Some reflections on war

by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

In a well-tended cemetery with uniform grave markers situated just outside the city of Jakarta (Indonesia) repose the remains of my paternal grandfather. Harold George Gissing was an ordinary man, a painter by trade. His was a tragically short experience of war. Perhaps a year stationed in England for training and for civil defense, but less than two weeks in theatre and he was gone. His remains entombed in a common grave such was the destruction of his battlefield–remains were difficult to identify and assemble into a peculiar grave for each person.

There are strange mercies in war, however, and some might count it a mercy that he did not survive. His brother Charlie (who served in the same unit) survived the battle, but became a prisoner of war–a living hell by all accounts.

On the other side of the world, back in England, a little boy is experiencing warfare prior to the advent of precision-guided ordinance. Air raid sirens. Barrage balloons. Shelters. As I’ve talked with my father over the years I’ve been increasingly struck by the horror of those experiences. As a child, he recalls, there was a thrill to the sirens and tracer rounds. And yet there were unspeakable horrors like discovering a woman’s scalp in the back garden–apparently blown from her head by the force of an explosion. The rending of families. My Dad recalls that perhaps half of the men on his street died in the war. Countless families without fathers, wives without husbands.

To claim that “war is hell” is perhaps an understatement. War is inhumane. War is horrific. War is evil. War is sometimes necessary–fools rush to war. And yet generation by generation men (and women) repeatedly respond in the affirmative to the request to enter into this hell. I find this to be quite remarkable. And it evokes in me a profound respect that recoils from spectacle, from pomp and circumstance, and from grandiosity. In face of such evil, of such sacrifice, I find that silence is really the only thing that can even begin to capture to weight of the moment.

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