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An erstwhile pacifist's IS quandary

  • 02 October 2014

I used to style myself a pacifist. Or hoped I was one. Or something. But that was before I had children. The minute I clapped eyes on my first-born, I realised that any threat to him would see me transformed into a murderous monster, and I later felt the same about his two brothers. Nor does passion diminish with age: woe betide anybody who even attempts to harm my three grandsons.

Life, as we know, plays tricks, is deeply ironic, so formerly pacifist me has had to cope with the fact of a marine commando son, a member of the Greek Special Forces. I strive mightily to avoid thinking about his training and expertise, while being deeply thankful that so far he has not seen action, although in 1997 he spent six months in Bosnia. The worst was over by then, but he still could have lost his life or had it ruined in one way or another. He seldom talks about those months, but on his return he made a comment that has never left me: ‘This is never going to be sorted out, Mum, because the whole set-up is tribal, and the Powers don’t seem to understand that.’

But here we are on the warpath yet again: allied forces have taken to the skies in an attempt to destroy IS, the Islamic State, and there is increasing pressure to have, as the military is fond of saying, boots on the ground. Lord Richards, recently retired as Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff, is in favour of said boots, but also says ‘you don’t do wars unless you really have to.’ 

History, however, is full of wars that could have been avoided. World War One is a dreadful example of a great mistake that should never have been made, and many experts argue forcefully that it is not yet over: modern Iraq (more irony) was created as a result of the Ottoman defeat in 1917, created by Western powers who had little regard for tribal loyalties or traditional territories, and still less understanding of the prevailing mindset or emotional environment. Not a lot has changed.

Lord Richards says we cannot destroy IS, but he thinks we can defeat it. The question is: How?  There is a knee-jerk reaction, it seems to me, in favour of violence and war, and they both beget more of the same. Henry Reynolds has recently written that Australians