This was posted back in September but I’ve only just come across an interesting observation from the distinguished military historian Sir Michael Howard (who is of course not to be confused with the former Tory Leader). He’s assessing what went wrong in Iraq from a military and political perspective – and is consequently very critical of the US/UK approach. But it was this comment which really struck me, and is thus worth quoting in full:

President Bush and his neo-con supporters are in the habit of saying that since the desire for freedom burns brightly in every human breast, it is the duty of the United States to spread democratic freedom throughout the world. He sent his army (and ours) into Iraq in order to do this; with the results we see today. Two centuries ago the leaders of the French Revolution did very much the same thing, and unleashed a quarter of a century of war on Europe.

In fact, what is hard-wired into every human being is the need, not to be ‘free’, but to belong: belong to a group, whether it be a family, a juvenile gang, a football crowd, a tribe, or a fully-fledged nation. This is the instinct that has inspired humanity throughout its history and been the cause of most of its wars. Very few of us have either the inclination or the courage to separate ourselves, form our own judgments and battle against the crowd. Those who do so are regarded at best as odd-balls, at worst as traitors – not least in the United States.

The concepts of ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’, as the West understands them, are the result of a long process of social, economic and political development in our own part of the world. Even here they can flourish only within a framework of security provided by a historic community that commands our instinctive loyalty. If they are brought by foreign troops, wrapped in a foreign flag, they will be seen as the ideology of an alien tribe and resisted accordingly. In their well-meaning effort to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East, President Bush and Tony Blair may have let us in for an even longer war than that which was unleashed by the French Revolution, two centuries ago.

Scary – but he must be spot on, surely? This need to belong is of course a classic motivation in the so-called honour- or shame-cultures (of the Middle East and Asia) – but I suspect that it is also prevalent in the west in different ways. It is what lies behind recent debates in Christian circles about how people initially come to Christian faith – through first believing in the proclamation and then joining a Christian community or the other way around. At one level, it doesn’t really matter if there is an authentic Christian community where proclamation is taking place. But we constantly need to take this need for belonging into account if we are to understand how to reach and help. Authentic Christian community has never been more crucial or relevant – for ours is a fragmenting society (often, ironically, as the result of our pursuit of personal freedom and autonomy). People are lost not so much because they are free, but because they no longer know where to belong. Hence the headlong dash into the virtual/DIY/fabricated communities in cyberspace. But these will never satisfy – because as the Christian poet so eloquently articulated centuries ago, we’re simply not wired up like that. We need one another.


No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne (1572-1631)

As Donne explains, this makes the death of citizens caught up in Iraq my problem as much as it is their grieving relatives. We all belong to one another in a common humanity.

But there is a final irony in all this. The invasion of Iraq was a component of the strategies (so-called) of the War on Terror. In the light of western idealism about liberty, it was no surprise that the initial responses to the 9/11 attacks were grouped under the banner Operation Enduring Freedom. The irony is that enduring freedom is only ultimately attainable through belonging to an eternal community.


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. drfrank

    Lovely reflections, Mark.

    Yes, the Howard quote is spot on. It might not be scary because there are people like him who can articulate it so well – I find relief in this.

    Thinking about the question of belonging and community: my experience is that it occurs when there is someone who listens to, and appreciates, someone else’s story.

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