George Austin on how clergy view conflict

‘The first casualty when war comes’, said Hiram Johnson in 1917 in a speech to the US Senate, ‘is truth.’ It is not always because propaganda demands it. During the Battle of Britain, the huge losses of Nazi aircraft claimed were often because two or even more British pilots had claimed the destruction of the one aircraft. The difficulty for those following a war in the media is distinguishing between truth, doubtful propaganda to raise morale or confuse the enemy, and mistakes simply born out of the chaos of war.

In the build-up to the Iraqi conflict, so much of the pro-war rhetoric seemed to be in the form of selective excuses and, whatever the truth, I felt strongly – with what seemed to be the majority in Britain – that there should be no war without a UN resolution. Yet I was uneasy. The Prime Minister was clearly ready to sacrifice his career in support of Bush and in conflict with many in his own party – an almost unique attitude in a modern politician.

Bush and Blair

What did he know that we did not know? Was there intelligence, or even a spy in Saddam’s camp, that made it clear that Saddam’s certain possession of terrible weapons of mass destruction was a real threat to our future? Was he safeguarding his sources in Iraq? Or was it all in support of a George Bush eager to correct the negligence of his presidential father? I recall, as the Kuwait conflict drew to a sudden close following pressure in America, feeling that one day there would be a price to pay for not removing Saddam’s evil regime when there was the opportunity.

But there were doubts too about the arguments against the Iraqi conflict. I watched the BBC channel that relayed Parliament live during the great debate on the issue. Kenneth Clarke warned that if we went to war the likelihood of chemical or biological attacks in this country in the future was increased. Yet the same argument could be put in the other direction, that if Saddam were not disarmed and the weapons destroyed he would supply them to the bin Ladens of this world.

Most of all, it was when the anti-war marches ceased to be a major and widespread public protest and returned to being simply the usual hairy-left demos against anything done by the West – anti-American, anti-British and of course anti-Israeli – that I began to feel, with great reluctance, that maybe Blair was right and war was the least wrong answer. Particularly so when one spokesperson declared that Saddam had never done anything to support the claim that his was an evil regime. The gassing of whole villages of Kurdish people? The treatment of Shia Muslims? The widespread tortures and killings of opponents of the regime – men, women and children?


Of course it is not the first time that my generation has had to face the possibility of chemical attacks. As a schoolboy, I had to carry a gas mask with me at all times during at least the first few years of the Second World War, every now and then having to take it in to have another section added in order to meet a new threat.

None of us could other than be aware that war brings casualties as from time to time fellow pupils would have fathers or brothers killed in action – one on D-day itself as the British forces landed on the Normandy beaches. Even more vividly I recall a boy whose father was captured in the fall of Singapore, and who had to hear the terrible reports about the treatment of POWs by the Japanese army.

And of course some today would question the truth of the stories of Saddam’s brutality, of the tortures and of the use of chemical and biological weapons. That too is nothing new to an older generation, for the same doubts were expressed before 1939. The Versailles Treaty following the First World War had by 1933 come to be viewed as an unjust peace which robbed the Germans of ‘their patriotic dignity’. Archbishop Lang declared that because of this injustice he could not but recognize the ‘justice and force’ of Hitler’s new popular movement.

Headlam and Bell

The Church of England Record Society has published letters from the Lambeth archives showing clearly the disagreements within the Church on the Nazi threat. In particular Bishop George Bell and Dean Duncan-Jones of Chichester had strong contacts with the courageous leaders of the German ‘Confessional’ Church who were ready to face imprisonment and death for their opposition to Hitler. Their reports were definitive in encouraging at least the British churches to be aware of the evil that was developing in Nazi Germany.

But not all British churchmen shared their views, though much of the dispute was conducted in private. Bishop Headlam of Gloucester in particular was very supportive of the pro-Nazi Deutsche Christen party, claiming that the Confessional Church was a small minority, and observing ‘the sincerity of many German Christians who believed that National Socialism was a force sympathetic to Christianity.’ By 1937 Headlam was complaining to Archbishop Lang that ‘the partisanship of the Dean of Chichester is quite intolerable.’

Even in July 1938, he wrote to the Archbishop opposing the possibility of war, referring to those ‘continuously scolding and irritating the German people and Hitler’ as a ‘sinister element’. He ended the letter in terms that have a modern familiarity, even if they can speak to those on each side of our modern disagreements: ‘It is not our business to keep every nation in order.’

Time and Judgement

Such internal Anglican conflicts mirrored those within the nation in the 1930s. Among politicians appeasement was the popular driving force and ‘aggressive’ men like Winston Churchill were, to say the least, hardly popular. Without the appeasers would an earlier war have curbed Hitler and saved millions of lives?

I write this on the day after Saddam’s statue was demolished, prompting headlines from the Mail and Express: ‘SADDAM TOPPLED’, while the Sun and Mirror both had the more subtle: ‘STATUE OF LIBERTY’. A day later, the media-induced horror at the draping of the Stars and Stripes over the face of the statue of Saddam has had to be amended with the revelation that the flag had been given to the tank’s commander on 9/11. On that day, he was serving in the Pentagon and lost friends in the bombing.

Time changes truth and its interpretation. What more will be known a month from now when this piece is published? What has been propaganda, what has been mistaken interpretation, and what has been the plain, unvarnished truth?

George Austin is a former Archdeacon of York.

He ended the letter in terms that have a modern familiarity: ‘It is not our business to keep every nation in order.’