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Fighting talk

Fighting talk

Pacifism and the counter-idea of a ‘Just War’ seem to have re-emerged into the public psyche over the last few years – not least because recent military operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan have raised ethical issues not widely debated since the Cold War years and the days of nuclear deterrence. Now, rather like buses, two excellent books have emerged from the gloom, both bringing some much needed clarity to these issues, and both challenging some current – and in my view rather woolly – thinking, on the issue of Iraq in particular.

The first, by Canon Dr Alan Billings, examines the history of the changing Christian attitudes and responses to war. The second, by Professor Nigel Biggar, sets out to defend war, including the Iraq conflict of 2003 – not exactly a popular stance. Both, in their different ways, are hugely informative. Both come down on the side of the argument that whilst war is always cruel and an evil it is sometimes the lesser of evils and a necessity; a ‘cruel necessity’ to quote - as Billings does - Oliver Cromwell's supposed murmurings as he surveyed the body of King Charles after his execution. As a soldier for over 40 years, and a Christian for 33 of them, I found both books helpful. Both challenge pacifism, but they don’t dismiss it lightly – and neither should they.

Like most of my British Army contemporaries I found myself in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s in the middle of two sides of a long standing conflict, in my case dismantling Improvised Explosive Devices set by both Protestants and Catholics. Whilst there I saw the reality behind the headlines – the gangsters, the protection rackets, the greed and desire for power. My later operational deployments took me to Cyprus with the UN, the Balkans three times and the Middle East twice – in 1990/91 and 2002/03, when I worked in Washington, Kuwait and then Baghdad.

Throughout those years I experienced the religious, ethnic and cultural bigotry that divides our world and the brutality that flows from it. Such bigotry is certainly not one sided - there are rarely such things as ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in this business. But having, amongst other things, watched mass graves being dug up, words like ‘sin’ and ‘evil’ are not interesting theological issues for me – they are stark realities in a brutal world to which Christians must offer a coherent response. One option is to consciously decide to stay out of that brutality – recognising the implications but refusing to bow to worldly pressures. I don’t believe that to be the right one – I concluded many years ago that sin and evil cannot be allowed to win through - and between them Billings and Biggar have reinforced my decision. 

The Dove, the Fig Leaf and the Sword - Alan Billings

There are some names that seem to creep unannounced into your consciousness; the Revd Cannon Dr Alan Billings is such a man – at least for me. Catching his ‘Thought for the Day’ over the years on the Radio 4 Today programme and his contributions to the Moral Maze, has become an all too rare pleasure. His common sense and insight into ‘events’ is always reassuringly comforting and yet challenging. The ‘Dove, the Fig Leaf and the Sword’ is both of these - and more.

An Anglican priest and a former Director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University, Billings has taught on the ethics of war to many British military audiences, including its chaplaincy. He speaks and writes on the difficult subject of the ethics of war with great clarity, and in this relatively short book of 155 pages he outlines the varying Christian responses to the issue of warfare over the last two millennia with unpretentious rigour. Analysing the developing picture in three distinct phases he concludes by offering his views on where things stand today and, in an Afterword, offers some thoughts on what the contemporary Christian witness should look like in a secularizing society.

The plot moves from the early Church stance of non-resistance - not necessarily pacifism - (his ‘Dove’ of Peace), to an acceptance of the principles of a Just War (the ‘Fig Leaf’ of, for example, the Crusades), through to active Christian support – if not pursuance – of violence in the ‘righteous’ cause of European religious wars and the ‘total wars’ of the 20th century (the Sword). As Billings acknowledges, no commentary is without bias. He stands in the tradition of the Christian realist, most notably associated with Reinhold Niebuhr, but he gives considerable (and considerate) space to all counter-views.

This is an ‘easy’ read for scholars, but also for those not well versed in the niceties of Plato and Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas and Augustine; or indeed the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Billings takes each period in turn, developing the arguments of the relevant thinkers and writers and reaching helpful and logical conclusions. The arguments flow well and convincingly and, whilst hardly a mystery novel, I was held in his grip - I read the whole book in an afternoon and evening and learnt a great deal. Billings uses quotes relatively sparingly in order to set the scene before and then within each chapter, rather than to convince the reader of the writer's expansive research, helping him to develop his own arguments rather than simply plagiarising the views of others. Once or twice I found myself at odds with his thinking – as in his foray into sexual ethics - but I certainly admire his willingness to hold Christians' and the Church's feet to the fire when they so blatantly get it wrong – be that the Crusades and the extraordinary persecutions of the Cathars (supported by the arguments of Augustine and Aquinas) and the Waldensians - on the one hand, or the abandonment of their pacifist principles by the Mennonites after the Bolshevik Revolution on the other.                          

Whilst I was very content with the historical analysis up to the last couple of decades, I would have liked to have seen a bit more debate/argument about the post-Cold War/11th Sep landscape, specifically the development of the United Nations endorsed Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as an appeal to all nations to ensure that we avoid/prevent another Rwanda, and the developing moves toward ‘Smart’ power – the mixture of ‘soft’ power alongside the ‘hard’ (military) stuff. But all in all this is a thoroughly readable analysis of an important topic. Although Billings gently comes down on the ‘realist’ side of the argument, simply presenting the ‘facts’ as he sees them, to all intents and purposes the reader is safely left to make up their own mind on the rights and wrongs of it all. Not so with our next author!

In Defence of War – Nigel Biggar   

Nigel Biggar takes a different line – and he is inevitably therefore more controversial. His pedigree is impressive - Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University and the Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life – to which I should declare an interest as I sit on his Advisory Council. I have seen him operate at close quarters; he is a quiet and seriously impressive academic – with a deep Christian faith.       

He immediately makes it clear that he has a long developed personal interest in war and military history, an interest which led him to an ethical and moral interest in Just War thinking and to some evidently strongly held views. His position is immediately set out in the introduction, sub-titled ‘Against the virus of wishful thinking’! Like Billings, Biggar quickly establishes himself as a Christian Realist – as opposed to a Hobbesian realist. But he also makes it quite clear that, whilst impressed with Niebuhr, he sits alongside him less comfortably than Billings – indeed he considers Niebuhr to be ‘theologically deficient’; which some might consider pretty harsh. Biggar is however, from the word go, not one to sit on the fence! And he continues in this vein – and hence this is a very different read to Billings.   

This took me much longer to get through – not just because it is twice as along as Billings book but because there were sizeable chunks that I needed to read twice. I certainly do not have the sharpest intellectual around (HG Wells is reputed to have said that the professional military mind is, by necessity, an inferior and unimaginative mind – no man of high intellectual ability, he argued, would willingly imprison himself in such a calling), but his arguments are not for the faint hearted. This said it is important to note that Biggar makes it absolutely clear that this is not a textbook, but a series of essays on particular topics - each chapter being intelligible by itself and, therefore, able to be read independently of the others, so it can be tackled over time rather than in one sitting.

In his first chapter Biggar characterises Christian pacifism as a form of wishful thinking - pacifism lacks moral analysis and discrimination – and he sets about dismantling the views of Hauerwas, Yoder and Hays; I have to say I agree with his analysis – although the fact that pacifism has become a default position for quite a number of prominent Christians, including some leading New Testament scholars, perhaps leaves me less certain of my position than Biggar and, as noted above, I have at least some sympathy with them. But Biggar is resolute in both his analysis and, whilst acknowledging the strength of some of the counter-arguments, in his conclusions.  

In the follow-on chapters he argues - following Augustine - that ‘belligerent harshness can be kind’; the just war as a retributive act can be an expression of love. Then, in a chapter on ‘Double Effect’, he distinguishes between the effect that is chosen and the effect that is wanted, arguing that the result of military action might be to bring about a desired and desirable effect but it might also involve consequences which, while inevitable, are not wanted; thus responsibility but not culpability. He then analyses proportionality (and doesn’t avoid the first world war in so doing) and tackles international law and legality (using Kosovo as a test case) all before constructing his case for supporting the invasion of Iraq, which is inevitably the most controversial chapter. 

Throughout there are some necessarily tortuous arguments – and sometimes one feels Biggar has angels dancing on pinheads. In many respects the earlier chapters are simply a necessary precursor to the Iraq case. But collectively I found them all helpful and convincing – but then maybe I would, wouldn’t I? Having served in the operation to remove Saddam from Kuwait in 1990/91, then Kosovo (when I commanded the brigade that led the NATO response to the humanitarian crisis in 1999) and then Iraq in 2003, I never had my doubts that facing up to the Milosevices and Saddams of this world is both necessary and ethically right. Maybe our failure to deal with Saddam properly in 1991 led us into the mire after 2003. But I would also want to make it clear that there are no easy answers here – and that there are those on both sides of any conflict who are not interested in ethics or the Geneva conventions; they are simply interested in resorting to violence.         

Neither Biggar nor Billings tackle the issue of nuclear war, nor the issue of cyber operations, which some today argue will make nuclear weapons redundant.  Billings does touch on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (more commonly – and wrongly – referred to as drones), an issue on which much commentary has generated more heat than light. Are the moral considerations different in these cases? Recent papal pronouncements seem to verge towards pacifism if there is any chance of nuclear or chemical weapons being used, and drones are an incredibly emotional issue.

Interestingly both authors effectively finish by recognising - Biggar explicitly so - that they are moral theologians, not politicians, diplomats or soldiers. Billings specifically says that Christian realists regard these vocations as a high calling - and needing prayer - and both effectively call for a dynamic relationship between academic/theologian/ethicist and practitioners. I am in no doubt that this is so. Pacifists, both Christian and secular, must engage with policy/decision makers, actively educating and challenging in equal measure. But they should also acknowledge that there are no perfect solutions to what Macmillan called "Events, dear boy, events", when the distinction between law, morality, ethics and military realities quickly blurs. In this new age of universal human rights how exactly do you legislate for, differentiate between and then deal practically with people prepared to use any means to achieve their ends, along with the suicide bombers, indiscriminate terrorism, ethnic massacres and the bloody combat that flows from them. All choices carry consequences – and the choice not to intervene carries with it potentially catastrophic consequences; as in Syria. So suggestions that Blair should sit alongside the Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam, Milosevic, Karadzic, and the rest of the genocidal maniacs of the 20th century and be tried as a War Criminal are, in my view, idle.

I reckon that both of these books deserve a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in this important and topical issue – indeed anyone interested in the world around us. And military staff colleges in particular should add them to their reading lists!

The Dove, the Fig Leaf and the Sword is published by SPCK (2014). In Defence of War is published by OUP (2014).

Major General Tim Cross, CBE is a retired British Army officer and a Local Lay Minister in the Church of England - he also chairs the board of Theos.

Image by expertinfantry from under the Creative Commons Licence



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