The Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key has announced that New Zealand will be sending members of the New Zealand Defence Force to Iraq to train Iraqi troops in the fight against Islamic State (IS). Against some who think we should not support the effort against IS on the grounds that it is “not our war,” against the government’s political foes (and even allies – but with the apparent majority of public opinion) I believe the PM has made the right decision for New Zealand to get involved, and a laudable one in the face of predictable opposition. In truth I think our soldiers should be going there to engage IS rather than to train soldiers, but involvement rather than keeping our distance is the appropriate stance.
It is right to intervene against Islamic State
Islamic State is a movement engaging in acts of incredible brutality, often against the defenceless. From the now routine releases of videos in which they behead non-combatants to the mass beheading of 21 Christians in Libya to the burning to death of a Jordanian pilot, to the more recent kidnapping of at least 90 Christians in Syria to do God-knows-what with them, to their expansion into nations in the Middle East spreading fear and violence, destabilising the region more and more. They contravene any reasonable standards of humaneness, they have absolutely no respect for international rules of warfare (if you can even call it a war) and their presence in the Middle East places the lives of many innocents at risk. What is more, this is a movement that supports the spread of violence via acts of terror into the wider world. Most of us have no trouble accepting that the nations of the world were right to intervene against Hitler’s regime in its aggression against Europe, and that the holocaust alone would have justified such intervention quite apart from Germany’s expansionism. But if we think intervention was justified then, it makes no moral sense to say that it is not justified now, when IS threatens the lives and well-being of so many.
“But this is not our war!”
Easily the most widely used refrain in condemning New Zealand’s involvement in the fight against IS is that this is not our war. We shouldn’t get involved because it’s over there and we are not a target until we get involved.
We do not take that approach in life in general, if we are people of good character. When the man next door beats his wife, we do not say “it’s not my marriage, not my problem.” If a crowd watched a man being beaten and robbed in the street and said to each other “it’s not our mugging, and as long as we don’t get involved we won’t be a target,” we would rightly judge them harshly. Defending the defenceless often means stepping in when it might otherwise not be “our problem.” But if we do not intervene, we are leaving people to be dehumanised and mowed down. When we have the ability to help people in a situation like this, we ought to do so.
It is also naïve to assume that this really isn’t our problem. Islamic State is not a movement marked by etiquette. They are not going to spare a person’s life because that person is from New Zealand and New Zealand does not have troops in Iraq. They are not going to expand, kill and destroy until they reach an invisible boundary line and then say “this is far enough – we don’t want to make it their problem.” When we have a movement that simply does not respect the sovereignty of nations or the dignity of persons, they are assaulting something that is necessary for a functional world – the sort of world we have an interest in preserving. This is our problem.
“But Christians should be pacifists!”
No they shouldn’t. I know that some say that Christianity was universally a pacifist movement (a movement that taught that there is never any justification for the use of force against others) until bad people like Augustine came along and corrupted the church with the doctrine of the just war. The kindest thing to say about this is that it is an oversimplification, but the ordinary way of describing this is as a lie. There existed pacifists among the Church Fathers, but as I have explained before, the evidence does not support the claim that they were all pacifists up to the time of Augustine. “Turn the other cheek,” some say. “Learn what that means,” I say in reply.) For those interested, I discussed this issue, albeit briefly, on a panel for Elephant TV, and that discussion is available on Youtube (I do not know for how long it will be available).
We must confront IS, not because we hate them, but because we love those who are in the firing line.
Of course I do not have a front row seat on what is really going on in the Prime Minister’s mind. Some people say that he is just sending personnel to Iraq in order to please America (and what could be more evil than America) to make our place in the world of international commerce that much better. I do not claim the powers of insight into other people’s hearts that such people evidently have. But even if they are right, sometimes people to good things for bad reasons, and I am still grateful that they do good things. As I said, it would be better to engage IS directly, and I think the PM has gone for a non-combat deployment for political reasons in an effort to minimise opposition. That was not the best thing to do. However, the PM claimed that getting involved “is the right thing” to do, and whatever you think motivates him, I concur with that claim.