Friday, 6 August 2004
In 1854, in response to the Russian invasion of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France declared war on Russia, a conflict known as the Crimean War. On 25 October, a British cavalry group near Balaklava found itself face to face with Russian artillery, when the order came down to launch a frontal assault. Of the 673 men who attacked the Russians that day, 478 were killed in what most historians agree was a foolish maneuver. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, captured the action, the sacrifice, and the heroism is his famous poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade."
Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. "Forward, the Light Brigade! "Charge for the guns!" he said: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. "Forward, the Light Brigade!" Was there a man dismay'd? Not tho' the soldier knew Someone had blunder'd: Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volley'd and thunder'd; Storm'd at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred. Flash'd all their sabres bare, Flash'd as they turn'd in air, Sabring the gunners there, Charging an army, while All the world wonder'd: Plunged in the battery-smoke Right thro' the line they broke; Cossack and Russian Reel'd from the sabre stroke Shatter'd and sunder'd. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred. Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them Volley'd and thunder'd; Storm'd at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell, They that had fought so well Came thro' the jaws of Death Back from the mouth of Hell, All that was left of them, Left of six hundred. When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered. Honor the charge they made, Honor the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred.
Few people remember that the Crimean War was triggered by an argument over whether the Catholic or the Orthodox church had the right to guard the Christian holy places in Palestine. Tennyson praises the soldiers who fought bravely, while criticizing the order as a "blunder." Nevertheless, he says, the soldiers did their duty: "Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die."
As the American death toll in Iraq approaches 1000 (total "coalition" deaths have passed that number, and total Iraqi deaths are more than ten times that amount), it's worthwhile to challenge again those who sent soldiers to war. What were the reasons given to justify the war?
The Light Brigade's tremendous losses on the day Tennyson describes are just a few in a war that was characterized by such missteps. Even though the British and French eventually prevailed, they suffered enormous losses in the process, and the goals of the war were less than clear. In many ways, the Crimean War mirrors the current Iraq War, which is also characterized by blunders (mostly political rather than military) and whose aims are questionable. Contra Tennyson, it is the duty of soldiers and those who love and support them to question the reason for this war and every war.
Furthermore, it is the duty of every Christian to evaluate the rationale and the conduct of the war, comparing it to Christian principles. When we do that, the war on Iraq falls far short of Christian ideals. Its launch was based on lies and exaggerations. It does not meet even the most liberal interpretation of the Just War standard, a standard that fails to meet the standards set by Christ in any case. The conduct of the war has often failed to meet international law, which protects civilians and prisoners of war. If the war on Iraq has been waged in the name of a deity, it is not God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in whose name the war has been fought, but some pagan god of war.
It is difficult for soldiers on active duty to question the rationale for the wars they fight, so it is up to those of us who care about peace and justice to raise questions on their behalf, and on behalf of those in target country. It is our job to make reply, our job to question why, so they won't have to do and die, ever again.
© Copyright 2004, Progressive Theology