(This is a post from long ago in the NCOBrief archives, which I have pulled out and reworked several times on this particular anniversary, but still relevant, especially with the Syrian situation hanging over us like a nightmare come to daylight.)
A Sunday September morning, on one of those mild and gorgeous fall days, when the leaves are just starting to turn, but the last of the summer flowers still linger, and the days are warm, yet everyone grabs hold of those last few golden days, knowing how short they are of duration under the coming Doom of winter.
And there is another Doom besides the changing of the seasons on this morning, a Doom that has been building inescapable by treaty obligation for the last two days, clear to the politically savvy for the last two weeks— since the two old political opposites-and-enemies inexplicably signed an alliance— deferred by a humiliating stand-down and betrayal of the trusting two years since, a doom apparent to the far-sighted for nearly a decade. The armies are marching, the jackals bidden to follow after the conqueror, a country betrayed and dismembered, the crack cavalry troops of an army rated as superior to the American Army as it existed then charging against tanks, their ancient and historic cities reduced to rubble – and by obligation and treaty, the Allies are brought to face a brutal reality. That after two decades of peace, after four years of war that countenanced the slaughter of a significant portion of a generation, that left small towns across Europe and Great Britain decimated and plastered with sad memorials carved with endless lists of names, acres of crosses and desolation, sacrifice and grief, for which no one could afterwards give a really good reason, a decade of pledging Never Again – war is come upon them, however much they would wish and hope and pray otherwise. Reservists had been called to active duty, children had been evacuated en mass from the crowded city center, and Neville Chamberlain, who had been given a choice between war and dishonor, chosen dishonor and now had to go before the nation on radio and announce the coming of war:
“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government an official note stating that unless we heard from them by eleven o’clock, that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and consequently this county is at war with Germany. You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful…. We and France are to-day, in fullfillment of our obligations, going to the aid of Poland, so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack on her people. We have a clear conscience, we have done all that any country could do to establish peace. The situation in which no word given by Germany’s ruler could be trusted and no people or country could feel safe has become intolerable. Now we have resolved to finish it, I know you will all play your part with calmness and courage…
When I have finished speaking certain detailed announcements will be made on behalf of the Government. Give these ‘your closest attention. The Government have made plans under’ which It will be possible’ to carry on the work of the nation in the days of stress and strain which may be ahead of us. These plans need your help; you may be taking your part in the fighting Services or as a volunteer in one of the branches of civil defense. If so, you will report for duty in accordance with the instructions you have received. You may be engaged in work essential to the prosecution of war, or for the maintenance of the life of the people in factories in transport in public utility concerns, or in the supply of other necessaries of life. If so it is of vital importance that you should carry on with your job.
Now may God bless you all, and may he defend the right. For it is evil things that we shall be fighting, against brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution, and against them I am certain that Right will prevail.”
The filmmaker John Boorman in the movie Hope and Glory noted the queer occurrence of all the lawnmowers in the suburb suddenly falling silent, everyone listening to the sad speech of a man who has seen his worst fears realized followed by the sound of air raid sirens. It was a false alarm, that morning, but within a year the alarms would sound for real. The docklands would be reduced to rubble, historic churches would fall, the city would burn, but in the aftermath, defiantly humorous signs would appear “More Open Than Usual” and “I Have No Pane, Dear Mother Now.” It would be entirely possible for men who had served in the Western Front to see grim and tragic duty again as firemen and wardens in the streets where they lived in this new war. By the time the Blitz became a reality, most everyone had gotten more or less accustomed to the idea. My Grandpa Jim, though, would take the bombing of London as a personal insult, and be restrained from going downtown and assaulting the German Consulate in Los Angeles, while his son and namesake collected newspaper clippings about the war, and aviation for his scrapbook. I do not think the news of war that came to them on another Sunday morning nearly two years later came entirely as a surprise, only the direction form which it came— east, and not west.
In any case, the news would have come, late on a Sunday morning, after the early service. I like to think this is a hymn that might have been sung in the last few quiet hours before the storm— as it was at the service I attended the day that the ground offensive began in the first Gulf War.
God of Grace and God of Glory, on your people pour Your Power;
Crown your ancient church’s story, Bring it’s bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, For the facing of this hour
For the facing of this hour.
Lo, the hosts of evil round us, Scorn the Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us, Free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of these days,
For the facing of these days!
Cure your children’s warring madness, Bend our pride to your control;
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant is wisdom, grant us courage, Lest we miss Your kingdom’s goal
Lest we miss Your kingdom’s goal.
Set our feet on lofty places, Gird our lives that they may be,
Armored with all Christ-like graces, In the fight to set men free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, That we fail not man nor Thee,
That we fail not man nor Thee
Save us from weak resignation, To the evils we deplore;
Let the gift of Your salvation, Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, Serving You whom we adore,
Serving you whom we adore.
Tune: Cwm Rhondda
Words: Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1930