Sermon – reflections on war.

by Courtenay Barnett

Dear beloved the topic of war is on my mind.

War has been in people ( psychologically); on people ( bombs); and – all around people for centuries. Why?

At the altar of the almighty truth there is a challenge here. This sermon does not lend itself to any one eternal and/or everlasting truth in answer – but rather  – the nature of the question goes more to a series of interpretations as to – why war?

What category of war is being contemplated and considered here? War in the sense of tribes – nationalities – nations in conflict with each other. I rely on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of war and  accordingly, “war” is defined as, “A state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country.”

There is a work on war more than a few centuries old written by Sun Tzu, entitled ‘The art of war’. It is Chinese and the thoughts are profound. Although having been written over a thousand years ago, it is still relied upon not only in military matters for strategy but has impacted other spheres of human activity. Consider:-

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

I start here because I realise that the approach of a rationalist academic analysis would potentially launch into a multiplicity of explanations such as considerations of  conflict in the context of  control of vital global resources : which I single out for special comment – but leave the others merely as being illustrative of the vast nature of the question- such as holding on to power and maintaining the status quo ( Apartheid South Africa); tribal differences ( Rwanda); political jostling for control over state power ( the Vietnam war); nationalism ( Nazi Germany in World War 11); jostling for regional power (Iraq under Saddam Hussein during the 8 year war with Iran);  expansion of territory ( Israel); balance of power conflagrations ( the Balkans); religion ( the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s fought between Croatian Christians and Muslim Bosnians) –  and on and on and on.

Compress, simplify and explain. How so?

Since Sun Tzu dealt with the inevitability of conflict as a state of being and Machiavelli, in his famous work ‘ The Prince’ wrote of  self -serving, brutal, realistic and amoral conduct at its ‘best’, I use that duality.    It was no less a person than former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger who made it appear that ‘The Prince’ was his ‘Bible’ for diplomacy, scheming, conniving and duplicity( see: footnote 1). Here, I am compressing as between Eastern versus Western thought processes based on dualistic modes of thought in the latter instance. The West sees and focuses primarily on the outer while the East starts with the inner, in the sense of conquest over one’s self as a first step to reach the victory in the external broader worldly sense. And so the attempt at a compressed  explanation as to – why conflict – flows from these three, identified initial steps.

Compression at the extreme would take us – stones – spears – bow and arrow – cross bow – explosives – advancing stages of bombs – guns – canons – missiles – atomic – nuclear – and any other sorts of weaponry the human mind dreams up.

Simplification thus – the cave man, like the ape, has a physical fight over the woman he wants. The tribe has a fight with the neighbouring tribe. The nation seeks control over territory – and so on.

Explanation accompanied by compression and simplification might be this. Let’s use only two motivational factors and parameters for warfare. Our human historical experiences and our psychological motivators. History encompasses the geopolitics of war. Our inherent human motivational triggers such as need, greed, conceptual constructs such as ‘Empire’ and fulfillment of religious fate explains a lot, but there is more. So, as much as we explain, there remains something outside the box. So be it – we have already put quite a lot in the box in a very short time – so let us then transfer from the conceptual, confined and contained box to the world out there.

For purposes of illustration,  the sermon confines itself to the post World War 11 era and contiguous decolonisation period from 1945 onwards. The Iraq war of 2003 will serve later as an illustrative talking point.

The war to end all wars ( and another one nevertheless). Some good however, after World War 11, in that there is the establishment of the United Nations and a number of Geneva Conventions setting  out at an international level attempts to  ‘civilize warfare’. I am born after these events and so walk a path along my birth line.

In the 1960s I attended St. Georges College, a Jesuit institution in Jamaica. The teachers were a mix of priests from Boston and some Jamaican lay teachers. At the time of the Vietnam War we had two sets of priests who made comment on the war. The older ones in the main could see no wrong with America’s war in Vietnam. Their logic ran that America was seeking to do good and was fighting the ungodly communists who  wanted fully to take over Vietnam. The younger Jesuits, without any exceptions as far as I recall, were vocally and staunchly against the war. They taught us that napalm was being used and agent orange also; while the older Jesuits told us stories of how evil the Communists were because they told little children to ask God for ice cream and after none came then they were instructed to ask Uncle Ho for ice cream and they were rewarded. One group saw a war of liberation; while the other saw a war of profiteering and oppression. Not much has changed over the years as I amble towards the Iraq war many years later.

In the years between the 1972 end of the Vietnam War and the onset of the 2003 Iraq war, I did a lot of growing up while advancing into adulthood towards a better understanding  of  just how the world really works  (see again: my commentary at footnote 1).

There is in every war a plethora of lies told; hypocrisy; tremendous economic cost; and – of course – killing, maiming and lasting psychological trauma. Yet, over and over again states set off to war. In 1959, an academic, Kenneth Waltz,  published an analysis entitled, ‘Man, the State, and War’. Stated succinctly, he said that, “wars occur because there is nothing to prevent them”. A truism. He has much more to say and it is accurate to say that every advanced student studying international relations in the Western world would have to contend with Waltz’s ideas. To compress his thoughts, he is saying that the international system lacks any central sovereign authority and so competition becomes endemic. A nice way of saying that if a state is powerful enough it will use its power for reason of lack of effective constraints on use of said power. Again, the Iraq war becomes my reference point in deference to Waltz and out of an acknowledgement of realism.

In purely theoretical terms, states, based on the application of rational thought, should never go to war. The human cost is too great and in the end no one really is the victor. The doubting Thomases will shout that if there had not been a war against Adolph Hitler, then the world would have been a sorry place faced with  post-war  Nazi victory. If a pre-war negotiated truce is not possible ( and here we invoke Mr. Chamberlain’s name) then of course, self-preservation; self-defence; and the ‘just war’ doctrine all dictate that war is inevitable in response to an aggressor and Article 51 of the UN Charter so condones:-

“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of collective or individual self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

But, before returning to contemplation of   the madness which war is, let us use a little rationality.

Leonardo da Vince had worked in Venice designing munitions. It is recorded that he shelved some of his designs, having weighed the implications that if man devised a flying machine then the destruction from dropping munitions from such heights would be devastating for humans.  Maybe footnote 2 reflects this ( see below).He was correct, but time overtook him, as did rationalist compassion and the lunacy has extended to even greater heights. Some questions might be posed:-

  1. If two nuclear armed powers can each blow the world up one time over, and they  then proceed to acquire more ‘un-useable nuclear arms’ to be able to blow the world up five or ten times over – then what is the advantage of such additional weapons considering that the use of  the first set  would be MAD  and lead to( Mutually Assured Destruction)?
  2. If a nuclear power demonstrates that it can and will destroy other countries which do not have the capacity for retaliatory nuclear strikes – then – what incentive does any country have to engage in a denuclearisation agreement?

Note: The obvious and immediate cases in point are – Iraq – Libya – North Korea vis- a- vis – the United States of America.

  1. Is there more sense in increasing the production of:-
  2. i) Internationally banned and/or prohibited chemicals and biological capacity for warfare; and
  3. ii) WMDs generally; and

iii) Nuclear weaponry in particular; and

  1. iv) Shouldn’t there be a global treaty prohibiting climate manipulation as an instrument of warfare;

and, via treaty and agreements de-escalating each of the above and safely and sensibly redeploying resources on the welfare of a nation’s people? The US can be noted, as a case in point, in Afghanistan and Iraq, for in just those two wars the US has lost  over 7,000  lives, expended over US$ 6 trillion and not yet, counting or including the maimed, psychologically damaged and over 1 million Iraqi lives lost. All of this is just numbers, one can say. Just numbers. Yet, behind each number is a human face, a person, a family – an actual person and many people stacked high in those numbers. Is this rational; does this make sense; is this desirable – and – even if desirable for some – is it over time sustainable?

Having posed the questions – I doubt that I am likely to obtain any rational justifications. Explanations as to why wars break out – yes – as regards consciously doing the following:-

  1. Spanish American war commenced with a staged explosion in Havana Harbour.
  2. The Vietnam War commenced with a falsehood. It was  announced the day before that in the Bay of Tongkin, the USS Maddox was attacked by the North Vietnamese. The only problem was that President Johnson announced the incident that day before it actually  happened, having failed to take into account the international date line for the right  time to announce the “attack”.
  3. The 2003 Iraq war based on the allegation  and falsehood that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in violation of UN resolutions.

The 2003 Iraq war. This resonates with me in memory, in terms of international law ( violations thereof) and in straightforward human and humanitarian terms. Let’s consider.

Just before the Iraq war I made a bet with an ex US Navy man I knew. I told him that there would be no invasion of Iraq and bet him US$100 with 4 to 1 odds. I lost; he won.

My thinking was based on strictly legal analysis and not on the realpolitik motivating the illegal invasion of Iraq. I had studiously followed the work of the UN Chief Weapons Inspector, an international lawyer named Hans Blix. He was not willing to tell lies and he informed accurately what his team had found and been convinced by, which did not tally with what President George Bush Jr. wanted to hear. Blix went as far as offering a final, further six weeks to do additional  investigations then make an ultimate report, with a view not to rush to war. Bush rejected the offer and – as they say – the rest is history ( see: footnote 3).

I observed in the United Kingdom at the time that two prominent persons lost their lives  with reference to  the Iraq invasion. Robin Cook was the British Foreign Secretary who resigned in March 2003 in protest over the invasion of Iraq:-

“The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner—not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council”

Professor Waltz was correct in his analysis; it is about power; not legality. They can do it – so – just do it.

Dr. David Kelly was a distinguished scientist on biological warfare, in the service of the British Government.

Cook died allegedly from a heart attack suffered in August, 2005. There was never any serious investigation into the nature and cause of his death. Cook seems to have been divulging confidential information going back to the Iraq invasion, contrary to the prohibition placed on him by the Official Secrets Act. Kelly died supposedly from suicide. He  had spoken to a BBC journalist named Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan made reference to details provided by Kelly and to the UK Government’s dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Parliament summoned Kelly to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee while investigating Gilligan’s report and  Kelly, two days later, was found dead.

So, there you have it. He who tells the truth may pay with his life.

My moral position is one of forever seeking a road to peace as the first recourse. If all else fails then self-defence becomes inevitable for logical reasons of self-preservation. I do  not relish conflict; do not glorify militarism, yet seek to understand – why war?  Sun Tzu is particularly helpful to me in comprehending on a philosophical level – the reasons why. He sees conflict as inevitable and war thus as a necessary evil. He also notes philosophically ways to avoid “war” in the extreme: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”  – and – he penetrates the inner self in response to the outer confrontation with warfare – for as he says – “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

At this juncture I have very little left to say.

My sermon, on this occasion, was compelled to abandon its normal mission of truth seeking. My absolutist approach, if one can call it that. “War” by its pervasiveness and existence as a global reality has directed me along a path of an appreciation of relativist reality. Noting the reality that war was here before me – has persisted all my life – and – shall be here after I close my eyes for the final time.

To the extent that I have pursued the truths behind the Iraq war, my piece was said back in 2006 when I published ‘Oil, conflict and the future of global energy supplies’. Having revisited it, there is nothing I wish to change and continue to  note reality as it is ( see footnote 6).

Having come to those conclusions, my farewell adopts a realistic tone:-

War – Oh hell! – AMEN!


  2. The American Muslim (TAM)

    Alfred Nobel and the Real Prize – Peace “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankin

  4. Leonardo da Vinci’s Aerial Screw Invention

    Nearly four hundred years before the invention of the helicopter, Leonardo da Vinci invented a flying machine that used a revolving platform to gain flight.

  5. ‘Disarming Iraq’ by Hans Blix ( published 2004).


Courtenay Barnett is a graduate of London University. His areas of study were economics, political science and international law. He has been a practising lawyer for over thirty years, has been arrested for defending his views, and has argued public interest and human rights cases. He lives and works in the Caribbean.     

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