Invasion Force: Western troops return from an exercise in the Saudi Arabian desert in the run-up to Operation Desert Storm (1990-91). St Thomas Aquinas enjoined his fellow Christians to avoid all wars in which the cost of their participation was, by any rational calculation, likely to be higher, in human terms, than their abstention. Is the Middle East a better or worse place after 25 years of Western intervention?
BY THE TIME you read these words, the dispatch of New Zealand troops to Iraq will, almost certainly, have been announced. For the fourth time in less than quarter-of-a-century, Kiwi boots will be kicking up sand in the Middle East. Unasked, presumably, by those seated around the Cabinet Table yesterday morning, were the questions:
“Has the Middle East become a better, or a worse, place since the West’s first, massive, post-war incursion, back in 1991?”
And: “Will it be a better, or worse, place for the Western “Club’s” intervention in 2015?”
It is worth reminding ourselves that Osama Bin Laden’s decision to shift Al Qaida’s focus to the “far-away enemy” was triggered by the arrival of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in the Arabian Peninsula – home of the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. Imagine how Catholic Christians would react to the sight of several Arab divisions setting up camp in the Vatican City, and you’ll have some inkling of how profoundly affected Bin Laden and his followers were by the Americans’ arrival.
The past has much less purchase on the sensibilities of the average Westerner than it does on the hearts and minds of those belonging to the Islamic faith. Even today, both Al Qaida and Islamic State denounce the military contingents of the West as “Crusaders” – referencing the Frankish knights who invaded the Muslim world early in the Twelfth Century. Nor is this mere rhetoric on their part. Through all the intervening centuries, street-singers from Beirut to Baghdad have kept alive the horrors perpetrated by the Christian invaders, and recounted proudly how Islam’s great captain, Saladin, recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem. The Crusades are as real to the people of the Middle East as the much more recent tragedy of Gallipoli is to us.
Every grain of sand kicked-up by Kiwi soldiers’ boots in Iraq will be weighted down with centuries of history. It is, moreover, a living past, inextricably intertwined with the present, and its effects can be deadly. The terrible punishments meted out to those who have fallen into the clutches of Islamic State are not the random choices of sadistic criminals, but the fate prescribed by Islam’s 1,383-year-old holy book, the Quran:
“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter”.
This is the world into which our government has decided to send one hundred or more young New Zealanders. Our soldiers will now be numbered among “those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger”. From the moment New Zealand’s participation in the war against Islamic State is announced, the fate of any Kiwi soldier, or citizen, falling into the hands of Islamic State, is sealed.
New Zealand is very far from Iraq and Syria; so far that it is possible the self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has forgotten we exist. The news that 100 New Zealand troops are on their way to join the ranks of the “Crusaders” will, therefore, come as a forceful reminder of our role in Middle Eastern history. It is to be hoped that Prime Minister Key has not forgotten how far the influence of al-Baghdadi’s regime now reaches. If he needs instruction, he has only to ask the citizens of Copenhagen, Paris, Sydney and Ottawa. The “Caliphate’s” arm has grown very long indeed.
If our Government has deliberately invited the religious fervour of the Middle East into these peaceful and hitherto tolerant islands, then we, ourselves, will have to answer the questions they refused to consider: “Has intervention worked in the past?”, “Will it work now?” And, “Is it justified?”
The first two answers are, obviously, “No.” But what about the third? What possible justification can we offer for dispatching troops to a country where millions of the people they’ve been sent to help will curse them as enemies of God?
Is it possible that we, like the gullible inhabitants of Medieval Europe, have allowed ourselves to be goaded into action by sermons filled with the details of hideous atrocities? Are our soldiers about to depart these shores with the red cross of the crusader knights emblazoned – if only metaphorically – on their uniforms? If so, then we are embarked upon a fool’s errand that can only end in horror and despair.
St Thomas Aquinas enjoined his fellow Christians to avoid all wars in which the cost of their participation was, by any rational calculation, likely to be higher, in human terms, than their abstention.
Our presence in Iraq cannot be justified. It will end badly.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 February 2015.