Monday, 27 June 2016

Fallujah, the 'resistance' city, is liberated yet again – for the fourth time in a decade

There are reasons to be cautious about the claims that the Iraqi city of Fallujah is freed from Isis control

Robert Fisk @indyvoices                     Independent                          27 June 2016

When the Iraqi commander tells the people of Iraq that Fallujah has been “liberated” – for the fourth time in a decade, by my count – it’s time to use the critical faculties that politicians and armies so often lack. Fallujah, you may remember, was the "city of mosques" whose Sunni people liberated themselves from Saddam’s rule a few days before their American liberators turned up in 2003 to tell the world they had themselves freed Fallujah from the evil Saddam. Then the city decided it didn’t want the American version of liberation and its resistance forces began attacking US troops who found themselves fighting – you guessed it – “terrorists” in Fallujah.

In two street protests in 2003, the American 82nd Airborne managed to kill 19 Iraqi civilians. They claimed that they had been fired on by the protestors, but human rights groups said they could find no evidence of this. Nor could journalists who visited the scene. Come early 2004, and four armed American mercenaries in Fallujah, betrayed by a local Fallujah cop, were hauled from their vehicles and murdered. The Americans decided that the city should be ‘liberated’ again – and the Marines, in the preposterously named ‘Operation Vigilant Resolve’, laid siege to the city in March. They then handed it over to local Iraqi army troops formally loyal to Saddam – who promptly handed it back to the resistance (or ‘terrorists’). In November, therefore, it was time for the even more ridiculously named ‘Operation Phantom Fury’ in which hundreds of ‘terrorists’ were supposedly killed, along with dozens of US Marines.

Fallujah had become "resistance city" for the army of rebels – Saddam veterans, foreign fighters and a growing al-Qaeda force in Iraq. In early 2004, I bought a series of videotapes on sale outside one of Fallujah’s largest mosques; they showed the beheading of Russian troops in Chechenya by bearded Islamists They were training tapes; the Isis-to-be rebels of Fallujah were being taught the skills of a butcher -- how to decapitate prisoners.

The lessons were put to swift use. The mortuaries of Baghdad filled each morning with headless corpses – one arrived with a dog’s head sewn onto the torso – and Fallujah became a no-go city. Fallujah was not a beheading centre, but it was an untameable city. In 2012, I visited the families of the malformed but still living children born after "Phantom Fury" – all bravely saying that they would care for their sons and daughters until they died because they were a gift from God – but my journeys around the city were guarded by black-uniformed Iraqi cops. One of their colleagues had just been murdered in an al-Qaeda ambush; al-Qaeda used another policeman’s radio to claim responsibility for the killing.

So when Isis overran Mosul three years later, Tikrit, Fallujah and the neighbouring city of Ramadi were bound to return to Sunni rebel rule, although many of the armed groups were tribesmen rather than Isis members. Tikrit was recaptured last year by a deeply pessimistic (and wounded) Iraqi Shiite lieutenant general called Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi who feared that Shiite militias had murdered several prisoners and complained that his country would be divided if his men were not better trained and armed.

A month ago, the Shia Iraqi government, supported by both the US and Iran as well as local Shia militias from southern Iraq, announced an even more ill-informed ‘Operation Breaking Terror’ and laid siege to Fallujah all over again, sending thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives and taking away for ‘interrogation’ at least 60 Sunni civilians, who are now suspected of being murdered by Shia militias. As usual when Fallujah is being ‘liberated’ US air strikes were called in to smash many ‘terrorist’ buildings to rubble. A week ago, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, claimed that Fallujah had been ‘liberated’ after city hall, a brown concrete block at the very entrance to Fallujah, had been captured. Then the shooting went on.

Until a few hours ago when the very same Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi of Tikrit fame announced that his men had “fully [sic] liberated” Fallujah. Not much of the city left, unfortunately – it’s been rebuilt twice already – but then yet further shooting was heard. [Abridged]

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Supreme Sacrifice?

New Zealand Chaplains and Churches and the Construction of Death in the First World War

Rev Dr Allan Davidson   
Dorothy Brown Memorial Lecture - Auckland Museum 6 Nov. 2015

For the churches and their ministers in New Zealand, providing consolation and comfort to the thousands who had a relative killed or injured in war provided an unprecedented challenge. Normal funereal rituals were not possible. There was no body or grave around which a family could gather and grieve. From the start of the conflict, churches with their rhetoric about war as a good cause, even God’s cause, were now faced with making sense for themselves and for society of the results of carnage.

The churches contributed significantly to the construction of meaning around death in the First World War. When soldiers and their chaplains returned to New Zealand they found that society’s remembrance of the war dead was already in place. The overwhelming silence of returned soldiers about the war, can in part be explained by the dissonance between their experience of its horrors and reality, and the war mythology already created in New Zealand and reinforced by the use of sanitised and sacralised concepts, such as ‘supreme sacrifice’.

For soldiers to share their experience of the war, in all its diversity, including: – drunkenness, prostitution, boredom, heroism, cowardice, terrible injuries and slaughter – was to question, and potentially unravel the meaning society had already invested into making sense of war and death.

I want now to examine three aspects of the part churches played in helping both individuals and the community deal with private and public grief: the use of the concept of supreme sacrifice; the promise of salvation to those killed in war, and prayers for the dead.

The Church and Supreme Sacrifice

A.W. Averill, Anglican Bishop of Auckland, in December 1915, spoke of how a mother’s sacrifice ‘for the highest welfare of her children is the most beautiful and God-like thing in the world’. ‘Joy’ and ‘honour’ were the mother’s reward for helping ‘her boy to live a noble life, and—if need be—to die a noble death!...“like English gentlemen”. ‘Supreme sacrifice’ was used frequently in the obituaries for soldiers killed in the war.

The promise of salvation to those killed in war

For Anglicans and Catholics, the promise of salvation to those killed in war, irrespective of their beliefs or how they lived, was widely accepted. Death in war was seen by some as a form of martyrdom and heaven as a reward for suffering. Churches were in conflict over their understanding of sacrifice and the reward of life after death for soldiers killed in war.

Prayers for the dead
In England in 1914 public prayer for the dead was uncommon in the Church of England; by the end of the war it had become widespread. Prayers for the dead identified the sacrifice of soldiers with the sacrifice of Jesus and offered hope of forgiveness, and eternal salvation, irrespective of the soldiers’ beliefs or way of life. Evangelicals, however, were challenged by the war in ways which contributed after the conflict to the increasing polarisation between fundamentalism on the one hand, and a more liberal to approach Christianity on the other.
The First World War brought huge challenges to New Zealand churches and society as they attempted to make sense of death, injury and pain on such a vast scale. A nagging issue which war rhetoric and the use of sacrificial language in particular raises, is how far does rhetoric and remembrance not only honour the dead, but also sanitise and justify war, enabling war to be prosecuted without being questioned.

The processes of remembrance and the reconstruction of death and war are never-ending as the centennial commemorations indicate. Going back to chaplains and churches and critically examining their use of the concept of sacrifice one hundred years ago, is part of a process of demythologising death, and seeing how the foundational memory was constructed so that it can be deconstructed. I have argued that the chaplains and the churches allowed both their identification with the war, as blessed by God, and their pastoral concerns for grieving families, to shape their rhetoric and theology.

What was largely missing in the churches during the First World War was the prophetic voice. The prophetic voice tells the emperor he has no clothes, challenges governments to follow alternative pathways of peace and justice, confronts the vast armaments industry which sustains and encourages war, challenges ideologies such as militarism for supporting regimes based on weapons and fear. It is perhaps a supreme irony that during the First World War, men like Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs, who had no strong church connection and who were absolutists in opposing war, were given field punishment number one, referred to as ‘crucifixion’ in an attempt to make them fight.

Ormond Burton, soldier in the First World War and then New Zealand’s leading pacifist during the Second World War, wrote in 1935: “The condemnation of war lies not in the sacrifice of life, but in the fact that the sacrifice is wasted as far as the attaining of any good is concerned.... to be availing sacrifice must be directed into profitable channels.... The primary aim of a combatant is not to offer himself as a sacrifice but to destroy his opponent with the minimum of loss to himself.” Sacrificial language was exploited by the church and the public to make sense of slaughter and carnage. Ambiguous and euphemistic usage of language clouded the reality of death – “the glorious dead” – “their name liveth forever more”.

Connections and Contrasts: One Hundred Years After

One hundred years on from the First World War, what impact does the church’s role in helping construct meaning around death still have?

1. Sacrifice is still a powerful concept, and ‘supreme sacrifice’ is still used to describe the deaths of those killed in combat. I would suggest though that the concept has lost a great deal of the direct Christian meaning which shaped its origin, development and the way that it was originally used. The church during and after the war contributed to the secularisation of its own language and theology around sacrifice.

2. The use of euphemisms around death and war in part generated during the First World War and blessed by the church, have taken on a life of their own. The reality of war continues to be sanitised by euphemisms, what one critic has described as ‘novocaine for the conscience’. For a recent example, think of the use of “collateral damage” to justify the bombing of the hospital run by Doctors without Borders in Kunduz. Deconstructing euphemisms used about war is an essential way of seeing the emperor with no clothes.

3. The claiming of God’s blessing for the sacrifices of the First World War raises the powerful question of theodicy – how did a good God allow such horrible suffering? If God was on the allied side and brought victory, why the hell did he take so long and demand so many sacrifices?

4. The memorialisation and the mythologies around the First World War remain powerful. They still bear residual Christian symbols and rhetoric which have lost a great deal of contact with their origin. For example, the hymns sung at Anzac Day services are vestigial echoes of a past which no longer have the same resonances which impacted on previous generations. But the continuing re-creation of memories around war, and death in war, for political, nationalistic and personal reasons, sometimes as an expression of individuals desire to encounter their forebears, points to the powerful impact that death in the First World War continues to have on New Zealand society.

5. For the churches, the First World War highlights the continuing tensions between, on the one hand, being captured by the needs of providing pastoral care to people and acting as chaplain to the nation, and on the other the difficulty in exercising a genuinely prophetic ministry that challenges the accepted conventions and aims at bringing about redemption in society.

At a German war cemetery near the airfield at Maleme on Crete, where New Zealand soldiers fought in the Second World War, there is a plaque with the words of the Nobel peace laureate, Albert Schweitzer; ‘The soldiers’ graves are the greatest preachers of peace’; and the words: ‘The dead of this cemetery admonish to peace’. There has been so much death and suffering, slaughter and sacrifice produced by war; the continuing, never ending challenge is how do we learn the ways of peace?

For the full text of the lecture go to:

Monday, 13 June 2016

The Panama Papers

By Ian Harris                            Otago Daily Times                                  June 10, 2016

Our national political discourse needs to change, couching the rhetoric of economic imperatives within concern for the common good, says Ian Harris

Blessings upon the head of whoever leaked the Panama Papers! The documents reveal how the corrupt and the super-rich contrive to wriggle through legal loopholes in countries like ours to stash their fortunes out of reach of governments elsewhere, and so evade paying the taxes due on them. “But it’s legal!” we were told again and again. So blessings upon the head of the television reporter who responded: “But is it moral?”

“Moral.” Now there’s a word that used to count for something in our national consciousness, but which seems to have dropped out of political discourse. The mythic world of trickle-down prosperity, where new wealth created is supposed to spread around the many but instead gushes up to the wealthiest few, doesn’t seem to leave much room for morality. It’s gone the same way as concern for the common good – when did you last hear our current political leadership mention that as an ideal?

Yet without it, politics degenerates primarily into a branch of economics, and in recent years the emphasis has been on preserving the privilege of those in a position to exploit the system for their own benefit. Hence the ever-widening gap between those tucking away stacks of cash, and the growing number who scrape to give their families the secure start that all children need and deserve. As for their buying a family home, forget it.

Last month New Zealanders had a further glimpse of inequality working out, in a New Zealand Herald report on the salaries paid to the CEOs of the country’s top 50 listed companies last year. They received on average $1.68 million (top was $4.94 million), after an increase for the year averaging 12 per cent, or $180,000. For one CEO the increase was $1.4 million – that’s a weekly top-up of $26,923. Meanwhile lower-paid workers overall got 3.2 per cent. All perfectly legal, just like the hide-away for overseas trusts, but how is it moral – and what about the common good?

Looking at New Zealand through ordinary human eyes rather than economic blinkers, does anyone really need $32,300 a week to live a decent life? There must be plenty of able people around who would do the job equally well, perhaps better, for half that, and still consider themselves well-off.

And to say so is not venting the politics of envy, but asserting the morality of justice in a society that once prided itself on caring about the common good, both within companies and beyond them. If a company has multiple thousands to splash around, let it consider the good of all its employees, not just keep cosseting the top elite.

As for the wider community, it is a prime responsibility of government to work to ensure no family is left to spiral down into despair. For starters, what exactly is the moral case against paying a living wage to those who have the least? Equally grotesque, here and elsewhere, is the huge disproportion in the wages of those in the top echelons of business and government and those at the bottom.

In Britain last year, the CEOs of the top 100 companies were paid on average £34.6 million ($NZ72.5 million). In the United States, company directors in the early 1990s received 42 times more than the average for blue-collar workers. A decade later they were getting 419 times more – and there in a nutshell lies the populist appeal of Donald Trump. Growing disparity breeds political discontent.

A market economy has real virtues, but when self-serving values come to dominate everything – that is, when it morphs into a market society – the human consequences are dire. Poet Oliver Goldsmith saw something similar happening in the 18th century and wrote: Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/ Where wealth accumulates and men decay. That’s still true.

In England, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes: “What is morally unacceptable from a Jewish point of view is not the free market itself, but the breakdown it is creating in the sense of social solidarity, the increasing segregation of the wealthy from the poor, and the waning sense of the responsibilities of success.”

As for the Panama Papers, when high-flyers move their wealth around to evade taxes, they also duck contributing their legitimate share to essential public services. Then wealth, instead of strengthening community, weakens it. Political leaders have it within their power to change our national political discourse by couching the rhetoric of economic imperatives within an over-arching concern for the common good. The rest of us should demand that they do.