Remembrance Day is but a part of the price citizens pay to maintain the military. We may debate the size of the army, the propriety of its missions and even whether the forces should exist; regardless, a standing military exists and carries out the defence of our country, and as a result sometimes soldiers are killed in the line of duty.
When I served as a Navy chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy a young officer cadet confessed to me that he was afraid of dying in the field. He had just listened to a talk with a seasoned Marine sergeant who told the new trainees that even with the power of the U.S. military there was a chance that they may lose their lives while on duty. A muscular man, the cadet’s size masked his anxiety. He confided that he was afraid and that he wasn’t sure that he was prepared to commit to military service if it meant that he might lose his life. He may have entered the Naval Academy with thoughts of honour, prestige and patriotism, but that afternoon, that 18-year-old cadet fully realised the reality of military service.
In Deuteronomy 20 the Israelites are advised that when they muster an army each individual should reckon with his own fears. The priest announces: “Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them.” The Torah recognises that individuals who are afraid, who are not prepared to fight, and sends them home. In addition, the Israelites are commanded to send home those who have not yet built the foundation of their legacies. Men who have built houses but not dedicated them planted vineyards but not yet harvested them, and those who have become engaged but have not yet married are all excused from the Israelite army of the Tanach. Young men (and today young women too) are ready to fight on behalf of their countries but they are also ready to begin their lives as productive adults. Their sacrifice is an act of selflessness cutting off everything they might contribute in the future for the sake of service to their country.
Until the 20th century Jews did not voluntarily perform military service. Before the Enlightenment whether out of preference or law, Jews kept to their own communities. In 19th century Russia Jewish boys were forcibly conscripted to serve in the czar’s army for 25 years and because of the endemic anti-Semitism, horrendous conditions and the fear that they would lose their Jewish identity, the community resisted military conscription. World War I presented a major shift in Jewish attitudes towards military service; Jews were eager to prove their loyalty to their countries so they volunteered for military service on both sides of the conflict. In total, approximately 1.5 million Jewish citizens of the Allied powers – Britain, Russia, France and the USA – served in their country’s armed forces during the first world war. Similarly, German Jews signed up for military service with 100,000 in the German army and 275,000 Jews in the Austro-Hungarian army. During World War II 1.5 million Jews served in uniform on the side of the Allies. And like their compatriots, Jewish soldiers were killed in action.
Most service members do not dwell on the risk to their lives when they go to war, rather they consider themselves to be professionals with a mission to fulfill. Yet death is a reality of war. When I served as a military chaplain, my role was to comfort wounded Marines (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who had returned from Iraq. I recall the terrible distress the families experienced when their children, who one day had been so healthy were now suffering from the life-long debilitating effects of Traumatic Brain Injury. For the families who lost their children on the battlefield, the anguish was even greater.
Today’s British soldiers are all volunteers, conscription ended over 50 years ago. Whilst they volunteer their service, service members do not have the same liberties as ordinary citizens; they do not have the freedom to reject an order or to refuse to serve in a conflict with which they do not agree. Appropriately so, civilian politicians make decisions about the use of military force. The soldier’s commission is to carry out violence on behalf of the state and even with strict safeguards of a modern military, things can go terribly wrong.
On Remembrance Day, we honour the soldiers, sailors and airmen who have given their lives on behalf of our country. In honouring their memory, we need not glorify war and violence, rather we mark their loss to their families, their loved ones and their lives incomplete. Some served willingly and some were conscripted but all of those who did not come home from the battlefield sacrificed their lives for our future.
Light many lamps and gather round his bed.
Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live.
Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet.
He’s young; he hated war; how should he die
When cruel old campaigners win safe through?
But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went,
And there was silence in the summer night;
Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep.
Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.
(from “The Death Bed” by Siegfried Sassoon)
Rabbi Daniella Kolodny is the Rabbinic Development Consultant at Masorti Judaism.