G.K. Chesterton said ‘The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.’ And that’s true of every Ukrainian who bears arms today. But it’s true of the rank and file Russian soldier, too. Aye, there’s the rub.
Can I kick this blog off by telling you about my family? My dad was a soldier, a CSM in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (an Irish Regiment ), serving for 26 years. My brother Martin was a Corporal in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (the Greenjackets). My brother Peter was a Petty Officer in the Navy. I was a Lance Corporal in The Royal Military Police.
The night my mother died she asked my dad (who had a lovely baritone voice) to sing an old Irish soldier’s song for her, ‘Fare thee well, Enniskillen, fare thee well for a while’ because, she said, she too was a solder, she’d travelled far and wide with the regiment and once again she was leaving Enniskillen for a while. For quite a while.
So. We were a very soldierly lot.
Dad was a veteran of World War II, evacuated at Dunkirk, going on to serve in Africa, Egypt, Cyprus, and Ulster. Martin served in what was British Guiana, and in the Far East, in Aden, in Ulster. Peter travelled the world on Royal Navy frigates. As a redcap I spent 18 months in Catterick Camp, bored out of my skull. My dad and brothers knew everything there is to know about active service. I have no experience of it. But I know soldiering, and military life. For my first twenty years, it was all I knew; my dad was serving overseas when I was born and didn’t meet me until I was about two (so much for bonding), in Egypt I went to school in an Army truck with a machine gun mounted on the cab and an armed soldier on the tailboard, my dad was attacked by freedom fighters (we called them terrorists) and left for dead, at 6 years old I was taught to walk close to the walls of buildings, not in the open (for fear of snipers), and when I was 7 an IRA supporter – seeing me outside a cancer ward where my mother was dying – told me he hoped my mother would die in agony. That means that I know a fair bit about the military, about living in a hate filled world and the often unacknowledged cost of serving.
When my dad joined up he was a young man, newly out of seminary, and Europe was trembling on the brink of war. He joined because he wanted to defend his country. He believed what the government told him, proud of and protective of his home nation. Martin joined because he was conscripted into National Service and, once in, the life suited him (plus he had no home to return to). Peter joined up because he was kicked out of home. I joined up for the same reason. But even with all our different motives for enlisting, we would all have been united in the belief that Britain was on the side of right. Like the Russians, we believed what we were told.
When I think of soldiers I think of people like my brothers and my dad. Not heroes or villains but, like the rest of us, somewhere in-between. In times of peace political parties use them as pawns in budget-bargaining, so that units are shrunk, regiments amalgamated, less is spent on weaponry, recruitment is reduced. That sort of complacency is fine until a Hitler or a Putin steps out and we wake up to convoys of tanks and missiles. That’s when we remember that we need people like my Dad, like Martin and Peter.
I have friends who are proudly andu loudly pacifist. Hmmm. I struggle with that ideology. It feels like a cop-out. It takes two to tango surely, and if two pacifists meet …great. If a pacifist meets a tank? Not so great. Who rescues those hapless pacifists? Soldiers. Of course. The soldiers they despise. My dad, my brothers. But, you know, an Army brat like me, we do not have the clearest vision in these matters and I don’t claim to have any answers.
This is a time of prayer for Christians and of self-examination, for humility, for asking questions about pacifism and justice, for taking a long hard look at our own society. It’s a time when the sinfulness of man is writ large and lurid in the sky. What should we do and who do we pray for at a time like this? We have to pray for everyone. That’s our calling. For aggressor and victim alike. Wowser. That’s hard. Are our prayers for the mighty aggressor as heartfelt as our prayers for the weeping mother or the injured child? Mine aren’t, but they should be.
I keep thinking of Jesus on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
As a dramatist I shy away from the notion of heroes and villains. Life is not so simple. This is real war, with real blood and real grief, and real cruelty, not a poster for a John Wayne film. We must be careful that we don’t become a part of the war machine – for either side – that we don’t glorify and celebrate war.
“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
But Putin … what about Putin, Lord? He knows only too well what he is doing. He knows that it is deeply wrong, perverted and corrupt. That’s why he hid his intentions from his Generals so that they were fed only glimpses of his ambitions, partial, just enough to ensure they would do as he ordered. They thought Russia was moving in to annex only two areas… Army units believed they were on military exercises…. social media was restricted… the word ‘war’ was banned. These are all signs that Putin recognises, when he looks in his mirror, that this invasion has no justification, that no one else wants what he wants, that his actions are evil. That even his Generals would balk at his ambition.
How do we pray for him? How do we love him? We are not called to fear him, or to appease him, but we are called to love him. This man was created in God’s image. Jesus Christ loves him so perfectly that he gave his most precious life for him. This man is isolated and deluded and filled with hatred and bitterness. He’s fatally poisoning himself with every decision he makes. Poor lost mad Putin, drowning in hatred and lies. Slaughtering thousands. Pity him.
Our first step towards loving our enemy is to pity him, to recognise his humanity. To recognise that he is one of us.
I find it hard. I go through the words, I do the thinking side of it, I aim for the submission of prayer… but I struggle to pray for Putin as I pray for the 14 year old blind boy, evacuated from his residential school, sheltering underground, waiting for his mother to come for him if she can get through the bombing. Poor boy, poor mother.
I do. I struggle.
But God knows that we sometimes find it hard to pray with open hearts, to find the words and to truly reach out to him. The Spirit of God makes provision for us:
‘…. the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.‘ Romans 8:26-27
And here’s Psalm 121. A great great prayer, one that we can meditate on for hours and hours and still never plumb its deepest depths, and a great great prayer when we want to find God, to know his peace and to turn to him for shelter:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
He has the world in his hand. He holds us tight. He loves us. ‘For God so loved the world…’