I have a vivid recollection of the moment it was announced that we had triumphed in the Falkland’s Conflict: ‘Rejoice’, was the word from the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. At the very least, she had an interesting set of values, for it is a curious person or nation which rejoices over any engagement which results in such a level of loss of life, maiming and ongoing psychological turmoil. This price is always a high one to pay, but we were, perhaps, right in asking whether, in that particular instance and with that particular issue, the price was actually too high. Don’t get me wrong: I always make a distinction between the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fight our wars for us and the moral and ethical rectitude of the cause for which they fight. I stand firmly in the camp of the Duke of Wellington who, when asked what victory felt like, answered: ‘It is the greatest tragedy, except defeat’. Any right-thinking nation and people will always ask itself whether the cause is just and whether the price is worth paying rather than resorting to self-justification by patriotism or duty, for real sons and daughters get killed and actual brothers and sisters lose limbs and eyesight.
Battle and combat can do one of two things: it can ennoble humanity and bring out of it great majesty of spirit and self-giving, or it can brutalise those involved at any level: the shocking scenes of torture and abuse by professional soldiers which emanated from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are the direct result of a process of training and the conduct of campaigns which de-sensitise the individual to horror and violence and de-humanise the enemy. I recall with great dismay an overheard conversation at the bar, when attending at a wedding anniversary party, in which a young serving British squaddie boasted how he couldn’t wait to get to Iraq ‘to kill an Arab’ as if he was off on a pheasant shoot. For all our belief in British fair play and justice, we are not exempt as a nation from the brutalising effects of war.
All of these thoughts sprang to mind as I listened to the jubilation and rejoicing surrounding the assassination of Osama bin Laden. The impromptu mass street gatherings and chantings; the openly celebratory tone of the public statements, including those of Barack Obama, and even the calls for the execution to be broadcast and the death witnessed by video. One can only surmise what emotions were going through Obama’s head as he witnessed the events from the comfort of the White House on WiFi. It seems we have internationalised the bloodlust and self-righteousness of those who once upon a time would have attended the public executions in our town squares. And for what? Osama bin Laden was the ‘leader’ of a loose affiliation of disaffected Islamic groups throughout the world: groups who were already losing their grip and influence as pro-democracy movements throughout the Arab world were winning the fight
against dictatorship and terrorism and gaining international support. By his execution in a foreign land, witnessed and shared by his wife, children and family who were on-lookers and also slaughtered themselves, wemay have demonstrated ourselves to be as morally bankrupt as those we fear and fight. In the name of justice-which would have been better served by capturing him alive and bringing him to court-we have committed an act of revenge and retribution which will put us on the same ethical level as those we abhor and will create counter-reactions both emotional and physical throughout the Islamic world: the outcome of which could prove even more horrific and violent.
Osama bin Laden’s real triumph in all this is that his deplorable actions, instead of spurring us on to renewed efforts to build a better world in which justice and the rule of law triumph, have been allowed to twist our souls to the extent that revenge is an end in itself.
It would seem that George W Bush was right, and the mindless and careless age of the Crusades is not over yet and, at present, there seems to no hope that we can build a future for all on justice and the will for peace rather than on hatred and revenge.