You can’t bomb people into being nice Westerners

In a way, watching the debate yesterday in the House of Commons on whether the UK should join in with Air Strikes against the so called Islamic State felt different to me from the last times we’ve had similar debates.

This time I felt I was open to persuasion. As the debate began, I hadn’t made up my mind what I thought was right. I accept the arguments that such action this time is legal. (In the past I’ve marched against UK involvement convinced that it was illegal and wrong from the outset). I’m not a pacifist and don’t automatically assume that using force is wrong. That means that each time I need to be persuaded.

As I’ve said before, I once had aspirations to be a Member of Parliament and when crucial votes come around I find myself inevitably absorbed by them wondering how I would have voted. In this case, I’m sure that I would have entered the chamber undecided and left having firmly made up my mind.

The more speeches that I heard in favour of military action, the more troubled I was about it. In particular, I was troubled to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury throwing his lot in with the government and advocate new bombing missions.

It seems to me that the following points remain unanswered.

  • Likelihood of success.  This is a key point for anyone trying to assess using Christian criteria whether military action is just. How many bombs do we need to drop before we realise that air strikes alone are not sorting out the conflict in Iraq? The lessons of the past do not point to an easy or quick solution. I was particularly alarmed by the suggestion by the Prime Minister that this could take three years. I don’t believe any0ne can see what lies ahead in three years time in Iraq. These are not air strikes – this is a war. What’s more I don’t even know how we will judge success.
  • We are not fighting a conventional enemy but a set of ideas. Bombs do not destroy ideas they disperse them. The “Islamic State” people may claim to have territorial claims to a part of the world but that doesn’t mean we are fighting another state in the way that the West understands that. Controlling territory on the ground doesn’t mean that you control people’s minds. ISIS and al-Queda are as much a set of ideas as an army controlling a people. We need concrete strategies for making lives better and the underlying philosophical principles that are behind the terror attacks need to be taken to pieces and few of us know how to do that.
  • What about the innocents? In this week when we’ve remembered St Adamnan again in the church, again we are reminded that attacks which kill or harm the innocent are never justified. Collateral damage is terrorism by another name.
  • Finally, that you can’t bomb people into being nice Westerners. It seemed to me that many in the House of Commons were responding to the barbarity of recent hostage beheadings with the notion that we can somehow fly 6 RAF aircraft over Iraq, drop some bombs and stop people being beastly. It won’t do. You can’t bomb people into being nice Westerners. If there are any solutions they will be far more complex than what is currently proposed.

For all these reasons, though I would have gone into the chamber undecided, by the end of the day I would have made my mind up.

I would have voted against military action.


  1. John O'Leary says

    With wisdom like this, Kelvin, I think it’s a shame you’re not in parliament. There’s such a great need for someone to express the principles of the Gospel. Maybe it’s not too late? (:-))

  2. FWIW I do have pacifist leanings, which just means I get to agree with your conclusion quicker – and thanks for taking the time to do the working-out as well.

    I also have not heard about a criterion by which such violence will end.

    I thought the general idea was that political leaders were meant to keep war away from their country.

  3. Great post, Kelvin. This is a deeply upsetting and disturbing move with no sensible aim.

  4. Graeme Cowie says

    The objective of the air strikes isn’t to bomb people into being nice Westerners. It’s not even to secure peace. It is to stop ISIS’ territorial expansion and to force them to retreat a bit.

    This is important, because it furthers the humanitarian and strategic regional interests on the ground. Its humanitarian impact is already taking effect. ISIS has retreated from towns and cities where they were within reach of people whom they threatened to submit to their version of Sharia law on pain of death.

    There are hundreds of thousands of refugees who, because of an ISIS retreat, will be able to secure their homes and return to their cities, knowing that the on the ground Kurdish and Iraqi troops will have aerial support from the West should ISIS try to retake their towns. In a civil war where most assaults rely on desert movement this is particularly important as now ISIS will be exposed in areas where civilian casualties are far less likely. That’s not nothing. That’s success.

    In the long run, this gives the dysfunctional Iraqi army time to regroup and begin to function as a proper defence force on the ground. This is important if we are to prevent the spread of ISIS through other parts of Syria and near to the Lebanese border. Again, this isn’t nothing.

    Military intervention does not happen in isolation. This is a modest intervention, at the request of a government whose state we caused to be unstable in the first place, begging us to stop a theocratic paramilitary from setting up a regional and ultimately a global caliphate. If we don’t help the moderate powers who can be committed to dialogue and power sharing and negotiation to gain even a semblance of physical control of the Middle East literally nothing diplomatic will meaningfully improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis or Syrians, whatever their religion and whatever their ethnic origin.

    This intervention is about making war less brutal, the less bad and more legitimate and more conciliatory actors more empowered, and the lives of civilians less awful. It isn’t a complete solution to conflict, but it was never pretending to be.

  5. “Therefore, my Harry, be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels; that action, hence bourne out, may waste the memory of the former days” (Henry IV P2). And with Radio 4 defecting to UKIP, there’s plenty of current infotainment to keep us from remembering history and repeating past mistakes.

  6. Whit Johnstone says

    You can’t bomb people into being nice westerners, true. But you can make sure that the religiously tolerant drug-running Marxists beat the genocidal monument destroying fanatics. Yes, what we’re doing in Iraq and Kurdistan is setting up the conditions for another Saddam, or more likely two of them. But that’s better than letting the Islamic State get an actual country. And frankly we should have left Saddam alone in the first place. He was a monster but he kept the lid on Pandora’s box.

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