By James Visscher
Friday, November 11 is Remembrance Day in Canada. It’s that time of year when as a nation we stop and consider the sacrifices of our men and women in arms, both past and present. Across the land crowds gather at cenotaphs to watch parades of veterans, police, and dignitaries, to listen to speeches and prayers, to sing songs to the music of the bagpipes, and to lay wreaths. In some provinces the day is a public holiday; whereas, in others citizens are allowed some time off work around 11:00 a.m. for a time of silence and reflection.
All in all, Remembrance Day has become part of the fabric of our nation. Wedged as it is between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, it is one more event that stands out and defines us. Canadians have not forgotten those who died or were injured or survived the horrors of World War I and II, the Korean War, Afghanistan, and countless other conflicts. Nor have they forgotten those who took part in so many peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the United Nations.
And that is good. For a nation to have true character it needs to be connected to its past. In particular it needs to remember and learn from its history and its more traumatic experiences. Indeed, where would our country be today without young people willing to rise up and defend our values and freedoms at great personal cost?
War is ugly
In saying this, we do not want to glorify war. War is ugly. It always has been and it always will be. In spite of the fact that young men frequently go off to war filled with bravado, smiles, and sunny dispositions, it is no picnic. It comes at great costs.
As a result, nations need to exercise great care before they call on their young people to take up arms. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case. History is littered with cases of bad wars, unjustified wars, misguided wars, failed wars. In our more recent past Canada refused to join other nations in invading Iraq but it joined the so-called “NATO effort” in Afghanistan.
Iraq and Afghanistan
I know that I will open myself up to criticism in saying that I am grateful that we never joined the Iraq invasion force. To me the evidence presented at the UN and elsewhere was never convincing and the thought of invading a country about which so little was known, made it all a dubious affair. It’s fine to get rid of one dictator but how do you guarantee that the next leader is any better?
Yet may I be so bold as to wonder about the validity of that other conflict where we did jump in? Of course the Taliban who used to control Afghanistan, and are seeking to regain it, are a ruthless, extreme, and murderous bunch. Attempts to export their extremist brand of Islamic terror are to be resisted at all costs. But was going in there with soldiers and tanks the only way to do that? Has it been worth the cost of more than a hundred Canadian lives and many more injuries? After all the years of fighting and bombings is that country and its citizens any safer and better off?
The point is that it is easy to find places in this world that need straightening out. Every continent has its share of corrupt regimes and tin-pot dictators. If we want to take them all on we will know no end of war and no end of death.
I suppose what I am arguing for is the return to the “just war” concept. This really means that you only go to war when your nation is attacked directly or when an ally nation with whom you have treaties finds itself under siege. In that connection I have no scruples about defending our involvement in World Wars I and II, the Korean and Kuwaiti wars. Some wars are sadly necessary and the bitter costs need to be borne. But there are others that have to do with protecting our economic interests, promoting our type of government, exporting our Western values and freedoms and they are suspect, to say the least.
And then there is Syria. What shall one say about Syria? The death and destruction there have been and continue to be enormous. It is enough to make one weep, and weep much. The Russians are backing that murderous despot Bashar al-Assad and raining down bombs on any and all places and people that back the opposition. The United States wants him gone and is backing some of his opponents. Meanwhile, the casualty list is in the hundreds of thousands and the devastation spreads on a colossal scale. Where is the end?
Yet there is another question that needs to be asked, which is: how to bring about peace? For that to happen, it will not come through nations like Canada sending troops to fight on one side or the other. Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan have surely taught us that more soldiers are not the answer. Invading those countries has only increased the instability and ratcheted up the suffering of the people. Indeed, there are times when even such old dictators as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi look good compared to the depravities of ISIS.
The only way forward in Syria is for all parties to sit around the table, to adopt a peace plan, and to chart a way forward. Whether it is under the auspices of the United Nations or the Arab League does not so much matter. What matters is that there be a strong and sincere desire to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isa 2:4).
The changing face of war
Thus far we have restricted our comments to wars and conflicts that have always been, but warfare is changing. Today we have what is often called “cyber warfare” in which one nation seeks not so much to invade another country’s territory as to steal its secrets. Whether they are business, trade, military, or scientific secrets, this kind of war and theft is being waged on a massive scale. It is not unusual to hear the so-called experts claim that there are more soldiers in China’s Internet army then in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Is that true, and if so, what about Russia, the United States, and even Canada? Is there a war going on between nations that no one wants to talk about?
The same cannot be said about another kind of war, the war of terrorism. It is being talked about constantly and experienced in so many different places. The increasing movement of people, the modern means of transport, the steady stream of data on the Internet, the ever expanding multiculturalism of nations, have all played into the hands of extremist Muslim factions. The result is that war is no longer a contained development. It is not just “over there” and far away. No, it is everywhere. No country, no city, no town is safe. Speak to people in Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, Lahore, Kampala, Ottawa, and elsewhere, they will tell you that you need to be on your guard no matter where you are or where you live.
Unlike ancient wars that were often about territory, these modern wars are about ideas, inventions, ideologies, and false religions. This makes them so much harder to confront and combat. Many years ago our Saviour spoke about “wars and rumours of war” (Matt 24:6). It would appear that he was speaking about more different forms of warfare than we ever dreamed about.
Of course, in the face of all of this doom and gloom it is easy to become depressed, to throw up one’s hands in despair, to declare that the world is “going to hell in a handcart” and that there is nothing we can do about it. Yet, is that true? Are we so powerless? I think that here we need to connect with some ancient words written by the Apostle James. He asks a pertinent question in chapter 4 of his letter, namely “what causes fights and quarrels among you?” (4:1). The answer he gives is instructive, “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (4:1)
Our natural tendency when it comes to war and conflict is to “blame the other guy.” James tells us, however, that we should not look next door but inside ourselves. Each of us is by nature a warmonger.
Depressing? Indeed, but also enlightening, for it teaches us that peace begins in each human heart. When the heart is changed and no longer produces wrong desires, then peace will arise.
But can the heart be changed? How will the heart be changed? Is that even possible?
The profound faith we confess states that indeed it is possible. Through the power of God the Holy Spirit, it is possible to experience a heart transplant, a heart renewal, a heart makeover.
So as to go about your Remembrance Day activities in 2016 take some time to remember and reflect on past sacrifices but also to pray for the Holy Spirit and his great heart work. Pray that he will penetrate Taliban hearts, ISIS hearts, Boko Haram hearts, North Korean hearts, and yes, even Canadian hearts.