Belief, Monday to Friday, Radio 3

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war ...

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The Independent Culture

I've often wondered how soldiers can be Christians, given the fairly clear instruction from Him Upstairs that homicide's a no-no. But those of a religious persuasion, I've noticed, usually manage to find get-out clauses for the big things while sticking rigidly to the rules about small stuff.

So it was in Belief, a five-parter in which Joan Bakewell quizzed various representatives of the great and the good about the religious impulses that fuel their lives. Richard Dannatt – that's General Lord Dannatt to you, former Chief of General Staff who was in charge a few years ago when war opened on two fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan, what he described as “a perfect storm”.

Bakewell got quite quickly to the nub of the matter, the apparent contradiction between beliefs and action, asking him, “Where is God on the battlefield?” Dannatt responded by doing the thing that irritates me most about God-fearing types (well, apart from killing people with different beliefs): purporting to know what God “thinks”.

“God on the battlefield is within individuals,” he told her. “God doesn't say, 'this is right or that is right,' though there may be some issues where the right and wrong is so clear he may well take a clear view of it.” God “take a clear view”? I wonder what he “thinks” about plebgate? Or volleyball losing its funding for the Olympics? Dannatt will doubtless be able to tell us.

Bakewell didn't get where she is today by soft-soaping, and she asked the all-important question – what about “Thou shalt not kill?” – triggering the get-out clause. “I think there's a doctrinal debate to be had,” he suggested, “whether that commandment is 'thou shalt not kill' or 'thou shalt do no murder'.” There's a doctrinal debate? Oh, that's all right then. Shoot to kill.

On Christmas night it was Jimmy Carter's turn, and he made quite a contrast. Although in the past 30 years he has become one of the world's leading statesman, he was much derided as president of the United States. But, as he observed: “We never went to war. We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet.”

Sounds like a complete triumph to me.