As is my custom, each November 11th I honor the armistice by sharing a poem by a soldier of the Great War—World War I—the war that gave birth to this minor holiday, whether feast or fast I cannot tell. In my country, the United States, it is, generally speaking, a day for hurrahs, for camouflage and crisp salutes, for sincere appreciation of the soldier and the veteran as patriots. This is not a bad thing, of course, but it always feels to me incomplete—I think servicemen and servicewomen more than deserving of thanks and praise for their dedication. But today, I think, should be about more than that. It should be a day to reflect on the lasting sorrow of war, a day in which we resolve to do our part to blot out this human stain from the future of the earth. In other lands more touched by World War I, November 11th is such a day—in Canada, with solemnity the wreaths are laid at cenotaphs, and newscasters talk in hushed voices about the Somme and Verdun, about those who fell in hope of a homecoming that was never realized. I am sure similar public observance carries the day in England, in France, in Germany, and all the other nations who hoped in 1918 that humanity had purged its great blood-lust in one disastrous sacrifice of a generation of young men. That hope may be foolish or vain, but some of us carry it still. This is text from the War Requiem written by Benjamin Britten–it is adapted from a poem by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who died at the age of 25 on November 4th, 1918. Had he lived one more week, he would have reached the war’s end. How many others were slaughtered, just as needlessly? This is an adaptation of his poem, “Parable of the Old Men and the Young”:
“So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son,—
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
How many generations will be asked to learn this lesson? And how many brave men and women, in faithful service to their country, have we sacrificed on an altar of our own choosing?
Rest eternal grant them, O God. Let light perpetual shine upon them.