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Interview: Tim Cross, retired army officer

13 March 2020

‘I don’t think that Jesus was a pacificst in the way we define that in the modern world’

As a Major General, I commanded one of the three Divisions of the UK Field Army. It was around 30,000 strong, and was a mixture of different capabilities, including Reconnaissance, Artillery, Engineers, Signals, Logistics, and Medics.

I was a bomb-disposal officer in Northern Ireland in the 1970s; worked with the UN on peacekeeping in Cyprus in 1981; and served with 1st (UK) Armoured Division in the Gulf War in 1991 in high-intensity war fighting. I did three tours in the Balkans, including Kosovo, in the mid- to late 1990s on peace-enforcement and humanitarian operations.

I served in Iraq: in Baghdad, in 2003, on what quickly became counter-insurgency operations. This is the term we use to describe a step up from peace-enforcement operations, on a spectrum from work helping non-combatants to all-out nuclear exchange. These terms are taught as doctrine in our staff colleges, because people need to know what the laws are on engagement, and what they are being sent out to do.

There seems to have been only 350 years or so in the history of the world when there hasn’t been some conflict. In recent times, there have only been a very few years when a British soldier has not been killed on operations somewhere in the world. We still have people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been people serving on operations throughout my army career — 43 years, man and boy.

I was adopted by my father, who worked for Shell. We lived in various places, including Australia. I went to a grammar school in Somerset. I left at 16 to join the army, about 20 years after D-Day, because I wanted to be out and about — not stuck in an office.

Generally speaking, the British Army looks after its personnel well, but you don’t join the army to become rich.

The army relates well to government, even though the vast majority of MPs have no experience of military operations. I’ve had to brief prime ministers who have no knowledge of our work, but I don’t belittle them for that. Military dictatorships abound throughout the world, more’s the pity.

I was a witness to the Chilcot enquiry and was critical that we didn’t have a clear and coherent post-war plan for Iraq. Most people thought that we didn’t really need a plan: once we’ve got rid of Saddam Hussein, a wonderful new democracy would emerge, and they never considered a Plan B or C. [Tony] Blair genuinely felt that we should stand alongside the Americans and that we couldn’t stand by while thousands of people were being killed; but we didn’t think through the post-war plan well. The reality is that most politicians always think that war is going to be over by Christmas, but that’s never the way it pans out.

Sadly, there’ll always be brutal regimes that we wouldn’t want to be friends with. Our links to the United States are the key. NATO remains very important. Europe has not got much defence capability, except France. Other countries such as Australia are also important.

My first serious exposure to God was in the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem in 1981, as a result of which I became a disciple. I became a local lay minister or lay Reader in the 1990s.

I don’t find it difficult to reconcile early Christian teaching that being a disciple is incompatible with serving in the army. Soldiers are more than well aware of evil and sin in a fallen world. War is always evil — but I’ve also watched mass graves being dug out, I’ve been to places where you can smell, taste evil, find out what awful atrocities have taken place. Soldiers ask themselves why people do this to each other.

When the soldiers go to John the Baptist to ask what they should do, he tells them “Be content with your pay” — not “Leave the army.” Don’t abuse your power over people. Jesus meets a centurion and heals his servant, and exclaims, “I’ve never found faith like this in Israel.” Paul uses soldierly languages and talks about a soldier who saved his life in a shipwreck. Would God have used these people if there was something fundamentally wrong with being a solider? In Luke’s account of the last supper, Jesus tells his disciples, “If you haven’t got a sword, sell your tunic and buy one.” They have two, and he allows them to carry them to the garden of Gethsemane, but Jesus doesn’t allow them to use them there. That wasn’t the place to use force.

I don’t think that Jesus was a pacifist in the way we define that in the modern world. Abuse of power is something that Christians should be standing up against in all its forms. In the same way that we need a police force, we need military force that can deal with the leaders who are slaughtering people in the world. Does God want a British army with no Christians in it? I think he wants Christians in all walks of life. My question, then, was how I should behave as a Christian in the army.

My proudest achievement is my marriage. We’ve nearly reached our 48th anniversary, and we have three grown-up children and five grandchildren. I’m also proud of commanding a brigade in Kosovo that built and ran refugee camps in Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo itself, and trying to serve God in different ways.

Courage is a muscle: if we exercise it, we become more courageous. We’re all afraid of stuff. There’s physical and moral courage. Physical, on a battlefield, dealing with things — that’s often an immediate reaction and the result of your training. When doing bomb-disposal work I was following processes and procedures that I had been taught, and I felt in control. Of course, I was afraid occasionally, and sometimes wondered, Will I survive? Will I be brave?

Moral courage is standing up for what we believe in when most people are walking away from the problem and refusing to be involved. You can’t control the circumstances, and it’s often needed over a long time, when you know people are being bullied at work, or there’s people fiddling the books or abusing someone. It’s when I can’t control something that makes me uneasy: a child’s illness, even being in a traffic jam. That’s more difficult than being in a fighting patrol.

I live comfortably with the responsibility of making decisions which I know will lead to military and civilian deaths, because fighting terrorism and brutal dictatorships will never be easy and casualties are the only certainty of any military operation.

I do pray, mostly for the family and friends, but also for preparing to preach, and making difficult choices.

When you’re serving in the military, when people say they’ll do something, they’ll do it. When I retired, I found the contrast very frustrating. Half the world seems to go round complaining about the other half. There’s a clear chain of command, and people are generally positive, getting on with stuff, whatever the conditions. Now, I only work with people I like, and I’m not prepared to work with people who aren’t committed.

Being a Reader is the heartbeat of what I do. The golden thread that links my business and work for companies, my visiting professorships at Nottingham and Reading, and lecturing and church and charitable work is morally courageous leadership. The good Lord opened the contacts, and I preach, speak, and lecture in many places, mainly about my military roles and being a Christian in the military, about truth and courage. I advise a couple of charities and chaired the board of Theos, a Christian think tank. I love it, actually. The Lord has opened incredible doors. This year, I spoke at the carol service of the Foreign Office, in Southwark Cathedral, and in all sorts of places I’d never have dreamed of. You’re not done until you’re dead.

Abortion makes me angry. I was adopted as a tiny baby in 1950. Would I have been aborted today? After my third son, now 29, was conceived, 14 years after our second son, my wife was offered an abortion by a nurse, who said, “This is clearly a mistake — you’ll want to get rid of this baby.” When I spoke, she said, “This has nothing to do with you. Get out.” My daughter had a second child, diagnosed with a harelip when in the womb, and was offered an abortion straightaway. The boy was born with special needs, but he’s a wonderful child.

I’m not against all abortion, but we are aborting 200,000 babies every year in England and Wales. How can we allow this to happen?

I like the sound of the alarm clock going off. It means I’m still alive.

My children and grandchildren give me hope for the future, and my hope is in Jesus Christ, and an eternity in the Kingdom.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d like to be with Rabbi Lord Sacks. He’s the best social commentator. He writes about the need for a moral component in society, and defines a community as somewhere where people know you by name and miss you when you’re not there. Churches should be like that. He writes about the moral components of fighting power: friendship, honour, integrity, morality. You can give money and power away, but give away love and duty and friendship, and you end up with more. He also has an incredible understanding of the Jewish faith, which is really important for Christians.

Major General Tim Cross was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

He will deliver a lecture, “Leadership: Making Life and Death Decisions” at 7.30 p. m. on Wednesday (18 March) at All Souls’, Langham Place, London W1. Free tickets can be obtained at eventbrite.co.uk.

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