As murder is condemned in public opinion and in law, so must collective murder be
Paul Oestreicher Guardian/UK 17 November 2011
It calls for a special kind of military courage for a former chief of the general staff to cry out – as Richard Dannatt did (Face to Faith, 12 November) – for a spiritual answer to the good soldier in Afghanistan who has done what he is trained to do and was then impelled to write: "Afterwards I sat there and thought: hang on, I just shot someone … I didn't get to sleep that night … I shot someone." Faced with the good soldier's pain, General Dannatt doubts whether what he calls a "sound moral baseline" is enough – belief in a cause or a leader or even his regiment. It calls, he thinks, for "a spiritual dimension … very much a thing of the heart".
I have spent much of my personal and professional life as a priest, as a church diplomat and as a Quaker, wrestling with that question. Is there a faith-based answer to that private soldier, private in more than one sense? Both my Christian head and my heart tell me that that circle cannot be squared. For too long killing has gone on in some god's name.
"I am the enemy you killed, my friend" is the posthumous cry of the soldier in Wilfred Owen's poem, sung poignantly at the end of Britten's soul-searching War Requiem. Just once in the first world war at Christmas both sides put down their rifles and played a game of football. The common soldiers, British and Germans, knew they had everything in common, but then went on to kill each other. More of such indiscipline would have destroyed military morale. Yet with hindsight, the killing had all been pointless.
I've been privileged to speak of the required spiritual dimension to officers being trained to man our nuclear submarines, those men who, "when the chips are down and the reality of life and death confronts, are reaching out into the spiritual dimension, beyond the rational and beyond the moral". That dimension must hold out the realistic hope of an end to the killing. The outlawing of slavery was not, as most thought, fanciful. Wilberforce achieved it. So it must be with war.
Albert Einstein made that plain long ago. He knew there was no limit to our ability to kill, that the enemy of our survival is war. As murder is condemned in public opinion and in law, so must collective murder be. For the one we go to prison, for the other we get a medal or a hero's funeral.
As our streets are policed, so must our global village be in the future that we hold out to the good soldier's children and theirs. It is a huge task but already in the planning. The Movement for the Abolition of War is not a group of dreamers. It calls for hard heads and brave hearts. It is for generals and privates and the rest of us whose taxes still pay for the killing.
The good soldier is never given a chance to question why, but (with apologies to Kipling) to kill or die. He need not do either, for as the soldier quoted by Richard Dannatt said: "You know … the geezer's another human being." To act on that sentiment is surely the spiritual dimension that the general longs for.