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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

Remembering war – or is it better to forget?

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

With thoughts turning to Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day next month, in another of his occasional pieces, Terry Martin considers the cost of remembering those lost in conflict.

In this paper, I consider pastoral responses to the emotional and psychological consequences of war and the place that public rituals, particularly those associated with Remembrance Day, might contribute to the healing process; 'war is a public and collective experience, leaving memories which can be described as social as much as personal...' (1)

In his autobiographical novel, The Soldier’s Return (2), the author Melvyn Bragg uses the semi-fictional character, Sam, to explore issues that have a deep resonance with those I am wanting to address. Sam has recently returned from the Japanese theatre of war and the fighting in Burma. Like so many of his generation who saw active service in World War II, and others before him in World War I, he has had experiences that he finds it difficult, perhaps impossible, to talk about. At a reunion of old comrades who shared these same experiences, he can reminisce. These experiences deeply affect every aspect of his life and impact upon those whom he loves, particularly his wife and son. Yet, he cannot share these experiences with either of them. He thereby excludes them from an important and damaged part of himself, and in doing so unwittingly rejects the most likely sources of healing and help. They have been denied an opportunity to give help, even though their capacity to give might be tested to the limits. The story of his life might be summarised thus:

He went to war and had terrible experiences.

He came back and couldn’t talk about them.

This could also be the story of millions of other lives. The psychological cost on those that went to war and returned is incalculable. There is also an enormous psychological cost, often forgotten, on the families of those who went.

In the dedication at the front of a book on therapy, the author wrote:

'In memory of my father, the pain of whose childhood cast long shadows forward.' (3)

This dedication says so much in so few words and we can only speculate about what that pain meant for the author. She may have coped, as many do, by becoming active in pastoral care as a therapist working with and for children.

Of all wars in recent times, World War I of 1914-18 still casts the longest shadows forward, even though it is now only within the living memory of relatively few people. World War II is more likely to have impacted, directly or indirectly, many of us. My belief is that the psychological and emotional consequences of both these wars are more widespread and longer-lasting than we would like to think and that the implications for pastoral care are considerable.

It is estimated that 100 million people died in wars fought in the 20th Century (4) and that World War I and II claimed a significant proportion of this total. Psychiatric services developed enormously during and after World War I as large numbers of servicemen were diagnosed with shell shock. The novels of Pat Barker have brought the work of the psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers to public attention. Shell shock has evolved into post-traumatic stress disorder which has become an officially recognised, although socially constructed, condition (5). Looking back, we can see that because of the enormous number of casualties, a large proportion of the population was exposed to trauma without support or treatment. This has produced a legacy of grief on an unprecedented scale, which may never have been fully expressed or confronted.

Why Remembrance Day?

Like most why questions we can respond in at least two different ways. Firstly, in terms of purpose, we can answer with a sentence starting with 'In order to...' The answer is couched in terms of meaning and understanding and has an orientation towards the future. Secondly, in terms of reasons, we can answer with a sentence starting with 'Because...' The answer is couched in terms of causation and explanation and has an orientation towards the past.

So, for our question, Why Remembrance Day? we can generate an answer in terms of the well-known (in part) history, whereby the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month which marked the signing of the Armistice to signal the end, at 11am on 11th November 1918, of World War I, became the point at which the nation observed a two-minute silence.

Further details of this history, some of which are not so well known can be found on the website of the British Legion (6). Remembrance Day is thereby inextricably linked to World War I, the history of which 'is a subject of perennial fascination' (7). This takes us into issues generated by the second way, where we consider the purposes and meaning of Remembrance Day.

The 'traditional' and the 'modern'

In the introduction to his work, Winter, from whom I quoted earlier, also writes:

'Transcendence was a privilege not a commonplace experience. To remember the anxiety of 1,500 days of war necessarily entailed how to forget; in the interwar years those who couldn’t obliterate the nightmares were locked in mental asylums throughout Europe. Most people were luckier. They knew both remembering and forgetting, and by living through both, they had at least the chance to transcend the terrible losses of war.' (8)

Winter goes on to say:

'In the years following the war, in the face of the army of the dead, the effort to commemorate went beyond the conventional shibboleths of patriotism. Yes, these millions died for their country, but to say so was merely to begin, not to conclude, the search for the "meaning" of the unprecedented slaughter of the Great War. Even to pose the question was bound to be appallingly difficult; full of ambivalence and confusion, charged with tentativeness and more than a fragment of futility.' (9)

He claims that there are two basic components in current interpretations of World War I and its cultural history, the 'traditional' and the 'modern. These interpretations are responses to the issues of how we can imagine, make sense and remember an event of such awesome proportions. In referring to the 'modern', Winter inevitably draws upon the notion of 'modern memory' as explored in the seminal work of Fussell (10). 'The Great War brought the search for an appropriate language of loss to the centre of cultural and political life' (11). For Fussell, an appropriate language is essentially ironic. However, as Winter goes on to point out:

'The cutting edge of "modern memory", its multifaceted sense of dislocation, paradox, and the ironic, could express anger and despair, and did so in enduring ways; it was melancholic, but it could not heal.' (12)

Where then can we turn to for healing? Although not without its problems, we need to turn to the 'traditional'.

'The strength of what may be termed "traditional" forms in social and cultural life, in art, poetry, and ritual, lay in their power to mediate bereavement... Traditional modes of seeing the war, whilst at times less challengingly intellectually or philosophically, provided a way of remembering which enabled the bereaved to live with their losses, and perhaps leave them behind.' (13)

'Ritual behaviour comprises words and actions which are symbolic rather than utilitarian' (14); those words and actions which form part of Remembrance Day are largely expressed in 'traditional' forms. They provide an opportunity, if suitably organised, to provide 'symbolic contact with sources of renewal' (15), are 'manifestations of extra-dependence'(16) and in these 'community rites of mourning … objects and actions are given symbolic meaning' (17).

In the preface to their work, the editors, Power and Brewin, whilst acknowledging that the therapeutic relationship is necessary for providing the context for effective therapy, raise the possibility that an important mechanism through which change occurs is the transformation of meaning (18). We cannot, therefore, evade the difficult challenge of confronting the meaning of war and the trauma it induces.

The Meaning of Trauma

In the midst of war, we are challenged to the core of our being about our assumptions of the trustworthiness of the world and the essential goodness and love of God. Whether we are active participants (combatants) or onlookers who have nevertheless been caught up in the events, we are exposed to profound disturbance. This may involve being:

  • A civilian casualty – modern warfare often brings a heavier toll of death, injury and destruction on non-combatant civilians than those in the armed services.

  • A relative or friend of those more directly affected.

Within the broad framework of psychodynamic theory, any human experience that has not been adequately processed continues to haunt us in the present.

Organising our experiences and creating meanings takes time and experiences like bereavement happen so fast and are so disruptive of our basic sense of self that we often cannot process them and they remain frozen inside us. This is the hallmark of a traumatic experience; it is unfinished business that we have failed to work through and remains inside at an unconscious level but still influencing current behaviour and emotional response (19).

This operates at both the individual and collective levels. Wars, particularly those involving large numbers of people, generate an enormous legacy of unfinished business in the hearts and minds not only of the generation, which experienced them firsthand but also of subsequent generations.

The fact that World War I still haunts the communal memory suggests that we have still not yet completed our work of remembrance. (20)

Whether or not we can, or indeed should, ever complete a work of remembrance remains a serious issue. There are both productive and non-productive ways of both remembering and forgetting.

Traumatic events force survivors to confront questions of meaning in their lives. These questions are posed with an intensity and immediacy that reflect the overwhelming power of meaning-related concerns in the aftermath of extreme negative events. Survivors are struck by the extent to which meaning, in its many disguises, had typically been assumed and taken for granted in their lives. Now their traumatic experience compels them to re-examine these earlier, easy assumptions.

'Meaning can be defined in numerous ways, including purpose, intent, order, sense, signification and denotation... There appear to be two primary understandings of meaning that help inform survivors' crises and coping post-trauma: meaning as comprehensibility and meaning as significance. The first involves questions regarding whether something "makes sense"; in other words, whether it fits with a system of accepted rules or theories. The second involves questions regarding whether something is of value or worth.' (21)

If 'the context of pastoral counselling is ultimate meanings and concerns...' (22) then we cannot evade or avoid the uncomfortable questions that the experience of war provokes. Dr Ben Givens, in David Gutterson's novel East of the Mountains, continues to be haunted by his experiences in World War II, which included, as it did for many, the killing of enemy soldiers.

'He told her about the German he'd killed, the man's eyes, his legs in front of him, the twitching, rattling death. "I didn’t think," he confessed.

"It's difficult in a situation like that."

"It didn’t have to be that way."

"It’s done now," said Rachel...

"Maybe he had a wife. A family."

"It's in the past," said Rachel.’ (23)

'He couldn’t rise with his war still in him, and he lay there feeling troubled by it as he had for fifty-three years.' (24)

The question why is often asked by those who have been victimised as well as those who have been perpetrators, and the question is invariably about meaning and purpose. In pastoral care, theodicy is not an optional extra but at the centre of the process of the quest to find meaning and purpose in the midst of the man-made devastation of war.


The creation of meaning is a social as well as an individual process, in which public ritual, as well as personal 'therapy', are mutually complementary. Each is necessary and neither is sufficient. Public ritual is also an important part of the socialisation process of the young, even if cultural transmission models of the curriculum are often considered outmoded. If our instinct is to leave unfinished business well alone then there will be a price to pay. If our instinct is to continue to engage with the meaning-making process, then there will be a price to pay too. The price in both cases is both personal and social. The ambiguity and ambivalence of my title, 'Remembering War - or is it better to forget?', intimates that those choices are far from easy.


1. D. Summerfield ‘The Social Experience of War and Some issues for the Humanitarian Field’ in P. Bracken & C. Petty (eds.) Rethinking the Trauma of War. London and New York: Free Association Books 1998, p22

2. M. Bragg, The Soldier’s Return. Hodder and Stoughton 1999.

3. L. McMahon, The handbook of play therapy. Routledge 1992.

4. Exhibit at the Imperial War Museum.

5. A. Young, The Harmony of Illusions. Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Princeton University Press 1995.

6. The address of the website (URL) is

7. J. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge University Press 1995, p1.

8. Ibid, p2.

9. Ibid.

10. P. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press 1975.

11. J. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, p5.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. B. Reed, The Dynamics of Religion. Darton, Longman & Todd 1978, p41.

15. Ibid. p15.

16. Ibid p43.

17. D. Durston, ‘Community Rites and the Process of Grieving’ in R. Weston, T. Martin, & Y. Anderson, (eds.) Loss and Bereavement: Managing Change. Blackwell Science 1998, p214.

18. M. Power & C. Brewin, (eds.) The Transformation of Meaning in Psychological Therapies: Integrating Theory and Practice. John Wiley 1997, pxi.

19. T. Martin & R. Weston, ‘A Theoretical Framework for Understanding Loss and the Helping Process’ in R. Weston et al, (eds.) Loss and Bereavement: Managing Change. p5.

20. A. Wilkinson, The Church of England and the First World War. SPCK 1978, p310.

21. R. Janoff-Bulman & C. McPherson, ‘The Impact of Trauma on Meaning: From Meaningless World to Meaningful Life’ in M. Power & C. Brewin, (eds.) The Transformation of Meaning in Psychological Therapies: Integrating Theory and Practice. John Wiley 1997, p91.

22. P. van de Kasteele, Clinical Theology Association Newsletter No. 67 1996, p4.

23. D. Gutterson, East of the Mountains. Bloomsbury 1999, p200.

24. Ibid p202.

(Terry Martin, trustee of Caraway which supports Anna Chaplains in Southampton, originally published this paper in Contact - The Interdisciplinary Journal of Pastoral Studies)




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