Saturday, 10 October 2009

Afghanistan; the same yesterday, today...?

We've been to war in Afganistan before. Gladstone oppossed both major engagements which took place in his political lifetime and in the process produced one of his most memorable quotations:

'.... Remember that ... the sanctity of human life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own. Remember that ... mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilisation, that it passes over the whole surface of the earth and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its unmeasured scope.'

The other day I came across an article looking at Gladstone's reactions to the Afgan Wars. Gladstone had oppossed the War of the 1840 as he made clear to his constituents:

'Early in December 1879, Gladstone addressed his Greenwich constituents, at Woolwich, in a long speech which has been ignored by his biographers. He focused almost entirely on Afghanistan – a subject which, he observed, ‘is to an Englishman one of the most painful in the world’ because it had been the scene of ‘the greatest military disaster that had fallen upon England for generations’. This was a reference to the 1842 massacre, which he regarded as God’s retribution on Britain for embarking on an unjust war in Afghanistan. He feared that a similar outcome would now recur:
It is written in the eternal laws of the universe of God that sin shall be followed by suffering. An unjust war is a tremendous sin. The question which you have to consider is whether this war is just or unjust. So far as I am able to collect the evidence, it is unjust ... If so ... the day will come – come it soon or come it late – when the people of England will discover that national injustice is the surest road to national downfall.'

Now leaving the theology on one side for a moment (those interested can read an alternative interpretation here of 'sacrificial atonement' by the Dean of St Albans) The same issue confronts us today; is the war justified? Gladstone -the originator of 'moral foreign policy' took up the issue in his famous Midlothian Campaign. I do not think that the issue will dominate the 2010 election in the way that Gladstone's opposition to the Bulkan policy of Disreali did in former times, but I do get the firm impression that the public and turning away from this war. Why are we there, what is the purpose of our engagement and what is achievable? The Tories by taking on the pro war General have nailed their colours to the mast. We, I think, need to reflect more deeply. Clearly what the US do is influential. It is a test for Obama. Can he withstand the blatant attempt by the military to bounce him into major increase in troops. Are we to turn a blind eye to political corruption and the military and civilian losses. Has Gladstone's assertion about the morality of military any continuing significance? Interestingly as the History Today article quoted early concludes:

'In the House of Commons, in April 2001, Paddy Ashdown quoted the ‘rights of the savage’ passage and described it as a code of survival for our own time. The continued relevance of Gladstone’s remarks was dramatically enhanced, a few months later, when Afghanistan suddenly became the focus of the ‘war against terror’. The Taliban were soon overthrown, but for months afterwards American air attacks continued to cause the deaths of many innocent civilians. Thus Gladstone’s affirmation of ‘the sanctity of human life in the hill villages of Afghanistan’ still remains highly pertinent both to the particular circumstances of that country and to the general need for global humanitarianism. '

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