We took their orders and are dead

19 Jul

Today, July 19th 2016, it is exactly 100 years since what has been called the worst 24 hours in Australian military history: at Fromelles in Northern France, 1,917 Australians were killed and 3,416 were wounded. This was part of the great Battle of the Somme. Never before or since have so many Australians been killed in just one day.

It’s an interesting question why so much attention is given to the Gallipoli campaign and so little recognition and commemoration of the dreadful, long and equally hopeless campaign in the fields of Northern France.

I am not meaning to suggest that the loss of lives in one battle is somehow more important or valuable than the losses in another battle. Rather, I am reflecting on the awful tragedy of war, in every place and time. When I was a young man, actively engaged in the movement against the Vietnam War, I bought a wonderful collection of anti-war poetry, carrying the title from a poem by A D Hope, We took their orders and are dead.

I’ve thought of this line many times as I read recently a new novel by Jesper Bugge Kold, Winter Men. It tells the stories of two brothers, Gerhard and Karl Strangl, who both become members of the notorious SS in Hitler’s regime in Germany.

Karl is presented as the more competent man, who manages the family business of clothing production. He had fought in the 1st World War and is now very successful in business. His wife and children are well provided for, the factory is well managed, and business is good with the growing demands of the expanding military. Gerhard is a much more sensitive man, a university teacher, and  has suffered much already in his life. His daughter became very sick and died, then not long after his wife also died. He is very much alone.

The story is about how each man is drawn into the horrific work of the SS: Karl as an officer leading men into the campaigns against the Russians, where so many lives are lost, so many cities and towns destroyed. In the end it is meaningless and they face defeat. Along the way, Karl becomes involved with a young woman, but his wife finds out. His marriage ends; and he also suffers the death of his son (by then a young soldier, naive and ‘innocent’, yet he too kills as he is also soon killed).

Meanwhile Gerhard has been drawn in to the most appalling work of managing the logistics of one of the death camps, where Jewish people are killed.

As the novel progresses, the meaning of the title becomes clear: here there is a moral winter. Each in a different way, yet just as surely, loses the essential warmth of human life: they become machines, grinding out the war effort. They have taken orders and they have become dead, morally, spiritually, intellectually. Gerhard has left behind the manuscript of a book he was about to publish. It is the symbol of his own life, and when he eventually makes it home to Hamburg at the end of the war, hoping to retrieve his book and begin his life afresh, he finds the building where it was left is utterly destroyed.

One brother escapes and survives into fearful old age, while the other takes his life in the face of the utter meaninglessness of it all.

‘We took their orders and are dead’. In Fromelles, so many young men lost their lives: and of course not just the Australians.  So many more were injured, and of them many came home but were never able to return to a normal life. Their families lived with the mental and physical struggle of it all: memories that were never named, emotions never expressed, and moral questions that would never be articulated. And those who did survive were soon enough drawn into the whole thing all over again.

There are different ways in which ‘we took their orders and are dead’. Some died instantly and lie in the fields of Fromelles. Many more died inwardly and went on to suffer that death for decades longer. The loss of family, security, morality, meaning, love, hope: this is the ongoing result of these orders.

it is a blight that continues to affect our nation and every nation. I have read the blog posts today which carry the historic  words ‘Lest we forget’.

Sadly, it seems that we do forget: we forget to learn from these events. We fail to learn that war never proves who is right, it only shows who is left. We do not learn how to prevent war, by making peace, building peace—so fundamentally based on justice, mutuality and respect. And then, too, we have not learned from the way Hitler and his regime was established, through propaganda, press manipulation and the alienation of specific groups as ‘other’, to be blamed for all the ills of society … etc. etc. It is happening again, right now.

We need to learn: to learn not to take their orders. Civil disobedience, resistance to the power of propaganda and stereotyping, and then active measures to promote justice and peace are fundamental to the health and well being of our life on earth. The alternative is a moral and spiritual winter, and death.

I believe that this moral resistance and constructive peace making is profoundly linked to the Christian life and ethic, though of course not unique to it. Rather, men and women of all faiths and of none can find a unity in following the way of life together. On this anniversary of the battle at Fromelles I hope and pray that we might find this spring time of hope, justice and peace.

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