The Universal Soldier (November 2022)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


I love that poem – I think that the words are clever, and beautifully put together, that it is broodingly ominous with its strange Christian imagery, and that it catches some truth about our world that still feels fresh a hundred years since it was written. The most famous lines are the couplet “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” and I find that these lines equivocate – they might be saying one thing, they might be saying another.


Are they saying that we know who the best and worst are and our sorrowful observation is that the good ones seem grey and boring whilst the extremists explode in coruscating brightness? Or are they saying that a definition of the best people is that they doubt themselves – that they question rather than assert and that to be filled with absolute confidence is to be one of the worst? Maybe, in a theme that will recur this morning, maybe both? Can we hold both ideas at once, see something in two ways at once? Can we be filled with passionate doubt? Those are two words that are part of our verbal fabric as a school – an idea that I’ve spoken about before, from this very spot, and using this very poem, but many years ago, to a different group of students and I think that they are the point at which scholarship intersects with the problems of the real world. As scholars we are critical thinkers, scrupulous about identifying our points of doubt or groundless assertion – but in the real world we find that there is little logical proof, that problems are hard to solve, that two people can look at the same situation and see things differently. We can, and should, be passionate about making the world better – but be aware that our viewpoint is limited, our experience tiny in the sea of all humanity, our confidence likely to be misplaced. We should be open to doubt.


And this brings me to remembrance, and our evening in the Abbey on Friday, because I passionately believe that we, citizens of the 21st century, need to remember how society got here, how we got here – we need to remember that there was never a guarantee that the UK would be free, tolerant, just, democratic,  and that there is therefore no guarantee that it will stay that way. And we need to remember war. It’s not that hard, now in 2022, to remember how horrible war is – we see it in the daily news from Ukraine – but two people can look at the same situation and see things differently.

When we talk about war we often think about the countries (Germany invaded Poland) or the politicians (we might talk about Putin’s war), but I think we miss the point – the reality of war isn’t on a map or in an office, it’s in the land that’s invaded and in the hands of the soldiers on the front line. There’s a song called Universal Soldier by an amazing indigenous Canadian-American singer songwriter called Buffy Sainte-Marie who you’ve probably never heard of but really should – perhaps I can return to her in another assembly. These are the first lines:


He’s five foot-two and he’s six feet-four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He’s all of thirty one, and he’s only seventeen,
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years.


The song writes about those soldiers in the front line and amalgamates them in a wonderful piece of poetry – but I think that it loses something – that we need to remember these ordinary soldiers as individuals to get a sense of what we’re remembering so let me, briefly, tell you the stories of four ordinary soldiers.


The first one is the most famous, but we know almost nothing about him – we certainly don’t know whether he was five-foot two or six feet-four, whether he was thirty-one or seventeen. All we know is that he fought in one of the Flanders battlefields of World War One and that when he died he was so disfigured as to be unidentifiable. He was buried beneath a plain white stone marked simply “Known unto God.” A year or so later he was dug up as part of a random process and brought to London by train and boat and gun carriage and buried with royal ceremony in Westminster Abbey. He’s the unknown warrior on whose grave kings, prime-ministers, presidents and our very own Aftab place wreaths to remember all those who fell in that terrible conflict.


We know a lot more about the second, he’s called Billy and was a Yorkshireman. Born in Leeds in 1913 he went to school and trained as an accountant. Too young to remember much of the first world war he was exactly the right age to get caught up in the second. He got married to his sweetheart, Esther, in August 1939 and when war broke out a month later joined the Royal Navy. He spent the first months on corvettes, tiny ships patrolling the North Sea, trying to stop a German invasion on the east coast and later was sent on a battleship through the Suez canal to fight in the war against Japan. His ship was hit – many killed, including the captain, more wounded – but wasn’t sunk. Billy survived and, after VJ day in August 1945, made his way back to Leeds. He returned to normal life, with Esther he adopted a baby girl and in due course had four grandchildren whom he adored even if the eldest vomited all over his best suit at its christening. I was that child – Billy was my grandad.


The third ordinary soldier is rather extraordinary – he is called Johnson Beharry and he is one of five living recipients of the Victoria Cross, which he received for courage under fire in the Iraq war. He was driving a tank that found itself in an ambush, hit by rocket propelled grenades, badly damaged and under gunfire. Putting his head out of the hatch, in order to be able to see where he was going, he was able to drive through the ambush, leading five other vehicles to safety. He then rescued his own crew whilst still under fire. Unsurprisingly he sustained significant head injuries in doing so. Since returning to the UK, Beharry has struggled with his mental health but has continued to serve in the army and has set up a charity to help young people get out of gangs and contribute to society.


The final ordinary soldier is my friend Clive. We’re quite different, I think you might be surprised that we’re friends if you saw us together – he’s much more down-to-earth than I am, heavily tattooed, enormously practical and with a penchant for motorbikes. He left school before finishing his sixth form and went into the army, serving in the war in Bosnia, trying to keep murderous soldiers away from the civilian population. I asked him how he was going to commemorate Remembrance day and he told me “On remembrance day, I don’t put my medals on, and head to a parade. I sit on the grass, with a brew. I tell those I miss what they’ve missed out on this year. I cry. I head to the house again. One of the kids has a fresh brew waiting.” He said this about being a soldier on the front line “Sometimes you make the right choice, and a stranger goes home. Others you make a choice so that a mate can go home – that choice stays with you.”


The song continues

He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew

And he knows he shouldn’t kill

And he knows he always will

Kill you for me, my friend, and me for you.


And so we come together for remembrance, in a place of religion, with its strange Christian imagery and try to make sense of a world that’s been falling apart for a lot longer than a thousand years. And I’m not trying to tell you what to think or feel – except that I think you should think and feel something. Our evening of remembrance is not filled with uniforms and medals, nor is it a cup of tea and tears – instead it’s time to think – pray if you want to, but there’s no compulsion – to stand together, silently if you don’t want to participate verbally - to sing together, to make music together, I hope you will sing: it doesn’t sound great if it’s only me  – to remember those ordinary soldiers, to remember our families, ancestors, communities that have come before and created the opportunities we have - to remember our own ambition and hard work – and to commit to doing our bit to holding it together, to doubting passionately, to listening, to caring.


And some mechanical detail – this is formal and solemn, please dress appropriately, please be on time: seated by 6.15 and not running through the doors at 6.29, please leave your gum and your coffee outside, in a bin somewhere in school, and please don’t clap. It’s a wonderful ceremony with individuals contributing their thoughts and talents, but it’s not a performance – it’s a remembrance – it’s all of us, remembering something awful and committing to doing better, and so we don’t clap.


 It will all be over by 7.30 and you’ll be able to go out into the night having spent an hour as a community recognising the cost of war, acknowledging our debts to those who have gone before, and promising together to build something better. Like Buffy Sainte-Marie, like William Butler Yeats, I dream of a world without war, without jerks, in which there would be no need to fight – but it only takes a few moments of listening to the news this year to see innocence drowned in a blood-dimmed tide. We have work to do – it makes me feel so much better to know that we are doing it together.