoke at Joe Biden’s inauguration, has recently published a poem, War: what, is it good? In this long poem she notes that war Create(s) competitors from comrades, Make(s) monsters out of men … Soft war does not exist, she says. There is no peace; it cannot be put aside. Our only enemy is the one who make us enemies of each other. And British Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, begins his poem Resistance with It’s war again …
The banal familiarity of war – yet again. When will we learn?
In the Anzac Day service there is a time for poetry, a time to speak, and there is a time to keep silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Silence can be a consoling companion in response to suffering. If we don’t leave room for silence, we don’t leave room for the germination of understanding, compassion and empathy.
There is a tokenistic silence of ‘thoughts and prayers’, so often called upon in the face of war, and in the aftermath of tragedies such as those brought about by gun violence or climate change. Such silent thoughts and prayers can be a mockery if they serve as an excuse for inaction.
But in a moment of intentional silence, I can choose to stand with the victims of war, with any victim. I honour them and their experience. The silence allows me to become present to the sacred space of their suffering.
Silence and poetry honour the fallen, as does the lone bugler playing the Last Post, the distinctive Anzac Day sound.
Eerie and evocative, the Last Post is a musical lament, encapsulating the pity and tragedy of war.
The Judeo-Christian tradition knows full well the value of lament. Biblical lament is no mere venting of anguish. The psalms of lament are prayers which implore God to act, to show mercy, to hear the cries of those who suffer.
As Christians, we concur with Scripture scholar and Anglican Bishop NT Wright, that “God is praying with us for the pain around us”. We pray to the listening God of all pain. Lament is a prayer in the “meantime” Wright says – the meantime between suffering and deliverance. In silence and lament I also ask forgiveness for the times I have betrayed peace and been the cause of another’s pain.
As he dies on the Cross, Jesus shouts a primal prayer of lament from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Yet, our faith tells us that Good Friday is not the end. The story does not end in sorrow and death. Light follows darkness. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and lavishly showers his Easter gifts of peace and forgiveness with all of God’s people.
As the sombre notes of the Last Post sound this Anzac Day, we lament those who suffered and who died in all wars. We lament and remember those who have fallen on Flanders’ fields, at Gallipoli, Tobruk, Long Tan, Tarin Kowt, and now Mariupol and Kyiv. As we wait in hope in this meantime, we keep silent, we listen to the poets, and we lament with our God.