Life, War, and Holland: 19 October

No posting last week, partly due to catching up after 3 days in Holland visiting an old friend.

A British Crash continues to generate positive comments: ‘I really liked the themes you developed, and the twists and turns leading up to the surprise ending. I found myself wondering if someone like your narrator could be so stupid as to let himself get into the compromising situation with the secretary – but realised I’ve known many fall just this way…’ On the other hand: ‘I thought the book was a good 1st attempt. My main issue is that your protagonist behaved much more like a vicar than a solicitor. Do men really think about their faith like that? He seemed a very reluctant Christian! But a great surprise at the end – nice twist. Writing style needs working on – don’t know what to suggest really.’

Before the book was published, I thought I would keep detached from comments about A British Crash, leaving it to speak for itself. But I now find that I very much want to know how others receive my work. (

The Archbishop of Canterbury must be kicking himself. He preached a typically nuanced sermon at the St Paul’s Cathedral service to mark the end of military operations in Iraq, commending the work of the military personnel and leaving open the question as to whether it had been right to send in the troops. He was bending over as far as he could towards saying: ‘Well done, chaps. It was all worth it.’ But the Press, especially The Sun, still vilified him for not being jingoistic enough. He might as well have spoken more forthrightly, been criticised for saying something less appeasing. The father of a British soldier killed in Iraq refused to shake Tony Blair’s hand. ‘You hand has blood on it.’

With Remembrance Sunday coming up, clergy all over the country will be considering what to say. At the end of the First World War the mood was ‘Never again!’ This was the war to end all wars. The urgent need was to find other ways of resolving disputes. At the end of the Iraq campaign the same cry needs to go out. ‘Never again!’ Never again will we be duped into a war of false pretences. Never again will we act on James Bond tactics – send in the plucky potent few to destroy the dictator and his habitat, with no thought for what comes next. With our troops still in Afghanistan the same cry needs to go out: ‘Never again will we attack terrorists as an enemy army, for this only makes them stronger and more determined. We will treat them as criminals, using all available, and some new, means to bring them to justice.’

Does this mean saying to the assembled members of the British Legion that war isn’t worth it, that their military service wasn’t worth it? This is the implication that many clergy shy away from. None of us like upsetting others. But I know enough veterans who feel cursed by their army days. Saying that no-one should be put through what they were put through, is a comfort to them, even if others might take offence.

A few years ago on Remembrance Sunday I preached on ‘the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’ I said, following Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy aka Woodbine Willie, that it is our weakness, our failure, that leads us to fight. If we were truly strong and wise we would not be sucked into war. The verger, a veteran and British Legion member said I had ‘got it just right.’

If we don’t say ‘Never again!’ we will be doomed to more of the same again. Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle against an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and for a pull-out:  ‘The escalation of war in Afghanistan may be only a stalking horse for an even larger war in Pakistan as the United States seeks to secure the nukes there that might fall into the hands of terrorists. These newly proposed wars are only the Obama phase of what is likely to be an endless 21st-century crusade called “the war on terrorism.”
Three days in Holland were another reminder that Europe will never again descend into war, not because of strong armies, but because people have turned away from relying on strong armies and towards economic cooperation. The young Dutch, especially the girls, riding their bikes upright and without helmets, are so TALL. It is as though the weight of generations has been lifted off them and they are growing into their full stature. Their children will be even taller! My Dutch friend, though, told me that the girls don’t at the moment like being so tall…

The Dutch have always been good at seeing and enjoying people in their quirks and vulnerability. The best paintings in the Rijksmuseum are not of military or commercial great men, but very ordinary folk, even if they had reason to be painted. A colonial governor and his wife holding hands like teenagers, Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride and Bridegroom a little overawed by their finery and tentative about their future, Vermeer’s incredibly poignant Girl Reading a Letter, a full inner world in only two colours.

Roger Harper

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