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Archbishop's sermon to mark the end of military operations in Iraq

Friday 9th October 2009

The sermon given today by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a service of commemoration to mark the end of military operations in Iraq, held at St Paul's Cathedral London:

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's sermon below, or click download on the right to listen [9Mb]

Readings:  Ecclesiastes 3: 1—8;  Ephesians 6.10—17

'There is a time for every matter under heaven'.  Today is a time for reflecting on the human cost of seeking for justice; on the generosity of so many people, young and not so young, in facing and meeting that cost;  and on the countless mysterious ways in which such people have been equipped to meet the cost, through their relationships, through the quiet support and inspiration of those who love them and have shaped who they are.  A time to reflect on the unexpected qualities of people like ourselves who, caught up in the confusions of a great international upheaval, simply got on with the task they were given because they believed that order and justice mattered.

The conflict in Iraq will, for a long time yet, exercise the historians, the moralists, the international experts. In a world as complicated as ours has become, it would be a very rash person who would feel able to say without hesitation, This was absolutely the right or the wrong thing to do, the right or the wrong place to be.  The modern serviceman or woman will not be someone who has accepted without question a set of easy answers.  Their obedience is anything but mindless.  But it is obedience all the same, obedience that comes from recognising that others have been given a clear responsibility for certain difficult decisions.  What matters is not that there is no debate, disagreement or uncertainty – simply that everyone knows who has to answer which questions.

This was a conflict where some of the highest-level questions were unusually hard and sharply argued over.  But everyone has had their share of the tough challenges.  The responsibility of those in the front-line remained and remains the same:  sustaining the climate of mutual trust and confidence that allows decisions to be implemented effectively, and behaving in ways that maintain everyone's trust in the integrity of the armed services.  The demanding task of winning local trust in a chaotic, ravaged society like post-invasion Iraq was one of the heaviest responsibilities laid on armed personnel anywhere in recent times.  Many here will know just how patiently and consistently that work was taken on.  The moral credibility of any country engaged in war depends a lot less on the rhetoric of politicians and commentators than on the capacity of every serving soldier to discharge these responsibilities with integrity and intelligence.  'A time to kill and a time to heal', says our first reading;  'a time to break down and a time to build up.'  The healing and the building up have been at the heart of the efforts of those we commemorate today.  No short-term job, as those in Iraq who are now continuing the work will testify.

But this means that for the modern armed forces there is a special resonance in some of the words in our second reading.  'Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh', says St Paul.  There are visible enemies – a dictator, a terrorist; but there are invisible ones too.  The invisible enemy may be hiding in the temptation to look for short cuts in the search for justice – letting ends justify means, letting others rather than oneself carry the cost, denying the difficulties or the failures so as to present a good public face.  Against these temptations, St Paul tells us to wrap ourselves around with the truth, to be defended by justice and to be impatient only for peace.  These are not remote ideals for a religious minority.  They are essential advice for those caught up in the anxious, fast-changing world of modern military operations, with the intense, even harsh, scrutiny they get from observers and commentators worldwide.  Reflecting on the years of the Iraq campaign, we cannot say that no mistakes were ever made (when has that ever been the case?).  But we can be grateful for the courage and honesty shown in facing them, grateful too for the care taken to create an atmosphere that helped people to struggle against these invisible enemies, and to keep their eyes on the tasks of healing and building.

Justice does not come without cost.  In the most obvious sense, it is the cost of life and safety.  For very many here today, that will be the first thing in their minds and hearts – along with the cost in anxiety and compassion that is carried by the families of servicemen and women.  But there is another sort of cost involved in holding back the easy instinctive response and checking that you are genuinely doing something for the sake of long-term building or healing:  a cost in putting up with boredom and frustration in the course of operations; in setting aside prejudice and resentment to get to know a strange culture and feel with and for its people.  These are all part of the cost, the sacrifice, involved in seeking a better and more secure life for people who have suffered outrageously. 

When we as Christians consider the sacrifice that purchased peace and mercy for the whole world, we think not only of the death of Jesus on the cross but also of the cost of love and openness to the stranger that marked his entire life. We can recognise the same thing at work in a lesser degree in any life that is dedicated to taking the world a little further out of barbarity and violence: it is not only the moments of high tragedy that matter, but the patient acceptance of daily frustrations and confusions, and the need for painstaking attention in every detail to the work that is there to be done.  All of that too we commemorate and celebrate today.

Many people of my generation and younger grew up doubting whether we should ever see another straightforward international conflict, fought by a standing army with conventional weapons.  We had begun to forget the realities of cost.  And when such conflict appeared on the horizon, there were those among both policy makers and commentators who were able to talk about it without really measuring the price, the cost of justice.  Perhaps we have learned something – if only that there is 'a time to keep silence', a time to let go of the satisfyingly overblown language that is so tempting for human beings when war is in the air.  But today it is also 'a time to speak', although only briefly, to speak our thanks for those who have taught us through their sacrifice the sheer worth of justice and peace and who have shouldered some of the responsibility for fleshing out  the values most of us only talk about.

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