A few days holiday allow space for recording a few books read recently.

Doctors at War, ethnographer Professor Mark de Rond’s powerful record of his time embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastian in Afghanistan, provokes much thought and emotion. It is clear that exposure to the sheer unnecessary and seemingly random suffering of ordinary people as well as combatants raises questions of theodicy. This disturbs Mark’s own faith questions, and leads him ultimately to an expression of atheism. Reading the book, however, provoked in me a different question: not how we account for suffering and evil, but, rather, how we account for joy in a world of such suffering? This is not glib; I would love to see a further discussion of it.

At the other end of the scale is Simon Jenkins’ entertaining romp
through Christian faith and its oddities, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse. The book comprises columns Simon published in the United Reformed Church (not ‘Reform’ as it says in the book itself) magazine Reform. Making theology simple and accessible is not as easy as Simon makes it look. He shines an unusual light from an unusual angle to open up our thinking and not close it down. As I know from years of writing scripts for Radio 2, this isn’t always an obvious or simple task.

Sitting here in Berlin waiting for a thunder storm to break, it is worth
recommending James Hawes breathless race through the entire history of Germany. The Shortest History of Germany is excellent and enlightening, but it is clear he neither likes nor trusts Prussians. A better overview of Europe’s most important country you will not find – and in these days of Brexit and Trump, with a German election coming up later this year, it is worth the quick read.

Finally for now, Tom Fletcher’s book about the impac of digital change on international diplomacy, The Naked Diplomat, is excellent. Again, an easy read, it says a lot about communication, leadership and handling change. It also contains the most memorable quote about diplomacy – inevitably from Winston Churchill: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Discuss.

Just about to pack up for the night and a last glance at the news websites messes it all up.

Tony Blair has written in the Observer today about the need for the world’s political leaders to recognise and address the religious roots and nature of this century’s big conflicts. Well, he isn’t the first to do this; but, his voice will instantly wind up all the usual suspects who can’t get beyond the demonic mention of his name to engage with the fundamental issue. Letting loose the Iraq debacle doesn’t mean that everything he says about anything must, by definition, be disingenuous.

What is interesting about his latest outing is not immediately obvious.

Yesterday morning (Saturday) I dedicated a new war memorial in Bradford. On it is engraved the names of those local men who have fallen since 1947 – including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such concrete memorials are important not because they glamourise or romanticise war, but because they do the opposite. They bring us face to face (or hand to stone) with mortality: these names belong to young men who have mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers – and with loss, bereavement and pain.

We need such memorials in order to hold our cultural memory: we don’t know who we are (or why we are who we have become) if we don’t recognise where we have come from – for good and ill; and if we don’t know who we are or how we got here, we can’t shape our future or what we shall become. They don’t tell the whole story, of course; but, they rip the veneer of self-justification from our selective sensibilities and leave us naked before human fragility and failure.

And this is where we come back to Tony Blair’s reported observations. Conflict is always rooted in history; it always finds what William Blake called a ‘human dress’ – a cultural manifestation that gives flesh to wounds inflicted by ideologies and base human greed and cruelty. When people mock the Bible for being bloodthirsty, they don’t always turn the same judgement on media reportage: just today we see

  • The Syrian bloodshed
  • Egypt in turmoil
  • The Arab Spring hijacked by Islamist extremists
  • Revolt in the Ukraine now being fired by extreme right forces
  • South Sudan
  • Central African Republic
  • Pakistan

And so on.

If religion wasn’t the ‘dress’, something else would be. Human beings seem bent on violence and attestations of ‘progress’ seem exaggerated, to say the least. This is not pessimistic; it is realistic. It isn’t the final word, but the human propensity to do appalling things cannot simply be wished away.

If Blair’s argument is to be taken seriously – and the religious roots of conflict be addressed – religion must first be understood (which is what the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is working at)… and not simply sneered at by those who think they are above such things.

[Postscript: The sentencing in Pakistan of a mentally ill man also illustrates how not every culture buys into the self-evidently obvious assumptions some in the west make about the universal desirability of ‘democracy’. Pakistan needs to be seriously challenged about such legal processes/judgments as this one, but it is symptomatic of a deeper challenge that will not be addressed in any effective way by sneering or shouting.]

This probably marks me down as a little bit miserable, but so far this year I have read three books and the one I am about to finish is not exactly a comedy. The excellent Germania (Simon Winder) was followed by a collection of poems by WH Auden. Then I got into a book my mum and dad gave me in November: On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940-46 (Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg).

These are letters written from Hamburg to Wolff-Mönckeberg's adult children living abroad with their own families. Unable to tell the truth about what was going on in Germany – they wouldn't have got through the censors – she wrote letters which she left for her children to read after the war. They weren't discovered until 1974 during a house clearance. Which means they were never read by the children to whom they were addressed.

The letters are harrowing. They relate the experience of a wife and mother who tries to live and love and survive through the destruction of her city by Allied bombing, helpless in the face of the violence, powerless to change the madness into which Germany had been plunged by megalomaniacs in Berlin. Her son dies in South America, her home is burned by repeated incendiary attacks, friends and neighbours endure and die. This is no history book, but the very human recollection of a very human woman who puts flesh and blood and tears onto the experiences of loss, grief, fear and courage that are the real stuff of civilians caught up in a war being fought by others.

I was conscious throughout the book of the sermons of Helmut Thielicke, the German Protestant theologian and pastor who had to pastor and preach his way through the same horrors in this same Hamburg during these same years. They merit re-reading, but only if the reader can imaginatively place himself or herself in the context of the time. Preaching about Christmas on the edge of a crater that used to be your church – containing the remains of some of those who used to be your congregation – removes any hint of mere religious piety. This is where such piety or religious illusion dies in the rubble and dust of destruction and violence.

My reason for citing this now is simply that (a) this is the sort of stuff that relativises some of the stuff that characterises current 'crises', and (b) gives an insight into those who appear as faces or figures on our front pages in reports about conflict in the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Syria.

When all is stripped away, what is left? When all 'normality' explodes and disappears, tearing our life apart, what of value is left to motivate us? What ultimately matters?

I constantly need a point of reference such as this in order to keep me focusing on reality. I guess I am not the only one.

(The next book on my list is a funny one…)

 

I managed to miss Bonfire Night (5 November when we celebrate the burning of Catholics – although that bit is usually forgotten when we chuck the guy on top of the pyre) and the first instalment of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity on BBC4. Instead, I was enjoying a visit to a multi-ethnic parish in Thornton Heath (which has just planted a new Ugandan congregation as a ‘Fresh Expression’) and didn’t get home till 11pm.

A quick glance at the news made me pause. The Prime Minister is to make a statement today on the war in Afghanistan. This follows a number of deaths in the British camp and the growing unease in this country about why ‘we’ are there in the first place. Pity anyone who has to lead a country in circumstances such as these – even if they did lead us into it.

Afghanistan flagWhat worries me is this: what would it look like if the war in Afghanistan was ‘won’? Would there be a western-style democracy? Would tribalism be ended? Would there be an ‘uncorrupt’ leadership backed by highly-trained and well-equipped armed forces? Or would it be that children were attending schools and women were working openly in the professions? I could go on.

I think several things worry me about the campaign in Afghanistan:

1. I closely followed the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Paying no great attention to the demands of a human rights world, the Soviet armies went in and applied all the might they could to overpowering the ‘peasants’ from the mountians. Ten years later – and with a huge casualty list – they left with their tails between their legs. Huge firepower and determined violence failed. The arguments used by the West about that invasion/occupation then are now (ironically?) being used by the West to justify its own ongoing involvement. I am not sure that Afghanistan can be ‘re-ordered’ by outside powers to serve their own interests.

2. This campaign is struggling in Afghanistan itself and is clearly being lost in the pubs of Britain. I guess this is because of two things: (a) we see constant images of violence, death, repatriated coffins and weeping relatives of the casualties, and (b) it is hard to find anyone who can easily articulate the rationale behind our presence there. That is not to say there isn’t one; but if it can’t be clearly and simply articulated, then it can’t be communicated – and if it can’t be communicated, it can’t be owned by people who don’t have access to all the arguments and facts.

3. It is hard to know what ‘victory’ might look like, but it is equally hard to know if ‘defeat’ is the only other option. Is it not possible, having learned from the experience, to put armed support into bolstering the security of Pakistan, ring-fencing the Afghan opium trade and persuading more ‘acceptable’ forces to bring order within Afghanistan itself (such as other middle-eastern countries)? A peace-keeping force that was not made up of provocative western types might be possible and would call the bluff on the Taleban’s claim that they are only fighting to get the westerners out.

Afghan War

And isn’t it weird how Iraq has almost fallen off our screens and newspapers now that our troops have left? Aren’t we fickle when it comes to deciding what is important in the ‘news?

There is a row going on in the United States about the publication of a photograph of a dying marine in Afghanistan. An Associated Press photographer took the photo after being caught up in the ambush. Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard died from his horrendous injuries soon after the photo had been taken, but before it had been published. I picked it up in the Observer.

The response from the US Government was as understandably outraged as it was predictable. US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said:

I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard’s death has caused his family. Why your organisation would purposefully defy the family’s wishes, knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish, is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling.

Afghan WarUnderstandable though this sentiment is, it begs a number of questions. For example, why is it wrong to show this photo of one man dying when Gates didn’t object to the televisual spectacle of the bombing of Baghdad or good propaganda pictures of dead Taleban in Afghanistan? Why is it wrong to upset the family of an American casualty, but not a problem to show dead relatives of other upset parents who happen to be Middle Eastern or Asian?

This is not a trivial issue and yet I guess it is one of the most difficult moral decisions faced by media organisations daily. War is obscene and death in war is usually unpleasant to look at. We might be inured to violence and death on the screen, but we clearly have to be protected from the reality. When war is remote we easily ignore the suffering or we simply don’t register the anguish and miserable despair it causes to victims – whoever they are.

I remember hearing a sobbing US pilot describing how he had no problem dropping napalm on Cambodian children because he was so high up and so far away by the time the bombs hit the ground that he had no connection to it. After the end of the Vietnam War he saw film of what he had been doing and had a serious breakdown.

And these thoughts have been sparked by my reading of a remarkable diary of Liverpool in the War Years (1939-45). This was handed to me recently and I read it this evening. It belonged to Miss A I Robinson and I have no idea when she typed it up and put it together. It was given to me by someone who thought I might be interested – and I am. I remember growing up in Liverpool where there were still bomb sites in the 1970s and ’80s. My parents and grandparents lived through the bombings and incendiary holocausts launched by Nazi aircraft in the early 1940s and we were told stories when we were children there. This diary should be in a public records office in Liverpool as it gives a first-hand account of every month’s experiences from the beginning to end of the War.

Liverpool War DiaryIt also includes photos of the destruction. It doesn’t show photos of dying or dead people, but written descriptions are added. It doesn’t shy away from describing the realities of violence and war. Yet I read it at a time and in a culture that is glib about violence. And I read it at a time when churches obsess about sex and say little about the pornography of violence that pervades our lives. We even read the accounts of violence in the Bible without flinching – as if it weren’t real or didn’t hurt someone.

The question is: should the public who fund military action be protected from seeing the consequences of their action? Should war be sanitised in order not to upset us at home? Or should we be exposed to the real world and what it looks like when a young soldier gets blown up? Should we allow a government to be outraged at the ‘insensitivity’ of publication when we know that the real problem is government’s fear that seeing the reality of the violence might turn the heads of those who tacitly support the war? It was the body-bag count from Vietnam that turned American support and it might well be the procession of coffins through Wootton Bassett that eventually affects British toleration of the continuing war in Afghanistan.

I feel considerable sympathy for the family of  Joshua Bernard and considerable contempt for those who unemotionally or unempathetically see the photo only as a ball in a poltical game. But we – and his bereaved parents – can’t avoid the bigger-picture conclusion that (as the Observer article put it) “Joshua Bernard has now come to symbolise something more: the suffering inflicted on America’s sons and daughters in uniform, and the unease of fellow citizens forced to confront the grim truth about their deaths.”

I think we have been welcomed to the real world.