• Debbie 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