George Austin on the Iraqi crisis

You know you are getting old when events you remember almost as yesterday (or perhaps the day before yesterday) become part of the history syllabus. This came home to me the other day when I was watching one of the excellent programmes on the Second World War on Sky TV’s History channel. The Nazi bombing campaign and the Battle of Britain may be in the fairly dim and distant past, but I have vivid memories as a ten-year-old boy of sitting in an air raid shelter night after night during the Manchester Blitz, of distinguishing between the pulsating throb of the German bombers and the roar of the Rolls-Royce Merlin of a Spitfire, or between the explosion of a bomb and the thunder of anti-aircraft guns.

Close-run thing

But what we did not know at the time, and what was clear from the commentary on the History programme, was the unpleasant fact of how near we came to defeat after the Dunkirk evacuation. Had Hitler not foolishly decided to attack Soviet Russia, we would have been weak and on our own, suffering a collaborating government at best or occupation at worst, a situation well set out in Len Deighton’s novel, SS-GB.

With the growing threat of war against Iraq and the continuing possibility of terrorist attacks like that of September 11th 2001, the Church once again is faced with the need to assess the morality of military action, and it is clear from media reports that church leaders are divided – understandably, in such circumstances.

Private judgements

It was the same in the 1930s. The Church of England Record Office has published a fascinating collection of letters from the Lambeth archives on the growing menace of Nazism in Germany, with Bishop George Bell and Dean Duncan-Jones of Chichester fiercely critical and fearful for the future, and Bishop Headlam of Gloucester more sympathetic and accommodating.

After the 1914–18 war, the injustices perceived by a defeated Germany in the Versailles Treaty paved the way for the growth of Nazism, not because Germans had any desire to conquer Europe, establish a thousand-year Reich, or destroy the Jewish people in a holocaust. But it was fertile soil for the spread of wickedness by a leader like Adolf Hitler.

No parish priest of experience could doubt that evil is not simply the absence of good, but a positive, cancerous reality that can overwhelm otherwise decent people. Surely one of the lessons of the twentieth century is exactly that, where concepts, initially good or logical, can be taken over by a power that destroys anything that is good and replaces it with the demonic.

Alternating evils

In the end Nazism was destroyed, only to be succeeded immediately by the world threat of Soviet Communism. Again, the idea that all people are equal, with a right to share in the property and prosperity of a nation, is a moral concept of value going back to the philosophy of Plato’s Republic. But we know that evil took over and a cancer destroyed any good, with a Stalinist dictatorship callously taking millions of innocent lives.

It really did seem, at least in the 1950s and 1960s, that with a nuclear arsenal, a mighty army and a fanatical devotion to a powerful political gospel, Soviet Russia and China might suck the whole of the civilized world into its evil empire. Yet suddenly, in Russia at any rate, it was over.

I happened to be on three-day duty for Thought for the Day on the BBC’s Today programme in the very week that hard-line Communists arrested Gorbachev. It appeared as if glasnost was at an end and the old régime back in place. Because I had to use that serious political situation each day as the basis for my Thought, I could not have imagined that, against all the odds (as in the Battle of Britain), the whole rotten edifice would collapse, this time just in those three days, and that on the last day I should be talking not about the restoration of an old tyranny but welcoming a new freedom.

Black mischief

The policy of apartheid in South Africa and of the old colonialism in the rest of southern Africa was a moral cause to be fought by brave men like Nelson Mandela in Africa and with the support of Christians throughout the world. But again evil struck, and the eyes of many of those same Christian leaders were deliberately blind to the cruelties of the terrorists they sanitized as ‘freedom fighters’.

In cities, bombs blew up the innocent, black and white. In rural areas groups like Mugabe’s notorious Fifth Brigade systematically slaughtered people of the ‘wrong’ tribe. In other places black non-Marxist dissidents were themselves imprisoned and tortured by the ‘freedom fighters’. Bodies like the World Council of Churches and British church groups knew all this, but eyes were closed and the suffering ignored, with an evil that matched the apartheid it was meant to replace.

Good had for a time been overcome by evil, and just as in Nazi Germany Christians blinded themselves in the pursuit of a political cause. One wonders how far the chilling excuses of those western Christians have been responsible for the present suffering, slaughter and famine in today’s Zimbabwe.

At the brink

The history of the twentieth century has so many examples of a real fight between the powers of good and evil, how just causes have been perverted by the permeation of evil into people and causes originally of good intent. Now in this century, as in the last when the Nazi menace was defeated only to be replaced by that of Soviet communism, so those threats have now been overtaken by an Islamic fundamentalism that is far from the peaceful message of the real religion of the Prophet.

The future, especially with the Iraq issue, can look as bleak as it did in the dark days of 1940 and 1941. As we read media reports and comments, can we know if we are being told the truth of the danger, or is it all a propaganda exercise in order to justify war? But, on the other side of the coin, how would opponents of war calm their consciences if there were to be a nuclear or biological attack on New York or London? And would an attack on attack on Iraq so alienate the Arab world that armies of new Al-Queda fanatics would be recruited? Those whose duty is to make the right decisions need our constant prayers.

But it does seem that yet again Armageddon could be only just round the corner, and that our world never ceases ‘contending not against flesh and blood, but against the powers, against the principalities, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.’