If a quarter of a century in the military taught me anything it is this – in war and conflict there really are no winners. The war in the Balkans drags on, each side making promises they have no intention of keeping because at heart they believe they are right. There are points of principle that must be defended at any cost. People feel they have to stand up and be counted, but how sure do you have to be before something is worth dying for? And how much more sure before it’s worth killing for? Television pictures from Bosnia remind me horribly of the aftermath of Beirut. Eileen and I knew Beirut when it was the most beautiful city, I find it hard to accept that the so called principles were worth the eventual cost and I doubt they will be in the Balkans.
‘Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away. They fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day’. The words of course come from the hymn ‘O God our help in ages past’, a hymn unsually associated with national and military occasions, the trouble is the singers never really look at the words. The trouble with the human race is it has an inflated sense of its own importance and all too often, when power is achieved, it is the innocent who suffer. And the whole this is all too often a futility, as my father often said, ‘in 100 years none of it will matter’. What a pity the human race is so strong on hindsight and so weak on foresight. Perhaps we would create a better world if occasionally we took eternal dimensions into account, especially at those moments when we stand on our rights!
Of course, some people do try to do this. Certainly all the great religious leaders of the world have take time to commune with God, or Nature, or just with their inner self, it helped them get things into perspective. At a more mundane level many ordinary folk have their favourite place, mine is on a mountain top in Cyprus, a country we have known down the years that has also suffered terribly from an excess of standing on one’s rights. In many ways it is a strange place to choose, not least that I haven’t been able to get there very often, but also because it’s a cemetery, a British Military Cemetery to be precise. And it’s unusual in one respect, no one buried there has died in action this century.
The thing I like about it is that whenever I have managed to get there it has always been the same, a place of peace and tranquillity. This is partly due to where it is, you can sit for hours and the only sound you hear is the birds singing and the wind moving through the pine trees. I have always tended to lose all sense of time, not wanting to come down the mountain and face the world again. But there is another reason, and although I accept it may be just imagination, it is important. Everyone who died there as a result of enemy action were fighting for causes, or defending principles, that the passing years have made of little importance. Most died in the 1880’s, having returned injured from the Sudan or Egypt, as Great Britain set about turning the atlas red! I doubt if the common soldier really understood what he was dying for. I found it did me good to share their peace and consider the reasons why they lie buried so very far from home. It helps to get your own doubts and struggles into perspective as I realise once again that only God is eternal. I always left refreshed, ending by saying a quiet prayer for their continuing peace. The words of Rupert Brooke, who was of course writing of a later conflict, are most apt: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England’. In this case it’s a mountain top, but as always the British War Graves Commission keep it in immaculate condition.
The Rev. B J Bennett
Castle Bytham Rectory
Added : 18/12/11 : MG