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Believers in the Battlespace

by Peter Denton

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Religion and violence are not strangers, as any cursory glance at world affairs, present or past, will demonstrate. While Muslim extremists might seem to have propelled religion onto the front pages in our time, it has never really been absent. Extremists of all sects and sorts historically have used religion to motivate, inspire, or vilify individuals and groups.

In the last one hundred and fifty years of warfare involving western nations, however, religion has taken a back seat to industrial technology. God was presumed to be on the side of the bigger battalions, the larger calibres, or the numbers of machines on any given battlefield.

Yet with the transformation of the battlefield into the much less distinct ‘battlespace’ of the 21st Century, the role played by religious belief in any particular conflict has become more significant. Religious factors are at least equal to social, cultural, and psychological ones in understanding the sources of conflict and the motivations of the combatants. Even in a supposedly secular society such as our own, values linked to religion are embodied in many of the decisions we make.

‘Believers in the battlespace’ is useful shorthand for this problem. The ‘believers’ the phrase identifies are those on all sides motivated by religious beliefs to participate in – or to reject – the rigours and dangers of war. Whether these individuals are directly linked to a particular religious group, the effect of beliefs – what is morally good or bad, for example, or the importance of helping other people, or the division of the world into ‘us and them’ – on the choices we make is undeniable. When such religious motivations remain unarticulated, they are ineffectual; when such motivations are articulated, however, they are potent tools for mobilizing – or demobilizing – entire populations on the ubject of warfare.

Because the ‘battlespace’ of the 21st Century is without necessary boundaries in either time or space, the definition of a ‘combatant’ varies from situation to situation. Thus, while ‘believers in the battlespace’ can point to religious elements in what happens between conflicting militaries, it can also point to religious elements in the civilian or non-combatant population upon whom those militaries rely. What happens on the home front, as it used to be called, has real consequences for the effectiveness of the military at war, and what people at home think about the war reflects to some extent what they believe. The battlespace is thus extended into the lives of ordinary citizens who must decide what to believe, or what a war means, in the midst of conflicting values and inadequate information. What passes for ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ may depend upon what they decide.

The fragmenting of religious culture in western societies, however, makes a popular consensus about what constitutes a ‘just war’ all but impossible. For democratic governments wishing to bend in whatever direction the wind of popular opinion happens to blow, this lack of consensus deposits politicians in the middle of a political minefield when it comes to proposing military intervention. Looking at Canadian, American, and British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, debates about the validity of ‘the mission’ (in itself an interesting choice of words) reflect less of a practical confusion about what must be done than a philosophical confusion about what to believe. Because, as a culture, we are much more comfortable dealing with what people think than with what people believe, we are unable to create a meaningful consensus that mobilizes ‘believers in the battlespace’ in an effective way as a result.

A fair response to this problem is to ask: “Mobilize whom, and to do what?” For all the phraseology of ‘winning hearts and minds’ in ‘the war on terror’ there is little said or done on the subject of winning souls and spirits. History may teach us that humans are fundamentally irrational, but there are also many examples of sacrifices made in the name of some larger cause, whether it was religious or political in nature, that inspired and motivated people to accomplish extraordinary deeds. While the most obvious example today might be the suicide bomber, in fact, such individuals are outnumbered hundreds of thousands to one by people, out of their desire to help others, who volunteer with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the troubled places of our world – often as a result of personal convictions rooted in religious beliefs. In talking to a wide range of Canadian Forces (CF) personnel over the past four years, I have also been struck by how, for many members, their choice of profession is related to a desire to make a difference, to do something important in the world or with their lives. Whether these CF members self-identify as belonging to a religious group, the difference between a job and a calling or vocation is something religious groups have long recognized, encouraged, and respected.

In the larger picture, however, what is ‘the cause’ for Canadians in the 21st Century? What is ‘the mission’? Surely it is not just the deployment flavour of the moment, but the role Canadians should play in a world that, for the most part, does not enjoy our wealth and security. How do we respond to the needs of others? Perhaps, most importantly, why should we? Whether it is in Afghanistan, or Sudan, or Haiti, or Bosnia, or any of a dozen places where our help is needed or given, if we are unable to articulate why we are there and what our involvement means, then the mission falters, even when there is no real opposition to it at home or abroad.

Canadian intervention in world affairs, including military intervention, can be justified, but the reasons need to be developed past the point of bumper stickers or one-liners, such as “Fight Chaos.” It is unfortunate that the most effective campaigns are those – like the “Support Our Troops” magnetic decals, or Red Fridays, or the Highway of Heroes demonstrations on the 401 outside Toronto – that are inarticulate. Fighting chaos may be a good idea, but not articulating what this means leaves the believer adrift in the battlespace, not sure which way to paddle.

Both the media and our political leaders are complicit in polarizing discussion upon “Afghanistan: Yes or no?” without encouraging a popular consensus on the larger subject of Canada’s role in the global community. To provide a more meaningful alternative, the Canadian Forces, as an institution, and its members, as Canadian citizens, must become more articulate about what needs to be done because they (unlike most of us) see up close what is occurring. For their part, Canadians need to be drawn together into a consensus as to why we should intervene in the affairs of others, and about what should be done. This consensus must both incorporate and transcend a variety of religious and cultural perspectives to motivate citizens in support of Canada’s efforts abroad, whatever form these efforts might take.

That there are believers in the battlespace is both undeniable and inescapable. That religious extremists of all sects and sorts make use of what people believe to manipulate them in destructive ways is equally true. Given that every major religion, while it includes condemnations of the infidel, more strongly advocates an ethic of care for others, especially those less fortunate, believers could be mobilized to do things that are much more constructive if we had the ability to articulate why this is necessary.

From whatever perspective or discipline it is approached, the relationship between beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, and warfare is a huge subject. The War Studies program at the Royal Military College is taking one step toward equipping some of its students in this area by developing a course on Religion and War, which is intended to be offered by distance learning in 2008-2009. Much more needs to be done, both in terms of educating CF personnel and in promoting the concept as an important subject for public discussion. Without thoughtful analysis of the role played by believers in the battlespace, we risk turning this aspect of 21st Century conflict over to extremists who have no difficulty articulating what they believe, thus increasing the insecurity, not only of the global community, but of our own communities here in Canada.

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Doctor Peter H. Denton is an Associate Professor of History and the Regional Coordinator (Manitoba) of the Division of Continuing Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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