It’s November – how’s your courage? Is it keeping you going, keeping you doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing? I hope so – and I hope you’ve been listening to assemblies as we’ve told you what the right thing is – I hope you’ve got into the habit of being on time, of working hard in class, of doing prep and reflection, of responding strategically to feedback. I hope so, because today I’m stepping out of school life a little and I’m not going to be so crass as to draw the parallels between my subject and your lives – you’ll have to do that yourself.
It's November – how’s your courage?
November means I’m wearing a poppy – and quite what that means is a fraught question. Some people don’t like the red poppy, they think it glorifies war, or represents unthinking support for the British Army – many of those tend to wear the white poppy, to emphasise peace, to remember all deaths, not just servicemen and women. Some people think that the whole poppy thing is irrelevant – the first world war (from which the poppy sprang) ended over a hundred years ago, before my grandfathers, your great grandfathers were born. And some people think that not to wear the poppy is close to treason, to be a sign that you hate your country, and disrespect the dead.
It's a bit tricky – anything you do is a statement of some form – anything you do could offend somebody else – and I think that any decision you deliberately, and respectfully, make could be the right one – I’m not here telling you to do the same as me, and I’m not even trying to persuade you that what I’m doing is right. And yet I stand here wearing my poppy – and talking about it, drawing attention to it, making a thing about it. So, why?
Well, I wear my poppy because every November my courage falters. I would hate to go to war – I’d hate to be under orders, to drill and train – I’d hate to be under fire, away from my family, risking my life – but the thing that makes my legs shake is the idea of charging towards the enemy, kill or be killed – I’m not sure I could do either, I’m glad I’ve never been put to that test and I remember those who have. I remember those who signed up willingly, and those who were conscripted. I remember those who fought and those who refused to bear arms but served the wounded and dying. I remember those who died and those who came back. I remember those whose courage took them over the top and those who in that tightest of spots couldn’t do it. And I remember that the hard things that my courage has to face are nothing like those, and I give thanks for my comparatively easy and safe life, and I commit myself anew to making the right decisions, to working hard, to taking advantage of my opportunities.
It's November – how’s your courage?
This November, though, has added challenges because we are very aware of war taking place right now – not a hundred years ago, not far away, and not just in one place – we know of the war in Ukraine, in which around 200,000 have been killed over the last eighteen months – and we know of the war in Gaza where, since the attacks of 7th October around eleven thousand people have been killed – and not just killed, because one and a half million civilians have been driven from their homes in the Gaza strip – one and a half million more refugees fleeing war than there were just a month ago.
I thought of these numbers, together with the 888,246 British deaths in World War 1 and the fifty million dead worldwide in the second world war when I saw a poem on the underground by Karl Shapiro, an American poet writing in the Pacific theatre of World War 2. In fact, it’s a single stanza from a much larger poem, but this is what was written on the poster in my carriage:
We ask for no statistics of the killed,
For nothing political impinges on
This single casualty, or all those gone,
Missing or healing, sinking or dispersed,
Hundreds of thousands counted, millions lost.
More than an accident and less than willed
Is every fall, and this one like the rest.
However others calculate the cost,
To us the final aggregate is one,
One with a name, one transferred to the blest;
And though another stoops and takes the gun,
We cannot add the second to the first.
To us, the final aggregate is one, one with a name, one transferred to the blest. The statistics, the numbers, the histories all lie because they suggest that there are winners when there is only loss – and that loss is one, one person whose life is ended, whose family have a hole blown through their hearts, whose friends stand in silent tears as they remember. And this isn’t what remembrance means to me – I’m lucky - but it is for some I know, maybe some you know – those who have known war, whose hearts have had those holes blown in them, who will take a cup of tea to a quiet spot on Sunday and remember, and cry – who will stand in front of municipal memorials or in places of prayer and hold back those tears because one of that list of names on the stone cross is not just a name, but someone who was alive and loved and is no more. And that is true of every name on every memorial in every town or village in every country – but one is enough. The final aggregate is one.
Which you’d think would make me a pacifist, one who would call for the abolition of the army, of unilateral ceasefire, of the throwing down of arms – and I certainly see truth in Pierre’s words from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, as he muses on the destruction of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and says that if no man ever fought for anything except to defend his home then there would be no wars. He’s right, of course, except that we don’t get to decide what all men do, only what we do, individually, and collectively, and there are the strong who will fight to take what they can from the weak, land, belongings, sex, life – who think that might means right and care nothing for poetry. And if we only fight for our own family then, eventually, as Martin Niemöller said, we will fight alone because there will be nobody left to help us.
It's November, how’s your courage?
I don’t have an answer here, I’m afraid. I don’t have a recipe for peace on earth – except to say that listening more and shouting less will be part of it, I can’t tell you what causes are worth fighting for – except to say that revenge isn’t one of them; I can’t claim to understand the rights and wrongs of the feuds that trouble the news this year – except to say that I think there are too many leaders who care too little for the lives of those they lead, too little for the lives of those they call “enemy”.
What I have is a final thought to bring us back to that poem, that idea that the final tally of war is one and the positive I see underlying it. Another poem that I don’t have time to share is “A Good Man in Hell” by Edwin Muir, and the key line is “One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace to make Hell a place like any other place.” The reason that one death is such a tragedy is that one life is such a hope. One wise word, one calm head, one generous thought can be the one that brings peace to a situation. Each one of us can be that one. Each of us can stand up for what is right, can refuse to do what’s wrong, can choose peace rather than revege, kindness rather than violence. Each one of us can listen, can speak up for those that can’t. It just takes one.
It's November – how’s your courage?
1. Karl Shapiro's poem can be read in full here: Elegy for a Dead Soldier
2. Edwin Muir's poem inspired another assembly: War is Hell