Column
Comment
Middle East
War & peace
4 min read

Cynical twists that make wars unjust

The dodgy deals and human shields of a past war still disgust George Pitcher, who questions if just war criteria remain fit for today.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A destroyed airliner lies on the apron of a war-torn airport.
A destroyed British Airways plane at Kuwait airport in 1991.
USN, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the very early hours of Thursday 17th January 1991, I was despatched as a young journalist on The Observer to the dealing rooms of Smith New Court, a worthy firm of stockbrokers in the City of London, to witness how the markets reacted to the outbreak of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. 

A yellowing newspaper cutting shows I reported that, a little before 8am, Smith New Court’s chairman, Sir Michael Richardson watched prime minister John Major declare war on a TV monitor and then said:  

“I had a nudge on the political line a little early, so I’ve been up all night. We have to keep things tightly under control.” 

He did indeed say those words, but it’s not the whole story. Walking up to him on the dealing floor, I asked how we were positioned in the markets for war. Mistaking me for one of his dealers, my notes showed that he replied:

"Number 10 called me last night, so we could adjust our positions in oil. So we should be okay.” 

It was a magnificent example of insider-dealing, in collusion with the government. A few minutes later a Smith New Court PR woman ran up to me to say that Sir Michael hadn’t meant that and even if he’d said it, I was a guest on the floor and everything said there was confidential. 

Kuwait was always about oil. This was an insight into where the UK’s political and financial priorities lay. Richardson had been at the heart of Margaret Thatcher’s Government as an unofficial adviser to the Treasury. This was his dividend. Eventually he was to lose his dealing licence for making unsafe loans to an American entrepreneur. He died in 2003. 

I’m reminded of this story today, Thursday 21st September, the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, because it reminds me of where governments’ priorities really lie, because these are the priorities that invariably threaten peace.  

And it matters because over 300 people on board were subjected to unimaginable suffering as “human-shield” hostages.

I’m also reminded that only last week passengers and crew aboard British Airways Flight 149 are preparing legal action against the government for being treated as “disposal collateral”, as the aircraft was used to plant special forces in Kuwait in the early hours of 2nd August 1990, as Iraqi forces crossed the border. 

Their claim is that the UK government and BA have “concealed and denied the truth for more than 30 years". The issue has come to a head now because documents released in 2021 show that the Foreign Office was warned of the invasion an hour before the plane touched down.  

And it matters because over 300 people on board were subjected to unimaginable suffering as “human-shield” hostages over the following five months. 

These stories have a common thread. Smith New Court, with the government’s help, was about money. The government, with BA’s help, was about protecting its Kuwait oil reserves. It’ll be proven that the lives of innocent people mattered much less against these priorities, if they win their case. 

That should make us very angry indeed. The sheer hypocrisy of rhetoric that spoke of defending the people of Kuwait is one thing. The idea that they could simultaneously serve God and Mammon is quite another. 

But it may be that just-war criteria have failed to keep up with the motivations of global late-capitalism. 

The principles of the “just war” have enjoyed a long tradition in Christian thought. The foundations that were laid in the classical Greek school by the likes of Aristotle were built upon to provide a moral architecture for armed conflict by the Italian Dominican friar and philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. 

The just war tradition distils into two sets of criteria:  jus ad bellum (the right to go to war) and jus in bello (right conduct within war). The former set contains consideration of “just cause” and rules out war as a simple means of recapturing things or punishing people who have done wrong. The second includes matters of proportionality. By these clauses, combatants must ensure that harm caused to civilians or civilian property is not excessive in relation to military advantages gained.  

In the second war with Iraq, an adventure that prime minister Tony Blair started with US president George W Bush in 2003, neither of these criteria arguably were met, along with others besides. To paraphrase Wilde, they knew the price of oil and values counted for nothing. 

But it may be that just-war criteria have failed to keep up with the motivations of global late-capitalism. Economic dependence on oil is now more usually something we hear about in the context of the green movement’s war on the climate crisis. Dependence on oil actually has a firmer grip on political control of the cost of living in western democracies. 

These are not issues that occurred to hot-shot stockbrokers playing war games in 1991, nor to a privatised national airline allegedly being requisitioned for military purposes. But it’s surely not too much to hope that the senior actors in either instance should have summoned at least a religious folk memory to say: No, this isn’t right.  

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.