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The Saturday Essay: Churchmen have missed the opportunity to speak of war

We don't know his name, but he was a member of the crew of a bomber plane. In a letter to a prominent clergyman he described his feelings of nausea when he realised that he was partly responsible for the "women and children down there being mutilated, burned, killed, terror-stricken in that dreadful inferno". "Why," he wrote, "do the churches not tell us that we are doing an evil job? Why do chaplains persist in telling us that we are performing a noble task in defence of Christian civilisation?"

This letter was not written by any of the crew who recently dropped bombs over Serbia, but by one of the air crew who attacked Hamburg during the Second World War. His problem was not that he was a pacifist - he strongly believed that Nazi Germany had to be beaten, and insisted that he was "prepared to do my bit to that end". Rather, he was objecting to the way churchmen were describing the slaughter as "noble". Why didn't the Church admit, he argued, that "what we are doing is evil, a necessary evil perhaps, but evil all the same"?

Now that peace is in sight, we may be forgiven for wondering at the silence of the vast majority of our own clergy in the past few horrifying weeks. "Ethnic cleansing" and rape are evils; so is aerial bombardment in which the lives of civilians are wiped out. Until a few days ago, many of our political representatives were calling for a land war in which thousands of our citizens would be sent into a war zone, to kill and be killed. Yet all this has been happening with scarcely a word from priests and clergy ministering to people around the country.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Historically, clergymen have proved to be as bellicose as the rest of society. Of course, there have been exceptions - Quakers, Christadelphians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mennonites and Plymouth Brethren, to name the most prominent. In addition, some conflicts have provoked protest (most notably the Boer war and the Vietnam war) and influential churchmen have opposed specific acts of war (most famously, atomic bombing during the Second World War).

More typically, though, the role of the clergy in war has generally consisted of regretting the need for armed aggression, while furiously engaging in "just" war. Church-based anti-war movements reached a peak of only 15,000 in the years between the two world wars, according to one historian. This strong bond between the Church and the state was forged in the fourth century and since the 13th century religious representatives have accompanied British troops to war.

In the past, it has been relatively easy for our mainstream religious representatives to justify war. Both political and theological language has been used. The First World War was portrayed as a crusade, the Second World War as a just war. It was said that armed conflict was used by God for His purposes, in a similar way that He made use of plague, famine, and pestilence (that is, to prompt a resurgence of Christian virtues such as courage, strength and self-sacrifice). Understandably, Old Testament religion, with its emphasis on "an eye for an eye" was more popular than any Sermon on the Mount or Ten Commandments. Biblical prohibitions on killing (as in the commandment "thou shalt not kill") were easily dismissed on the grounds that "killing" in this context meant murder.

Of course, while killing was said to be legitimate in the context of war, the serviceman had to be careful to ensure that his own soul was not corrupted by bitter feelings towards the enemy. Thus, clergy during the two world wars argued that Christians revealed their righteousness in battle by killing without hatred. As they plunged their bayonets into human flesh, clergymen encouraged soldiers to murmur, "this is my body broken for you", or to whisper prayers of love. Killing was not merely sanctioned; it was sanctified.

When war has been declared in the past, men who claim to possess a religious vocation have been torn between their "this-worldly" and "other- worldly" roles. During the First World War, of the 1,274 students enrolled in Anglican theological colleges in Britain, nearly 400 withdrew immediately and ordinations fell steadily throughout the war, from just over 600 in 1914 to 114 by 1918. A similar thing happened during the Second World War, as theological students opted for bazookas over Bibles. In many circles, this was lauded. For instance, in the closing lecture to the senior class of divinity students at Glasgow University in 1916, Professor HMB Reid declared that the fact that men from the divinity school had enlisted in large numbers "proved their manhood". They were proof that Divinity Hall was "no refuge for slackers or detrimentals [sic], but proportionally the most martial section of the university".

As for other young men, war promised to provide these young clerics with an exciting event in which to demonstrate wider ideals and an opportunity to prove their virility. There were other pressures placed upon clergymen to become combatants, too, as one Scottish minister admitted when explaining why he enlisted during the First World War - if he had remained in safety, he simply would not have been able to look the "lads" of his congregation in the face. He was killed leading his men at Loos. Combat seemed to promise clergymen an ideal environment in which to exercise their ministry. This was why senior figures in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England during the Second World War insisted on the need for chaplains to endure physical training and rifle training alongside combatant troops. They believed that this would draw them closer to the men.

The experience of war itself was even more important in prompting clergymen to renounce their non-combatant role. Clergymen were not immune to the general sense of exhilaration on the eve of battle and even while engaging the enemy. As Chaplain Ernest N Merrington confessed in the First World War, it was a "grim, wild thrill, unknown elsewhere in life". In the wild excitement of battle, some padres simply forgot the rules as they retrieved discarded weapons and took over machine-gun sites.

More typically, though, padres were important in raising morale and advising combatants. Field Marshal Douglas Haig regarded popular chaplains as of equal value to effective generals in ensuring victory. Padres were crucial if men were to kill without guilt. Even psychiatrists acknowledged the power of spiritual relief, observing (in the words of one psychiatrist during the Second World War) that some men "obtain through confession a relief of guilty feelings. Confession, even though unaccompanied by punishment, is regarded as a righteous act and tends to lessen the feeling of guilt."

During the two world wars of this century, the established churches were also important in providing guidance about the conduct of combat. Although it was legitimate to "thrash this mean lout" (in the words of SA Alexander at St Paul's during the First World War), pulpits resounded with exhortations to "play the game". What is striking, however, is that exhorting combatants to be "sporting" was as deep as the advice went. Although theological concepts of a "just war" were delineated (Had the war been properly declared? Was it being fought for a just cause? Was it a last resort?), many clergy expressed extremely cynical views about whether adhering to "rules" was ever an expedient policy. After all, as one chaplain put it in the war of 1914-18, war was "manifestly an outlaw scheme of things". Therefore, there was "no need for apologies" for any action. In the words of the Rev EW Brereton (rector of Hollinwood, Essex, during the First World War), "we are fighting for dear life against enemies who are not Christians, not human beings, but reptiles. We claim the right to fight these fiends not with kid gloves. I scorn the humanitarians who object to reprisals." Religious leaders advised combatants that because "ordinary Germans" approved of the "atrocities" carried out by their soldiers, these civilians were legitimate objects of attack. Even children could be killed, since, in the words of the editor of the Modern Churchman in 1917, "the innocent German babe will in all probability grow up to be the killer of babes himself." As the Rev Joseph McCulloch ominously observed in his book We Have Our Orders (1944): "What I fear has happened is that the Army has converted the chaplains."

Our Protestant and Catholic representatives today would recoil from such sentiments. Yet the conflicts that their predecessors faced in the past are shared by them, and their response has been to regard the conduct of war as outside their purview, claiming that the "experts" are the politicians and the military commanders. But, at important periods during the two world wars, clergy did protest - sometimes about the legitimacy of war itself, at other times about aspects of the way that war was being conducted. They did not succeed and many found their promotion opportunities severely curtailed by their public stance, but none regretted speaking out according to their personal conscience, and standing up for what they regarded as their ethical and theological duty. Today, with peace in sight, clergymen and priests may have forfeited a remarkable opportunity to provide a moral commentary on the actions of a nation at war.

The writer's 'An Intimate History of Killing' is published by Granta, pounds 25