While serving in Afghanistan, Petty Officer Chris Holden has attended numerous memorials to honour the dead. This is what they look like to an atheist
People tend to reject the primitive religions, but sun worship seems to me an entirely rational theology. This occurred to me, ironically, as I struggled into full body armour, beneath a sun as merciless as the Old Testament God, in the Main Operating Base (MOB) Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.
As I shouldered my rifle, an amplified wail erupted beyond the sandbags and wire and over the MOB’s monolithic walls. In Helmand Province, the Islamic call-to-prayer resolutely punctuates the pattern of life, and while it fails to emancipate Afghans from the “tyranny of cousins”, liberal alternatives are crushed with great success.
But the Adhan was competing today with an infidel chant. ISAF Christians had congregated in a canvas chapel and their hymn was melodic to be sure. Yet in this harsh environment, the Islamic lament retains an atavistic authenticity. One imagines the nomads of antiquity, hunkered around flickering camp fires, swathed against the desert dust, mesmerised by the verses of the great mystic poets, or perhaps just ranting in the Abrahamic tradition.
I reached the canvas chapel and glanced inside. The Anglican flock were dressed like me in crumpled deserts and scuffed boots. They had worked, slept and eaten beside me constantly for months. Nevertheless, as they projected their voices in unified praise, I knew I had no business with them here, so I turned away and trudged on through the dust alone.
Later that afternoon, the MOB gathered to remember the latest victim of the war. These vigils are frequent and militaristic, of course, but they are also overtly religious – much more so than you might expect. We stand at ease in deep files facing a wide concrete cloister the colour of sun-bleached bone. Obstinate sage-green plants line its base and embossed plaques denote a memorial. Before it, coalition flags on tall, white poles hang limp at half-mast. A waist-high wooden cross and a pulpit stand ready in the dust. The overall effect is Spartan – and exquisitely poignant.
We wait, silent as posts, sweating. Mosquitoes zip and buzz, provoking constantly; but discipline incarcerates so our only reaction is clandestine twitching. The stillness is quite extraordinary. Then a sudden, powdery wind whispers like a living thing. The flags billow for a moment . . . and then flop once more, exhausted.
Still we wait.
The sun relents a little, but it delegates a modicum of its oppressive power to the Regimental Sergeant Major, who scrutinises us constantly for illegal movement. He clamps his parade stick underarm and briefs us with perfect calibration: “Remember why you are here!” he bellows. And we do. “If you feel queasy, I have no problem at all with you fainting. As long as you remain perfectly at attention until your face connects with the ground, nothing more will be said.”
We slam to attention.
The Brigadier enters the compound and we stiffen like androids. The RSM salutes. Snippets of their exchange carry on hot, undulating breezes: “… at ease, RSM,” says the Brigadier, “… remember . . . fallen warrior … gave . . . today, for our tomorrow . . .”
We stand at ease.
The Padre, a Lt Colonel commando, with wisps of light-brown hair and eyes like soft steel, wears an ankle-length black stole over his multi-terrain-pattern combats. He walks to the pulpit, and even now, after so many times, I still marvel at his calm. The wooden symbol of his faith casts its long shadow across the memorial behind him. He grips the dais, sets his broad face towards the declining sun, inhales the baked air for a moment, and then begins:
“I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.
“We gather today to remember . . .”
I have no right to record the name of the fallen here. I want to give a sense of this experience from the perspective of an unbeliever, but there is a dignity to what I have seen and I will not betray it.
“Heavenly Father, through your Son Jesus Christ you have given us a lasting hope. Grant to those who are bereaved the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have strength to meet the days to come, not sorrowing as those without hope, but in the sure expectation of a joyful reunion in the heavenly places. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The Brigadier takes the pulpit: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.”
In a land repressively nurtured and obscenely abused by religion, the introductory invitation to Pascal’s Wager is chilling, but my reaction to the Psalm is more complex. The Brigadier delivers it earnestly, and this strikes me with a kind of dread. Its bucolic promise is implausible, yet a furtive glance left and right reveals a sea of bowed heads. “No man is an island,” reckons Donne, but he was never an atheist in Afghanistan during prayer.
And yet! In this ultra-real-surreal situation, could secular poetry compare? Wilfred Owen is for all time, but precisely recalls his own; troops in Helmand are often “bent double”, but never like old beggars under sacks.
Who will express the essence of loss in this war? Or have we resolved the “Romantic dilemma”? Perhaps our poetry hides in shaky footage, from a helmet web-cam.
In any case, Psalm 23 moves me. If you skipped the words, take a moment and read them again. They do make me think about the fallen soldier, my comrade, a human being I have never met and will now never know; but I am not relating an epiphany. Empathy moves me, of course, and the sublime apprehension that I am here, that violent death is not an abstraction, injects . . . not fear exactly . . . more a giddy dose of existential anxiety.
The eulogy, read by a shaken comrade, is always the hardest to bear. We listen grimly to the synopsis of a life that is both unique and similar to our own. I impose the faces of my family on to those so recently shattered. This is solipsism, I know; but I am powerless.
“Parade . . . Shun!”
Dust explodes around our boots. The RSM, a ramrod, recites from memory the name and number of the fallen.
“They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn: At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.”
We echo, “We will remember them!” and my spine sings.
Then, as the memorial’s radiating whiteness softens, the first sour note trembles from a bugle, and the Last Post resonates in a way that would be bellicose if not for its undeniable beauty. Towards the end, I flinch at a dropped note, but somehow this breaks the spell and articulates the futility of it all with crystalline precision.
Silence. I think about the young man in whose name we are gathered; but my thoughts inexorably turn to my own dear friend, lost to this war. The sadness I feel is constant and too deep for words. I cannot analyse it here; I am not ready.
After a conscious minute, the Reveille’s three-toned chords cleave the silence. Then the Padre recites the commendation and invokes The Lord’s Prayer.
The instant rhythmic murmur isolates me from the rest like a compound wall. A memory strikes: in primary school, many years ago, I used to dread this ritual. I never learnt the words and I would mouth silent nonsense with the skill of a French mime. It bewildered me that the other kids knew it. I thought the knowledge must be innate, that I was deficient in some way. I don’t think that any more – nor do I mime.
After Amen, the Padre recites a prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake: “O Lord God, when thou givest thy servants to endeavour any great matter/Grant us also to know that it is not the beginning/But the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished/Which yieldeth the true glory; through him, who for the finishing of thy work/ Laid down his life, our redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Then he traces the shape of a cross in the air and proclaims: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, may God’s light be upon you and those you love. Amen.”
The RSM crunches dust as he turns smartly and salutes the Brigadier. We tense in anticipation. “Parade complete, Sir. Permission to carry on?” “Carry on, RSM.” “Parade . . . Shun! Dismiss!”
We turn 90 degrees to the right, dwell for two marching paces and then disperse. We exchange glances darkly. Then someone mutters, “That was honking.” This colloquialism will mean little to you, but to us it says it all.