I went to a special screening of a 100 year old silent film, ‘The Battle of the Somme’, last night. It’s doing a tour of the UK with full orchestra. It shows men fighting in World War One.
A lot of the film involves watching scenes that have been preceded by the words ‘THESE MEN CAME UNDER HEAVY FIRE 20 MINUTES LATER’. And you know that the British Army lost more men on the first day of The Battle of the Somme than they ever have in one day before or since. Hundreds and hundreds. So you’re seeing these men’s last moments. There are cheeky, innocent waves to the camera. Sparkling, crookedtooth smiles. Long, sharp knives being fixed to the barrel of guns. Sad, tired eyes. Then there are the terrifying, skyhigh bomb plumes. Dirty, broken helmets and scattered boots. Bodies. More bodies.
At one point in the film you see German soldiers. These were ‘prisoners’. They were found wounded, shellshocked, scared, cowering, alone. Some were found in trenches that had been blasted out, others just left for dead on ‘No Man’s Land’. The British soldiers stared at them, and they stared back. Neither side looks particularly comfortable. There are clearly looks of shock, fear, confusion but also recognition. They sit the Germans down and at last some brave soul offers a particularly badly wounded soldier something – presumably brandy or even water – from a flask. Then another man comes forward and gives one a cigarette. And through the tension, another gives a whole pack.
The scene reminded me of a quote from a Syrian volunteer. He is part of The White Helmets, a neutral civilian group that are working throughout the current war to care for the wounded, rescue people trapped in rubble, etc. They recently got nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mustafa is his name. He said: ‘Killing is easy. Saving lives is much harder.’ I don’t think he was just talking about moving rubble.
When the British soldiers were staring into the face of the aftermath of their bombs, it must have been hard for them. The soldiers had uniform and boots and dirty faces and tired eyes just like them. But they’d killed some of their friends. Both sides had friends killed. Both sides saw the bodies. Not just shown for 70 minutes on a screen in a comfortable cinema, but etched in their memories forever, with the sound of firing, screaming, bombing as a neverending accompaniment.
Those British men in 1916 decided, in the midst of chaos and carnage, to give a little of what they had – their cigarettes – to others they saw as more needy. And not only that, but those they had been taught were their enemies. These Syrian men in 2016, in the midst of chaos and carnage, still give to others they see as more needy. And not only that, but those that just might be – apparently – their enemies.
It is harder to save lives than kill because healing rifts and divisions between communities is not easy, forgiveness requires real effort and strength. Plus after you’re finished fighting you have to save your own life, you have to get yourself psychologically well and balanced after trauma. It takes time. Everything hard takes time. Working your way through complex, messy, political, legal, geographical situations takes patience. You can’t end terrorism by bombing a town, you can’t stop immigration by building a wall, you can’t end racism with a hashtag, you can’t fund a hospital with a UKIP poster, you can’t get a job with a Facebook like. But what you can do are small, unselfish acts of mercy and grace.