Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
November 11, 2018
Texts: Lamentations 5: 1-24; Psalm 64
“These hearts were woven of human joy and cares,” wrote Rupert Brooke. “Dawn was theirs, and sunset . . . touched flowers and furs and cheeks All this is ended.” Like many of the other poets of his generation, he harbored no illusions about war. He had looked out on the trenches of World War I, but as duty called, he sailed toward Skyros, where he died on a French hospital ship at the age of 28.
War often yields both genius and tragedy. The genius lay in the men and women, the poets of World War I who provided a special insight into the promises of that war. They also understood the cost of the war. Many of their poems took on the special horror of trench warfare with the use of machine guns destroying mass troop charges, one of the standard tactics of wars previously.
Although the Gatling gun, a primitive form of the machine gun, had been used in the American Civil War, it was the improvements of Hiram Maxim in 1884 that created a true machine gun. Coupled with the use of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas, the Great War, as it was called, created a generation of disabled men who survived the attacks, many blind, many unable to walk or breathe, having their lungs seared with these gases shot primarily from the German lines although the Allied forces did respond in kind by the end of the War.
In a poem dedicated to Jessie Pope, the pro-war poet whose poem War Girls, extolled the virtue of waiting for the ”boys” as they were called, Wilfred Owen in his Dulce et Decorum Est, put it this way:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
This was a war when death seemed less inti-mate than in the time of David or Jeremiah, their wars being times when combatants faced each other on a field armed with swords. Even the deaths of soldiers or the innocent by arrow as in the Psalm was closer than the armies camped in trenches waiting for the next round of gunfire or gas.
Siege was the ultimate weapon used against Jerusalem in the time of Jeremiah who looked out from the city against the enemy knowing that they would eventually win. Jeremiah’s descriptions in Lamentations read like the reports from Yemen where babies and children die from malnutrition – in truth, starvation – as the result of power politics.
The photos of children scarred by war in Yemen look much like the photos from Ethiopia in the 1980s or Biafra in the late 1960s. When those in power are afraid of losing their power, they will use any means to hold onto their power. Starvation becomes a tool and civilians become nothing more than collateral damage.
“Those who feasted on delicacies perish in the streets; those who were brought up in purple cling to ash heaps,” Jeremiah says, for war does not care who lives or dies. Even the skin of princes has shriveled up.
Although the United States did not enter the war to end all wars until April 1917, it affected us deeply here as well. It was not the “splendid little war,” as Secretary of State John Hay called the 1898 war with Spain that yielded us Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines not to mention the foothold in Cuba which we still have. It was a war more devast-ating than the 300,000 casualty figures would suggest.
Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote that “The Great War of 1914-1918 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours.” Cities and towns were images of their former selves, much like the images we see of Raqqa or Aleppo. As one soldier wrote home to his family, “This is not war; it is the ending of the world.”
World War I changed America as well as the world. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson’s campaign theme had been “He kept us out of war.” By April 1917 the United States was in. By June Congress decided that opposition to the war was vocal enough so it passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which made illegal any utterance against the United States, the Constitution or the military that could be considered “disloyal.” The Sedition Act the following year expanded the range of activities that could be disloyal.
Although wars seemed simpler in their time, like Jeremiah, David’s Psalmist considered the costs of war to our sense of humanity. Who will see the evil deeds asks the Psalmist and how does a nation whose priests and leaders have betrayed her obtain help from the Lord asks Jeremiah. Along with the guilty the innocent suffer.
Seen as a punishment from the Lord for wor-shiping foreign Gods, Jeremiah railed against the powers that brought Judah to such destruction. Seen as the counsel of evildoers, David’s Psalmist called for God to shoot an arrow into their hearts. But life is not so simple.
The poets of the Great War realized the lies that power-hungry leaders told and not just because of the special suffering they and civilians endured. Even realizing the insanity of that war, many of them still served and died, leaving their poetry as a test-ament against not just that war but all war.
As we in the twenty-first century look on the events of one hundred years ago, we must ask what price was paid for the illusions of empire and power. Those illusions are still with us today albeit in other places with other names. We do not claim empire but “national security.”
This is not to denigrate the obvious fact that there are powers who wish to destroy what America has traditionally meant to the world as a bastion of freedom and refuge. There is no question that we must take the threats to who we are and what we stand for seriously.
However, that does not mean that we should be supporting the Saudi tactic of mass starvation in Yemen or turn a blind eye because the Saudi leader-ship has purchased $40 million condominiums or promise to employ hundreds of arms workers in building more weapons to use against people it con-siders “un-Islamic,” whatever that means.
Both David’s Psalmist and Jeremiah warn us against trusting in the illusion of power. Charles Hamilton Sorley, one of the British poets of the Great War, shortly before his death in Hulich, France, in 1915, wrote a poem entitled “To Germany.” “You are blind like us. … We stumble and we do not under-stand. … And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind. …When it is peace, then we may view again with new-won eyes each other's truer form. When it is peace. But until peace, the storm the darkness and the thunder and the rain.”
The illusion of power makes us blind to its true cost. As we come close to the hour, eleven minutes past eleven, we should listen to the terror described by Jeremiah and David’s Psalmist and commit our-selves to building a peaceful world not through arms but through thinking through carefully what is truly required for our security as well as what we need to do to maintain our heritage of freedom.
Let us pray: Eternal One, who has seen so much war and destruction, help us discern the wheat from the chaff in our deliberations and for our future as a Nation of refuge, welcome, and peace. In the name of him who is the Prince of Peace, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.