Thursday 16 August 2012

Ambiguity in Alrewas

We left the National Memorial Arboretum in thoughtful mood, like most visitors. For the most part wonderful in both conception and execution, it provokes reflection in the way that, presumably, was intended. But for me, as ever, it was ambiguous. Some might see a monument to valour, others to folly. It's easy, following the success of the Olympics, and the national pride they rightly engendered, to see these commemorated service men and women as having given themselves for the protection of worthwhile values. The elements of truth in that ensure that we shall going on remembering in the ways we do.

But as I looked at the names of those killed while on duty since the Second World War, I calculated there were between 16 and 20 thousand. Looking at the years heading each section I tried to think who they would have been, and the names of some trouble spots that I was aware of since childhood came to mind. Aden, Kenya… Do we feel the same today about the values we were fighting for then? The troubles in Northern Ireland still create their own discussions, let alone the political and economic complexities of the conflicts in the Falklands and Iraq. To get public support for fighting there is often the need to reduce the issues to something very basic, and sound-bites are the enemy of rational consideration.

The Chapel embodied some of these tensions. It is the "Millennium Chapel of Peace and Reconciliation". Not much to look at yet from the outside, but inside it is airy, and I liked the unusual tree pillars. It has two lecterns, and each has an embroidery – one with a quotation from Revelation 22:2 ("The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations") and the other with the BBC motto ("Nation shall speak peace unto nation") which is loosely based on Isaiah 2:4. But the Chapel also has that strange amalgum of Christian and military imagery that often seems to go beyond the rightful provision of pastoral support for those engaged in fighting. I never had much time for flags in churches ("God bless our war"), though this is not a church as such and I didn't actually check out what the flags were. But, in addition, the huge cross on the wall is in fact a sword, and the quotation underneath it is strange: "Raise up a living nation, a single sword to thee". I don't know if that is a quotation from somewhere, but it seems to be rather more militaristic than thousands of last-night Prommers singing "Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land."

War is a profoundly sorrowful thing, though I have come to think that sometimes it is probably necessary, and that there are things it is right to fight for physically. It's strange that I can mix all these thoughts and emotions with the enjoyment of books or films based in war-time or on the premise of conflict. But that's ambiguity for you.


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