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Angela Tilby: The human complexity of war

10 November 2017


NEXT year’s Reith lectures are to be given by Dr Margaret MacMillan, Professor of International History at Oxford and author of The War That Ended Peace, a masterly survey of the complex build-up to the First World War and the shadow that it continues to cast. Her Reith lectures will be titled “The Mark of Cain”, a reference to the divine curse that followed Cain after the murder of his brother Abel.

Professor MacMillan’s approach is likely to be controversial. She does not believe that war is an aberration, and peace is the norm. Rather, we should see war as deeply woven into our history as empires rise by defeating lesser powers and decline, leaving others to pick on the carcass. Fear is a motivator to war, as is the distinction between honour and shame, passed down from generation to generation. And the part played by individuals should never be discounted: wars break out as a result of thousands of human judgements and misjudgements.

In the peace that Europe has enjoyed since the Second World War, there has, perhaps, been a tendency to understand war simplistically, as evidence of a deranged defiance of the natural order. Yet the natural order is not as peaceful as we might hope. There is never a perfect balance of power: historic grievances persist, sometimes increasing through time; diplomatic errors stoke misunderstanding; threats intended merely to warn produce violent responses. The First World War was triggered by an almost random event that, in other circumstances, might have been contained: the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo.

I am reading Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation (Fourth Estate, 2005). He focuses on the Middle East, where the shadow of the Great War is still being played out in nationalist, ethnic, and religious conflict, complicated by the interventions of the superpowers. As a war correspondent for many years, he has chronicled the wars of the Middle East in unrelenting detail, and with moral passion. For him, the agonies of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria can all be attributed to the imperial arrogance of the United States and Britain. His is the kind of approach which understandably encourages Christians towards pacifism.

Yet I wonder whether the curse of Cain does, in fact, reflect a bitter theological truth about human nature: about incompetence, misplaced confidence, and wrong assumptions, as much as about aggressive pride. We are all hostages to the basic fear of annihilation by others. In recent years, this fear has come to our own cities through terrorism.

Professor MacMillan believes that we need to address the human complexity of war by learning how often we have muddled our way to a catastrophe that we never desired or intended. Understanding is, perhaps, more important than blame.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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