Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Alfred Lord Tennison
My British ancestors have a habit of romanticising complete military disasters. Tennison did a fabulous job of romanticising the total disaster of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. The Light Brigade were mown down, but the romanticising actually contributed to the repeat of such folly. < According to Norman Dixon, 19th century accounts of the charge tended to focus on the bravery and glory of the cavalrymen, much more than the military blunders involved, with the perverse effect that it "did much to strengthen those very forms of tradition which put such an incapacitating stranglehold on military endeavour for the next eighty or so years" i.e. until World War I. Dixon, Norman (1976). On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. London: Jonathan Cape. pg 41. ISBN 0-224-01161-8.>
Remember Dunkirk, that was a miracle deliverance after another military disaster. And sadly, it’s incredibly important that we remember that Gallipoli was a military disaster. An underequipped force was badly deployed against an ultimately successful opposition. Nine months laterthey were gone, having achieved nothing but 130,000 deaths – almost 90,000 Turks and 3,000 kiwis, among others. 1 in 5 kiwis who stepped foot on the peninsula died.
Today we will remember the personal valour of our ancestors; today we must redouble our efforts to hold our leaders accountable every time they put our soldiers in harm’s way; today we ought rededicate ourselves to the advance of the Kingdom of God in our lives and our community.
We honour the personal courage and valour of the boys who went to Gallipoli, who fought at Gallipoli and who died at Gallipoli. 17 years old boys - 18, 19 many of them, not much older than my Johnny; boys Christian, Harrison, CJ’s age. Boys who, within days of landing on the peninsula had killed other men, had heard their friends die beside them, and had their dreams invaded forever.
I know a lot of the men fought because of their brothers beside them; because they had no choice; but also because they believed in something bigger than themselves. 25 years later my father went to war for King and country. These can be noble sentiments, putting the common good before ones personal safety. That’s sheer courage and honour. When Jesus said, ‘ … take up your cross …’,(Luke 14:27) he didn’t actually mean our petty ailments, he didn’t actually mean put up with your bad knee, or your demanding mother; the phrase means live as if you are in the last hours of your life. Someone carrying their cross is prepared to die. I don’t know what courage it took to climb over the top and run at a machine gun, but we salute that raw courage. Dreadful things happen in war, and courageous things happen.
Our ancestors sailed across the other side of the world and gave their lives, believing that they were doing so for the greater good. And that we remember, and that we honour, and that we value.Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this,that a man gives up his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) And many times on the battlefield that was played out. Jesus never killed anyone, but he did give his life as a sacrifice for you.
As we remember Gallipoli I think we should be looking at ourselves and asking ourselves questions of personal courage. Will I fight evil where I encounter it? Will I oppose the enemies of the Kingdom of God? Will I stand up and be counted when it matters?
In NZ today many people sat silently while a new immigrant was racially abused on a Wellington bus. Will you stand up? When a bully has a shot at another kid at school, will you stand up? I applaud people who go through the court system and say ‘no’ to rape, abuse, sexual harassment and other crimes; often at great cost to them and their reputation and their families.
When Jesus says, “Unless you hate your father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters…” (Luke 14:26) he is deliberately exaggerating. He’s just told a story about how people often put other things before the Kingdom of God. Jesus is using extreme language to say ‘I have to come first’. Jesus has to be the top of your Chain of Command. Following him sometimes means challenging alcoholism, sexual abuse, bullying, a whole raft of dysfunctional things within our community and maybe even within our family of origin.
Will you be a Christian Soldier courageously ready to pay the cost of fighting evil today?
In a democracy, it is incredibly important that we hold our leaders accountable in times of war. It is the nature of soldiering that Privates don’t question orders, there is a chain of command and it must be obeyed. You simply can’t have a little cluster of Privates sitting down every time they get an order and saying, ’Well, perhaps if we go later’, or ‘We could go around to the left’. This is why it is so dangerous when leaders issue orders that amount to war crimes. This places a very special burden on Political and Military leaders, and a heavy burden on we the people to demand accountability and transparency, words that don’t usually go with war.
It is essential that, when an armed force is committed, there are clear objectives and a responsive command that adapts to what happens on the ground. Gallipoli was a mismanaged landing. The force originally deployed was probably inadequate, and then the landing badly executed. The landing was a disaster with men and equipment all being in the wrong places. But that’s not the tragedy. The tragedy to my mind was not getting out sooner when it failed. The worst battles were ones where scores of men were sent over the top against entrenched machine gun fire long after the Turks had arrived in significant numbers. Once it had gone wrong it was never going to work and we should have got out earlier, and that was a failure of leadership. That has always been the ANZAC message I have known; brave troops, foolish commanders.
Sometimes you execute a good battle plan well and still lose. That is a world apart from Gallipoli. We might ask, ‘What were our boys doing fighting in Turkey?’ Actually, the attack makes sense. If the British force had taken the Dardanelles and got through to Istanbul they might have forced the Turks out of the war earlier – that would have been a success. The bigger question is, ‘What was the war all about?’ And the answer is: pride, greed and posturing. There was no great cause.
I want to talk a little about military strategy. The little I know comes from General Colin Powell’s book ‘My American Journey’ 1995. Two things he discussed stuck with me; the military must have clear objectives, and sufficient force to achieve the goal (pg 292). He quotes Prussian strategist, Karl von Clausewitz’s book ‘On War’ (English translation 1873). ‘No one starts a war, or rather, no one in his senses should do so, without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to achieve it.’ What a simple statement that I believe we, the public, need to remember. Before we allow our politicians to take us into a war we should ask, ‘What are we trying to achieve and how are we going to achieve it?’
That sounds a little like Jesus. Or, suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able, with ten thousand men, to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.
My father fought in World War II. One of the things he taught me was that while it is one thing to win the war, it is another to win the peace. The American Marshall Plan to help rebuild Germany was hugely successful in winning the peace in post World War II Europe. I was so surprised when Colin Powell got involved in the second Gulf War because the objectives were not clear and the goal of imposing a western style democracy in Iraq seemed unrealistic to me. If the goal was to make the world safer from terrorism, it failed.
Before the first Gulf War, Colin Powell asked George Bush the Clausewitzian question; “Is it worth going to war to liberate Kuwait?” (pg 451) Funnily enough, he got into trouble forasking the question. I’m using Colin Powell as an example here of a prophetic voice being willing to speak ‘truth to power’.
In the bible there are many classic stories of this. Just two quickly. (1)King Ahab desires his neighbour Nabboth’s vineyard. Nabboth wouldn’t sell it to Ahab, so Ahab’s wife engineered a plot and Nabboth was falsely accused, convicted and executed, while Ahab took the vineyard. The prophet Elijah went and confronted Ahab (1 Kings 21). (2) When David overpowered Bathsheba and murdered her husband, the prophet Nathan confronted David. Both spoke ‘truth to power’.
Our Prime Minister last week sent our troops into a war with ISIS. Sorry, to be military advisers to Iraqi troops. Well, we’ve seen that before, that was how Vietnam started. Our Prime Minister has committed our troops to a war without clear objectives.
I believe this war will swallow much of the next ten years and cost us thousands of lives. And I’m not convinced that anyone has figured out what the objective is, or what it will cost to achieve it.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we probably will need to fight ISIS but, despite the atrocities, this is primarily a civil war between different Muslim factions. ‘We have to do something’ is a recipe for disaster. I think we keep finding ourselves making things worse in the Middle East. Let us have a fully informed national debate - that is the way to honour our war dead. I am appalled by John Key’s statement that entering the battle against ISIS ‘is the price of the club’ (NZ Herald, 20/01/15). We’re not talking about the UN, we’re talking about the same sort of treaties that were the cause of the First World War.” Peer pressure is not a reason to go to war. I think that we should be demanding that our Prime Minister does better than this. And to me, it’s got nothing to do with party politics because this war is not going away – and we need to demand the same answers of whoever is power.
Will you be a Christian Soldier demanding clear objectives from our leaders today?
Today is a sad weekend because we remember the fallen, we remember those who were maimed, and I’m particularly saddened to think of those who were psychologically scarred as well. The stories of men coming back and waking night by night in a cold sweat, screaming. We remember also the women whose sweethearts never came home. Just about 1 in 5 of those who went away of marriageable age never came back. If you think of a school classroom of 30, half of them are boys who went away, 15 boys would have gone and, in many areas, most 17 to 25 years olds would have gone. 15 went, 12 came back. 15 girls and only 12 would have been able to find husbands. The impact was huge. And then there were the suicides that no one talked about, and then there was drinking. We have a strong binge drinking culture in NZ still, and it didn’t start with this generation of 18 year olds. I wonder how much our drinking culture has been formed by generations of men who came back carrying deep personal scars and for whom the anaesthetic of alcohol was the primary therapy of their day.
The men who came back from the Great War had a real sense that it should have been the war to end all wars.
They came back wanting to build a better society, and a land fit for heroes. I think we honour our war dead by continuing to strive to make our land “God’s own country.”
My friends, Jesus talks about being salt at the end of Luke 14. Salt is a great healer, it heals by cleaning wounds and I think that there are many wounds in our community that we need to address. But if salt loses its saltiness, it loses its usefulness.
I think this is a personal challenge to us all to commit to spiritual growth, to commit ourselves to the Christian journey, to holiness and purity, to love and generosity. That we commit ourselves to overcoming impurity, jealousy, outbursts of anger, envying, drunkenness, carousing – the sins of Galatians 5. Jesus wants to use us as a church (as St Peters House – as the Lighthouse – as Childcare – as Sunday morning worshippers – as Youth Group – as Brigades) to bring healing to our community. And we do this by committing ourselves to fight for the fruit of the Spirit in our souls; love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22
Will you be a Christian Soldier – being ‘Salty’ in your spiritual life today?