The Menace of War

A hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War and we are forced to ask ourselves whether we are on the brink of the Third — or has it already broken out in a thousand different places, in a thousand different guises? We look at North Africa, the Near and Middle East; at parts of subSaharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent; at Malaysia and even further afield; and then are brought up short by reflecting that even here, on our own streets, there is violence and the threat of violence, talk of radicalisation and extremism. Parliament’s recall to discuss British participation in air strikes against IS is widely regarded as a rubber-stamp exercise. Pope Francis has spoken eloquently about the cataclysm enveloping us; President Obama has ratcheted up his rhetoric a notch to condemn the ungodly nature of the brutal killings that are the IS trademark; but ordinary people, you and me, what do we make of it all?

We live very near the headquarters of the SAS and are very aware of the brave men and women who are sent to perform extraordinarily dangerous tasks in order to protect us against various threats, both here and overseas. But we are also aware that the nature of war is changing. It is now much more diffuse, much more hidden. It takes place in shopping malls and subway stations; it targets the civilian as much as, in some ways even more than, the military. The legality of air strikes against IS in Iraq is, to the layman, much clearer than the supposed grounds on which Mr Bush and Mr Blair led us into the last Iraq conflict. The measure being put before Parliament today is hedged with all kinds of qualifications, some of them no doubt intended to ensure that Mr Milliband cannot rock the boat, but still there is fear of mission creep and the inevitable backlash.

The truth is we are faced with an impossible choice. Whether we act or do not act, people are going to die. In earlier posts I have written about the conditions that need to be met for what is called a just war. We cannot pretend that we are not involved in what Parliament decides today. We cannot say, ‘Not in my name’ and thereby distance ourselves from the consequences of that decision. The men and women stationed in Cyprus know very well that within a few hours half a dozen British Tornadoes may be taking to the skies with the aim of inflicting as much damage as they can on IS forces. However ambivalent we may feel about the use of violence, however torn, we have to face up to the fact that we are not dealing with people who are open to reason. Many innocent people have already died terrible deaths at their hands. Let us pray that IS may be stopped from inflicting even more death and destruction. At the same time, let us also pray for the courage and determination to bear the consequences of what promises to be a long and bloody conflict, not only ‘over there’ but also over here.

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Waging War with Civilians and Other Horrors

It can be very hard to understand why anyone should wish to use bullets, bombs, kidnapping, torture and other horrors to achieve their aims, yet that is precisely what is happening in many parts of the world. Hamas wants to destroy Israel so rains down rocket-fire; Israel wants to destroy Gaza so rains down air-strikes and ground offensives; ISIS wants to eliminate anyone who thinks or believes differently so uses bully-boy tactics on Christians and other religious groups; Boko Haram has its own vision, if one can call it that, for Nigeria and has no scruples about using kidnap and terror against the civilian population. In every case, it is civilians who suffer most; and as far as I can see, the shocking truth is that civilian suffering is what is intended. If enough civilians die, there will be a shift in thinking; existing power-structures will crumble; victory will have been won.

It would naive to believe that waging war with civilians is a novelty. Sadly, it has always been so; but today’s weaponry makes it easier and deadlier than ever. That raises all kinds of moral questions about Just War theory, individual/collective responsibility, the role of Superpowers and so on. I’m not sure what bloggers and others have to contribute to the debate, but perhaps thinking in terms of ‘debate’ itself contributes to the problem. We are not talking about something abstract and ultimately harmless but about human lives. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and remember that what is done, or not done, today affects not only the present generation but generations to come. Wars are rarely born of sudden misunderstandings or power-grabs. They tend to come from long-simmering feuds and resentments, from the memory of hurts, real or imagined, that we all carry within us. Perhaps there is something there for us all to think about today.

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The Price of Peace

The price of peace is letting oneself be taken for a coward, a fool, even someone who secretly favours the enemy — whoever or whatever the enemy may happen to be. Being a pacifist is not the same as being a wimp. It means that one can never have the golden glow of feeling heroic, that one has made a difference or done the ‘right thing’ as often conceived. It means a different kind of anguish, one that no warlike activity can relieve; and it is an anguish many must be experiencing today as the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria grows ever closer. Most of us want peace and are prepared to defend it; but that is not the same thing as seeking to impose our ideas about peace on others. Whether we are pacifists, believing that war is never justifiable, or whether we are reluctant fighters, believing war must only ever be a last resort, the situation in Syria calls for some clear, cool thinking about ourselves as well as what we think is happening there. Emotional muddle, soundbite theology and Walter Mitty fantasies are not the best preparation.

We might begin by thinking about what is called the Just War Theory. St Augustine, whose feast we celebrate today, believed that the only just reason for going to war was the desire for peace. St Thomas Aquinas later elaborated on this so that, in his view, three conditions must be met for any war to be called just:

  1. Legitimate authority, with the duty of preserving the common good, must declare the war;
  2. there must be just cause;
  3. the warring party must have the right intention, so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.

To these many would now add that war should always be the last resort, when all other means of resolving differences or righting wrongs have failed; that there should be proportionality, so that whatever good may be achieved is not outweighed by the harm that will result; and that there should be a reasonable probability of success.

I am not sure how a missile strike against Syria measures up against these, but I hope our politicians will think very seriously indeed. President Obama’s talk of a red line being crossed if chemical weapons were used must, in retrospect, look unwise. Men, women and children have been dying as a result of the bloodshed in Syria for two years. The manner of their deaths has been different, but it is surely the fact that they have been killed, rather than the weaponry used to kill them, that is significant. Are the conditions for a just war being met? Can they be met? If the West acts now against Syria, the conflict will escalate. War in the Middle East will quickly spin out of control and mean war elsewhere. The consequences are too horrible to contemplate. If the price of peace is to be thought a coward, the price of an unjust war — perhaps any war — is, quite simply, death.

Note: for the record, I am totally opposed to Western military intervention in Syria and pray that a peaceful solution may be found.

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