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Why war is never a final solution

12 March 2008

Peter Selby analyses the results of the resort to violence in Iraq and elsewhere

Optimistic moment: the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on 9 April 2003

Optimistic moment: the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on 9 April 2003

THIS is a March for remembering. It is five years since the start of the Iraq invasion. Perhaps it is a more encouraging memory that it is ten years since the Good Friday Agreement brought us a little nearer — we can now see that it was just a little nearer — to peace in Northern Ireland, though it still left much work of peacemaking to be done.

That these two sets of memories crowd in on us this March is something we should see as a significant coincidence, with much to remind us of the results of the resort to violence, and the huge difficulties that stand in the way of peacemaking once violence has happened.

In the case of Iraq, the entail of war goes on and on, as it does also in Afghanistan. Northern Ireland reminds us that the Troubles lasted 30 years, and that it took a full decade from the Belfast Agreement to the point where a shared administration for Northern Ireland could come into being.

War is a comet with a long tail. “Does Her Majesty’s Government have a policy for ending a war in Iraq?” was the most searching of the parliamentary questions asked on the eve of the invasion. It is a proper question to address to all who contemplate resort to violence, whether they are governments or those who wish to attack them; starting it is not the problem.

These two anniversaries should prompt some thought about timescale, above all else. It is the attraction of the resort to violence that it appears to promise a quick and final solution to an immediate issue.

The death of an enemy, whether your own or someone else’s, appears to be an ending — though it should not surprise Christian believers to find that it is no such thing.

The conflict and the peace process that provide this month’s anniversaries are themselves part of the entail of previous resorts to violence — the Iran-Iraq war, the division of Ireland — battles still remembered, still endowed with the capacity to bring hurts to the surface, and bring further resorts to violence in the future.

When it comes to the Iraq war, we have, of course, to remember tens of thousands dead from an insurgency that was clearly prophesied by senior military officers and diplomats of experience, not to mention archbishops and bishops, too. There were indeed terrible deaths under the previous Iraqi regime; of course there were. But it is hard now to sustain the myth that this was an errand of mercy to save life.

Yet there is far more to remember than the deaths that have resulted from the invasion itself and its aftermath. Those of us who walked — one-million strong, of all races, faiths, and political allegiances — by the Thames, to plead that this invasion should not happen, will remember our pride in our country, its freedoms, its faces of many colours.

Then we shall remember the Government’s disregard, the knowledge that if one million did not suffice, neither would two or three million, in the face of one person’s view of history and his part in it. We shall remember that course of events because it gave a further impetus to a new generation’s alienation from the political process, adding to the despair that makes it less and less likely that people might be willing to take to the streets to stop a war.

This particular war, like many before it, carries the added burden that it was founded on a deception about weapons of mass destruction — a further attack on the basis of truthfulness on which the essential trust between government and governed depends.

There are more diffuse outcomes to remember as well: there is the rise in levels of violence, as young people take to the streets, not to make a political difference, but simply to escape or to find kicks — literally, all too often — because violence has been taken up by the adult generation as the only alternative.

If they believe it, says the next generation, why should not we? There is no need to watch horror movies, when, for large parts of the past five years, the news will do, for its daily reinforcement that this society has decided that violence is the only option for our world.

While we are told often enough that there has been a decline in crime over recent years, what has not happened is any decline in the fear of crime. The world is still becoming an increasingly dangerous place in popular perception, and strident voices still call for “tougher” penalties.

IT REMAINS etched into my memory — as someone whose theological education happened in the period when the United States was torn apart by the pursuit of the war in South-East Asia — just what a devastating effect on my American fellow-students resulted from a war that dominated every conversation, not to mention every act of worship and pastoral care.

That was hardly surprising, since many of them were avoiding service in Vietnam only because they were ordinands. How do you decide your vocation in the context of such a dilemma?

The entail of the Vietnam War, and the dilemmas to which it gave rise, are, in my judgement, a continuing factor in the consciousness of members of the Episcopal Church in the United States: that comet’s tail runs right through the Anglican Communion, alongside the entails of other wars, civil and international.

Perhaps in 1945 someone asked Harry Truman the question: “Do you have a policy for ending the recourse to nuclear weapons?” when the first nuclear bomb was dropped, and we all became children of Hiroshima. There, in a reverse of our understanding of an eternal flame, there burns a flame that will not be extinguished till the last nuclear weapon has been removed from the face of the earth. It is a flame not principally of memory, but of hope.

THE most serious entail of our addiction to war and the recourse to violence is the loss of the sense of timescale, and, with it, any sense of the virtue of patience.

The lure of war, and especially a pre-emptive war such as began five years ago, is the lure of the Tree of Knowledge: do this — eat this — and what you seek will be quickly and finally achieved. The lure is, above all, of a false timescale: so far from resolving an issue in an instant and with finality, the recourse to war extends way into an unknown future the entail of violence and further violence.

Resolution, if there is to be any, lies in something much more patient. To listen to those who negotiate peace is always to listen to people who expect to take enormous amounts of time. The decade since the Good Friday Agreement has been marked by that kind of patience. The language of the period since the invasion of Iraq has always been that of increasing the stakes in the search for a final solution — “troop surges” and the rest.

Remembering the five years since Iraq is therefore changed by remembering the ten years since the Belfast Agreement. Both are changed by remembering the long-running character of violence and its entail.

As we continue to spend vast sums on the renewal of Trident, and to send soldiers to the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, we remember the false search for the quick answer which is represented in the recourse to war and violence. Whatever the history of war has produced, it has not been quick, and certainly not final.

Such memories also lead to the possibility of the grateful pursuit of the more patient options. We are learning, if slowly, that we have to take seriously the timescale of nature; that the development of relationships takes time; that the processes of peacemaking may have more in common with the changes we need to pursue than with the dramatic attempts to police the world with the weapons of war.

What is clear, in Iraq, in Gaza — wherever the recourse is to violence — is that the search for the immediate resolution produces only continuing grief. The weapons of the spirit, of which patience is perhaps the most needful of all in the theatres of war, will in the end be the ones to which we shall have to turn, so that the cycle of war can be broken.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Bodies for Prisons and Immigration Removal Centres, and a former Bishop of Worcester.

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