Twenty-four members of the Scout Group were yesterday commissioned for a trip to Uganda in August. Taking with them cash they themselves have raised in order to pay local Ugandan workers to build a school extension; they are going to use their Scouting skills and experience to spend three weeks running youth camps for local children – initially 250 children were to be involved, that number has risen to six hundred. Teaching arts and crafts, and songs and music, and sports and games, and all the practical stuff which goes with Scouting, the group will be enriched by their experiences and will hopefully leave something of lasting value in the communities they visit. Even the teaching of sports and games can achieve long-term positive benefits in communities where out of school young people slip easily into cultures of drinking and casual sex.
Introducing the commissioning the Group Scout Leader scanned the walls of the church, “When we look around the church and see the brass plaques commemorating those young people who were sent from this parish to kill and to die in the havoc of war, isn’t it good that young people can now go in peace to do good things?”
The teenagers who went from here to be slaughtered on the Western Front would surely have agreed. A choice between bringing happiness into the lives of hundreds of young people, and lying in mud and sewage until being blown into so many bits that there is not enough of you left for there even to be a grave, would not be a hard one to make.
Ninety years on from the brass plaques and the slaughterers still rule the world. In countries often marked by desperate poverty, huge resources are expended on keeping dictators in power and warding off threats from neighbours; enterprises fuelled by a huge international armaments industry that last year generated unprecedented revenues. The BBC reports this morning that ‘Global military spending rose 4% in 2008 to a record $1,464bn (£914bn) – up 45% since 1999’.
There will be no brass plaques for most of the teenagers at the receiving end of that weaponry; no-one will recall their names in ninety years time, few enough people will remember them at the time of their death. Lying in some pit or some shallow grave, atomised by an explosion, burned to no more than ash, rotting in some undergrowth, will their deaths have achieved any more than those whose names are recorded on our church walls? Eric Bogle’s Willie McBride, resting beneath the green fields of France, can still not sleep easily:
And I can’t help but wonder now Willie McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
You really believed that this war would end war?
But the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame –
The killing and dying – it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it’s all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again.
Would nineteen year old Willie McBride not have loved a world in which he could have travelled with his friends for work and laughter in Uganda?