The subtitle of Karen Armstrong’s latest book Fields of Blood is “Religion and the History of Violence”. At the end of my last I said she was arguing the wrong case, and promised to write a follow-up post nominating the right case. This is the best I can do. As to whether religion is involved, directly or otherwise, dear reader, you be the judge, for it’s not part of my case, nor is violence in general: only deliberate killing, as in war or terrorist acts. And to narrow it down further, we’ll just look at human attitudes towards such deliberate killing.
Winston Churchill in Bangalore, 1897
Winston Churchill in Bangalore, 1897
Some weeks ago, discussing the ghastly bombardments on Gaza over breakfast, I exclaimed that “they hold life cheap!”—“they” referring to both sides. Israel was using excessive force to defend itself against attack by Hamas. Hamas was continuing its own ineffectual rocket attacks on Israel, knowingly and culpably triggering further slaughter against its own people, the very ones it should have striven to protect. Who was left to hold civilian lives dear? They were treated as expendable pawns for the West to agonize over. As in Syria, Iraq, etc. For here in the West we hold life dear, so dear that you wonder if we are going way beyond reason, eliminating ever more causes of death, as if physical immortality is to be the atheists’ rival version of Heaven. (Or Hell.)
I have a memory at nine years old of gazing at a big wall-map of the world whilst the schoolmaster gave his opinion that the peoples “out East” didn’t value human life as we do. The boundary seemed to begin just beyond the countries of Europe. I’ve been wondering whether this opinion still has its followers today, so I asked Google, and found nothing of significance. But my attention was drawn to a book by the young Winston Churchill about his sojourn in 1897 among the Pathan tribes (now called Pashtuns) in the North-West Frontier of India. He says “This state of continual tumult has produced a habit of mind which recks little of injuries, holds life cheap and embarks on war with careless levity . . .” There are many who think his perceptive account, and his contemptuous references to the Talib-ul-ilms (Taliban), have relevance to Afghanistan today. His writing was not restrained by today’s multi-cultural caution. When Stanley McChrystal was in command of Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, he read the book eagerly, as this news story relates. I’ve published an extract, here. After much reflection, I concluded that his fascinating description threw the scent of red herring across my quest, and could have helped derail General McChrystal’s own assessment, because he later got sacked from his role as Commander. And Churchill, for all his achievements as a young and old man, is hardly our guide, hardly the one to accuse others of holding life cheap, when he begged to be sent to the dangerous places, deliberately sought out battle; and in later life calmly ran the British side of World War II. What you do see in his book is the clash of culture, where neither Pathan warlord nor Imperial peacemaker could understand the other. When we can’t understand others, it is hard to see them as fully human in our terms. We shall come back to this point.
It was different in the First World War, both sides were akin, playing to similar rules, even their sovereign leaders having close family ties. And we cannot set war at a distance from ourselves, as if it has no place in our world. War is an inseparable part of history, with no sign of being eliminated. Territorial war is as old as owned territory. Armstrong in her latest book and Harari in his latest book Sapiens both make much of the Agrarian Revolution and its effect on human behaviour. In brief, it goes like this. Nomad hunter-gatherers mind their own business and live peaceably in their tribes, pretty much. When homo sapiens started to grow wheat and other crops, along came kings who did no work but ran protection rackets, taxing the peasants and keeping armies to control them and defend the rich farmland against other kings. When one war ended, another would invariably start. The strong conquered the weak, empires rose and fell. Over time, protocols would emerge for the conduct of war, to minimize its devastation. They would generally hold good for wars within a given civilization, buttressed by a shared concept of the sacred. So for example we have the mediaeval rules of chivalry, and the notion of sanctuary as protection for fugitives.
When we look at the traditions of the soldier, we see in every culture a shared sense of honour, a mutual trust and support, for the members of an army hold their lives in one others’ hands. It is a basic motivating principle that they hold dear their own lives, and those of their own people. Against this, they are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Each knowingly risks his own life to protect a greater cause, such as the defence of his people’s land by a foreign aggressor. But in all civilizations based on the European model, there is only one correct response to overwhelming force: surrender. The slaughter in World War I trenches simply continued until one side ran out of bullets, or men, or something else, and had to submit to the other’s humiliating terms. By contrast, in World War II, Allied troops on the ground surrendered en masse to the Japanese, who happened to have a different sense of honour, despised their surrender-monkey prisoners, and intended to go on fighting till they ran out of kamikaze pilots and till no jungle-soldier was still standing. The atomic bombs forced a change of mind, but even after the formal Japanese surrender a few isolated soldiers continued hostilities till nearly 30 years later.
The Japanese soldier, you might say, held the Samurai code of honour above all else, and found it impossible to respect an enemy who behaved differently. In the West, our inherited European values make it possible to understand the Samurai code only by analogy with the mediaeval code of chivalry. That code wouldn’t stand scrutiny by today’s liberal eyes, but we judge these things by sentiment and ignorance, rather than knowledge of the small print. And it’s worth considering how dear the West holds civilian lives. Armstrong, as quoted near the end of my last piece, reports that when innocent lives were lost in a drone attack on Waziristan, US and Pakistani governments showed no sign that they cared. It’s a region not far from the one written up by Churchill. One wonders if the tribesmen still hold life cheap, taking potshots at one another for sport?
As it happens, in 1974 I did meet a couple of brothers whose father was a tribal chieftain from a part of Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. They’d been sent to school in England, and told me how feuds were carried out almost as a way of life, with old rifles mainly, and of course there were often casualties, but that was part of the game. At least the shooting took place in the mountains, where women and children wouldn’t have been hurt. They were only left widowed and fatherless. One remembers the trenches of WWI, where parents and siblings were left bereft, and a whole generation of women remained life-long spinsters, for lack of eligible men. I suppose if it’s a traditional way of life, it’s always a possibility, and a subject of sad folk-songs: the fisherman who was lost in a storm, the bridegroom seized by the press-gang into the navy.
So far we have looked at warfare between militias, where civilians may get caught in the crossfire. Armstrong wants to defend asymmetric warfare, in which a suicide bomber, say, takes arms on behalf of the poor and deprived against the overpowering force of the oppressor. Before I knew better, I too had a certain sympathy for the plight of the weaker side, and the methods used. With no government, no army present to represent and protect them, they were lone heroes, ready like the Tommy in World War I to sacrifice their lives for their people. Horrible but perhaps by some reckoning the lesser evil. Anyhow, that is what Armstrong thinks. Unfortunately for this case, there is a darker side. The sacrifice is done by proxy, instigated by shadowy figures with bunkers to stay safe in, whose motives are political rather than the protection of their own people. The suicide bombers, or ISIL fighters, are trained to think that what they are doing is for some higher cause than mere human life.
But then when I say this I imagine how many soldiers have been trained in similar ways to fight and die in bloody wars for their generals and their political masters. I think not just of shadowy figures who train al Qaeda, ISIL and suicide bombers, but dictators like Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi and Assad. Cruel as their reigns have been, might it be the case that their people would have flourished more had they not been overthrown? They would have had more electricity, the streets would have been safer. Are there territories unready for democracy? Is it only cruel autocracy that can keep them from killing one another? Would it have been better to keep Yugoslavia together, under Communist rule? Would it have been better if Western Powers had never created protectorates in the Middle East & North Africa? Where do you stop asking questions? You have to stick to what you know.
I’ve been reading about the First World War, via the scrapbook of my great-aunt Olwen Sanger-Davies. I knew her as Auntie Ollie. My sister and I are publishing it online, you can see the work in progress here. It’s very striking how eager everyone seems to have been, to support the war effort. There was no sense of war as a terrible thing. On the contrary, it gave everyone an opportunity to perform selfless action, to do the honourable thing, to work together for a higher cause. The ISIL fighters who have left this town to go and fight doubtless feel the same way. I see from the local paper that one was a security guard at a local supermarket. Another attended the grammar school where my younger son was educated. I see groups of young Muslims chattering excitedly in the old school playground at the end of our street, and wonder if they are teasing one another as to who would have the guts to go and fight. Meanwhile Philip Hammond, our Foreign Secretary, affirms that the Government might try jihadists for treason. About time. This country shelters you, makes sure you don’t starve, you owe it your loyalty.
So now I’ve forgotten what case I want to argue, if any. Perhaps I want to agree with Armstrong in all sorts of ways, except two. First, in her chosen field of religion, she appears to lack a critical sense. In her book Muhammad: a Biography of the Prophet, for example, she depends on the available material, disregarding the fact that it’s entirely hagiography, that is to say written by those who believe in their prophet’s heaven-sent destiny, believe in the whole paraphernalia of Islam. So I instantly felt that to Islam, Karen Armstrong is a “useful idiot”, to use Lenin’s alleged epithet: “a term for people perceived as propagandists for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause.” I was so disgusted I took it back to the library, same day. It seemed to taint the space it took up in my house. The only time I previously felt that way about a book was after buying Ayn Rand’s book We the Living, second-hand via Amazon. Lacking the means to burn it and thus prevent it falling into other hands, I dumped it in the land-fill bin as opposed to the recycling one.
I don’t want to argue any case. What it comes down to is this, that religion in general and of itself is not to be blamed for wars, or anything else. But on the other hand, religion is not to occupy any privileged place. Fear of terrorism and fear of the penalty for apostasy (look it up in Wikipedia) has stifled criticism of Islam, a religion or movement, whatever you want to call it, that’s desperately in need of criticism, from without but especially from within.
And this brings me to Martin Amis, whom I’ve elsewhere called my alter ego, a representation of my ideal self as it might have been had I not lived the life I’ve actually lived, if that makes sense. He has famously spoken out on Islam, claiming back the freedom of speech that most of us have cravenly relinquished. Here is an example googled at random. He’s just brought out a new novel, The Zone of Interest, an intimate tale of Auschwitz, entirely from the viewpoint of three narrators: the Commandant; a nephew of Martin Bormann who’s got an easy job liaising with the pharmaceutical company I G Farben, which uses prisoners to test its products; and a Jew who’s in charge of the gas-chambers—selection for, and removal of corpses from. As the blurb says, “a brilliant, celestially upsetting novel inspired by no less than a profound moral curiosity about human beings.” And in his novel he shows the limit of human understanding, quoting Primo Levi’s remark:
Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify . . .
Enough. If I had made a case, I would rest it here; but I manifestly haven’t. I prefer to maintain a “profound moral curiosity about human beings”.