Losing small wars, but not learning lessons…

Britain has been engaged in some small war or other for much of the last couple of decades. Small that is as they are not here- the public are not particularly involved, and most of the time are not even very interested.

The last couple- Iraq and Afghanistan- will probably come to define our age- along with the ‘credit crisis’, and the death of Princess Di.

When these wars are spoken about at all in the media, a strange kind of mythological language is used. We start from a position of ‘our brave boys’ (no argument there- mostly we send boys, and they are incredibly brave) who are part of the most professional, humane and most highly respected army in the whole world.

Criticism of the war is possible- in terms of the political decisions that have been made- but criticism of the actual way the war is being waged by our Generals is not countenanced.

If you are interested in an alternative perspective, then I would recommend listening to Start the Week on the i-player, here.

Frank Ledwidge was devastating in his analysis. He described how we lost the war in Iraq- including the humiliation in Basra, where our forces were rescued by an exasperated US army. We then went on the lose the war in Afghanistan, where we sent our troops to a place where they were only ever going to be seen as an invading unwelcome army- given our history in the region.

The scary thing about this is how little we are prepared to hear these critical voices. We have been brought up to view our own military misadventures as essentially good versus bad- the plucky resourceful Brit against the Hun/Jap/Red. We always triumph in the end- true character always does.

This ignores all the evidence to the contrary- the mounting body bags, the torture of prisoners, the resounding “NO!” echoing from the population of all these countries that we are supposedly liberating.

Them there is the stench of post imperialist self-interest, and the feeling of being manipulated by murky spinners of media messages- all of that gung ho ‘smart’ bombing and ‘shock and awe’-ing.

The discussion mentioned above identified some key myths that we really should watch out for (along with a few of my own suggestions)-

  • “Failure is not an option”- we will win. We. Will. Win. Or at least give it the appearance of victory.
  • “This year is the pivotal year”- as each one seems to be.
  • More money will win ‘hearts and minds’.
  • You can’t trust the locals.
  • The hero myth- glorious death. Dulce et decorum est.
  • War will solve our problems.
  • You can fight a war on terrorists by terrorising their communities in return.
There is a different path of course- to see these things from the perspective of the individual. This is a luxury that governments, particular superpowers, appear not to have. The voices that emerge from war that are the most powerful in retrospect are ALWAYS the stories of individuals faced with the awfulness of war.
Our TV’s are full of the soldiers stories- amputees and medal winners, returners to family. We have so few stories of ordinary Afghans.
Let us create space for honest debate, and for the sharing of stories of small ordinary people in extra ordinary situations.

Diplomacy by Xbox…

That was what I spat out when one of my fellow retreatants  passed on the news of the recent death of some of Gaddafi’s family– his son and three of his young grandsons.

On our return from the island, we learned too about the death of Osama Bin Laden– and the national rejoicing across the USA.

The contrast with the peace and tranquility that we had just experienced was palpable.

As if the final level of the game had now been successfully navigated. Time to put the controller down and go to bed. We can order Call of Duty 14 in the morning and start all over again.

We can take out some more towel heads tomorrow because it is not real- not real flesh and gristle we smeared on a whitewashed wall. Not real  just-brushed baby teeth that we smashed in. Not real martyrs that we made.

It was all on a screen.

We have the power, and might is always right.

Here is a little quote from Brian McLaren that says it all-

Joyfully celebrating the killing of a killer who joyfully celebrated killing carries an irony that I hope will not be lost on us. Are we learning anything, or simply spinning harder in the cycle of violence?

Filming war…

Emily regularly tells me stories about lessons at school deliberately to wind me up. It is an innocent enough sport, and I am easily defeated.

One of the things that she teases me with is the teaching of all sorts of subjects- History, Religious and Moral Education, English Literature- through the medium of Hollywood movies.

So History is taught by watching- Braveheart.

Shakespeare is taught be watching Leonardo Di Caprio pretending to be Romeo.

Moral issues are taught by watching war films- a whole series of them it seems.

I am not meaning to have a pop at teachers- I think they do a difficult job with passion and skill- but (as Marshall McLuhan said) the medium is the message- and film has this way of sowing images in our minds that are hard to shift.

And when these images are manipulations of the truth (as all film is of course, to a lesser or greater degree) then I think it is important to ask whose world view we are buying into- whose version of truth is being propagated.

It is difficult to escape the realisation that the lens is controlled by the powerful, and not the weak. The powerful even strap cameras to their bombs and missiles. It makes for great TV.


This was brought home most powerfully to me recently when watching the great John Pilger’s film ‘The War You Don’t See.’ This film deals with what happens when cameras go to war- in an age of ’embedded’ reporters, and carefully controlled press briefings.

If you have any interest in justice in an age of technological warfare waged by superpowers in out name, you must watch this film. It is available on you tube- here.

Here is the trailer

The film also makes some points about the role of war films in all of this that made me sit up. Like most blokes, I like a good war film- heroic buddy movies for the most part- escapism for those of us who have never been exposed to the harsh realities of war.

Most of us can see through the jingoism of the world war two films,  and also the nonsense of the Rambo/Schwarzenegger comic book violence, but Pilger made some interesting points about the modern crop of films- even those who appear to carry an anti war message. Pilger pointed out how they carry a myth of the soldier as innocent victim, and in doing so distort entirely the reality of modern war, which above all is characterised by it’s ability to dehumanise and so denude ‘the other’.

It is war reduced to video game and CGI.

Fiction becomes truth- fake heroism, the vindication of our way of life in the face of despotic extremism seen in the lives of our enemy. Despite the fact that the enemy then become victim to our own despotic extremism.

Just in case you do not believe me, it is worth watching the back end of this clip-

The question is still with me- does showing our kids war films make it more likely that wars like this will not be be fought in the future?

I doubt it.

How about getting hold of a copy of the Pilger film?

That might.


Pacifism in an age of terror and torture…

We live in an age of fear.

It often seems that this fear is fostered deliberately, as justification for actions which governments take on our behalf.

The newspapers are full of stories of so-called terrorists tortured by American soldiers, and the alleged complicity of British security forces.

Where are the voices raised by Christians in the US against the barbaric way that prisoners are being treated in the name of the worlds only superpower?

Well- here are some of them- courageous, powerful and moving. This film is not easy to watch- but it seems ever more important…

Rambo, Hollywood and war…

Rambo III was on this evening. I flicked past it, and found my eyebrows shooting upwards.

I have never been a fan of these films- which always made me laugh. The ridiculous plot lines, the wooden acting, the stereotypical bad guys- and the fact that no-one could shoot straight, apart from Rambo of course, who can dodge nuclear missiles. However, I had not realised that they could be prophetic- until just now.

So, a quick recap of the plot to Rambo III. Rambo’s former commander and side kick is captured whilst delivering missiles to some brave freedom fighters who are heroically resisting the evil Soviet invasion of their country- Afghanistan. The names of the freedom fighters? The Taliban. Of course, Rambo kicks much ass, kills all the bad people, and frees the Taliban from the oppressive heel of oppression.

Along the way, there is plenty of tub thumping American propoganda.

Check out this clip- and you will understand my raised eyebrows!

By way of further discussion- there is a good post by Brian McLaren in response to a recent speech by President Obama. He quotes Obama as saying this-

… mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

The President of the USA has such  responsibility. The worlds only superpower, currently fighting wars in two foreign soils. But like many, I remain unconvinced that the response to violence should be greater violence. Jesus pointed us to a different way of being…

I loved McLaren’s comment on this-

I don’t judge the President; I’m just a citizen with a lot less intelligence (of whatever sort) than he has. But I wonder if someday he will see that he was right in his first assessment of Gandhi and King: they spoke not from naivete about evil and violence but from “a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” Yes, one can be naive about the insidious reality of evil, but one can also be naive about the “germs of self-destruction” contained within our attempts to overcome evil through “the mass application of force.”Somehow we must live with vigilance against both kinds of naivete, Presidents and citizens alike.

Not for the first time, I find myself saying “Amen Brian, amen.”

Bonhoeffer- was he wrong?


Bonhoeffer is one of our Evangelical heroes.

The good German- an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. Whose incisive faith saw through the evil that had overcome his people like a cancer, and allowed him to stand alone- a candle in darkness, a voice in the wilderness.

I sort of knew this. But I have read very little of his writings.

Michaela is persevering with ‘Life together‘ although it is not an easy read- this is partly because of the style.

The surprise to most of us is that Bonhoeffer was executed not for passive peaceful resistance of Hitler’s regime, but rather for plotting with Canaris and von Stauffenberg to overcome Hitler with a Coup- which included the assassination of Hitler- the famous bomb plot.

The great pacifist theologian, who had visited Ghandi in the 1930s in order to understand non-violent resistance had turned to violence and political power games. He became a double agent.

Did the potential ends justify the means? It is scarcely possible to conceive of a regime that is more evil within our modern experience. What else could a good man do, but seek to overcome by any means possible? Christians fighting against Hitler have long seen this as a ‘just war‘. I think I might have agreed with them had I been a child of Bonhoeffers age.

But history has a way of allowing us time to consider, and weigh the weight of the matter- and for us, the Spirit of the thing, the theology of the thing- this becomes important.

Other Christians resisted. I visited a prison in Berlin years ago where dozens of pastors were hanged much earlier in the war than Bonhoeffer for criticising Hitler. Leaders like Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller formed the Confessing church in protest against the Nazi appropriation of the  Church as part of the State machinery.

What did Bonhoeffer acheive with his part in the plot against Hitler? Probably very little. The plot failed, and by that time the war had been raging for years, and millions of Jews, Gypsy’s, homosexuals and ‘Untermensch‘ had already died and been processed through industrial ovens in Eastern Europe. History records the plot as too little, too late.

Would peaceful protests have achieved more? It seems that death would have come to him either way.

Bonhoeffers feelings about his chosen path appear to have been mixed. He had no doubt that what he was doing was a moral choice that he may well need to answer for before God. He refused to allow prayers for him by the Confessing church whilst he was in prison, as he suggested prayer should be for Christians imprisoned as martyrs, not through acts of direct resistance such as his.

So- what choices are we followers of Jesus to make in the face of war and violence and oppression? His words seem clear enough. But his followers have always found the reality more complex. Jesus seemed to be more than willing to mix with Roman Soldiers, and Peter carried a sword at least once in his company.

For me, violence is something to be resisted in itself- particularly when it is perpetrated by one state on another. Particularly when Christians appear to support this violence and claim that God is on their side. The American/British appetite for war post 911 is a case in point. But Bonhoeffer- his times were very different.

Perhaps circumstances will always demand of us- choices. Extreme circumstances demand the more black and white ones. For the rest of us, we have theory, and theology. Bonhoeffer had enough of theology that was not anchored to practical activity in the service of the oppressed.

But I still wonder if he got it wrong…

There are a few films out about his life- usually American. Bonhoeffer seems to be able to be appropriated as a Saint by the conservatives and the liberals. There are a few clips of You Tube if you are interested-

A time for war…

I started a new poetry thing the other day as part of a collection called ‘lists’. A result of chewing on passages in the Bible- the beatitudes, the fruit of the Spirit etc. The list I am working on at the moment is Ecclesiastes chapter 3-

There is a time for everything- and a season for all things under heaven…


A time for war

There is a time for all things under heaven

A time to dig trenches and put up barbed wire
Then run to our deaths into withering fire
A time for mass graves, for mothers to wear black
Time to kill and to maim, a time to attack

A time to dehumanise, a time to breed hate
A time to decide the whole nations fate
A time when all truth is wrapped up in lies
For secret policemen and neighbourhood spies

A time to manipulate the news and the media
A time of unassailable powerful leaders
A time of expedient centralised power
Cometh the man in this our dark hour

A time for Guantanamo, a time for Auschwitz
A time of gas chambers and motherless kids
A time to throw rocks and let loose the rockets
A time for dead eyes fixed in dead sockets

A time for insurgents, a time to suppress
To disappear dissidents, and people oppress
Of brave freedom fighters and terrorist cells
A time for Robin Hoods and William Tells

In some foreign field or in our back yard
In red sucking mud or ground frozen hard
Lie the bones of our children who answered the call
Now glorious dead with their names on a wall

A time to break up and time to destroy
A time to make men of every small boy
Over by Christmas or just a bit more
Now is the time for us to make war