As a soldier, I was hard-wired to seek meaning and purpose. Gray’s philosophy helped me unhook from utopia and find peace
Andy Owen is the author of All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War: The Story of a British Deserter (2017). He is a former soldier who writes on the ethics and philosophy of war. He lives in London.
Edited by Nigel Warburton
‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
Blaise Pascal (1623-62)
Ifirst read the English philosopher John Gray while sitting in the silence of the still, mid-afternoon heat of Helmand Province in Afghanistan. In Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), Gray showed how the United States’ president George W Bush and the United Kingdom’s prime minister Tony Blair framed the ‘war on terror’ (which I was part of) as an apocalyptic struggle that would forge the new American century of liberal democracy, where personal freedom and free markets were the end goals of human progress. Speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2008, Gray highlighted an important caveat to the phrase ‘You can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs,’ which is sometimes used, callously, to justify extreme means to high-value ends. Gray’s caveat was: ‘You can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelette.’ In my two previous tours of Iraq, I had seen first-hand – as sectarian hatred, insurgency, war fighting, targeted killings and the euphemistically named collateral damage tore apart buildings, bodies, communities and the shallow fabric of the state – just how many eggs had been broken and yet still how far away from the omelette we were.
There was no doubt that Iraq’s underexploited oil reserves were part of the US strategic decision-making, and that the initial mission in Afghanistan was in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the US, but both invasions had ideological motivations too. I had started the process to join the British military before 9/11. The military I thought I was joining was the one that had successfully completed humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and Sierra Leone. I believed we could use force for good, and indeed had a duty to do so. After the failure to prevent genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ was developing, which included the idea that when a state was ‘unable or unwilling’ to protect its people, responsibility shifted to the international community and, as a last resort, military intervention would be permissible. It would be endorsed by all member states of the United Nations (UN) in 2005 but, under the framework, the authority to employ the last resort rested with the UN Security Council, who hadn’t endorsed the invasion of Iraq.
Despite the lack of a UN resolution, many of us who deployed to Iraq naively thought we were doing the right thing. When Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins delivered his eve-of-battle speech to the Royal Irish Battle Group in March 2003, he opened by stating: ‘We go to liberate, not to conquer.’ We had convinced ourselves that, as well as making the region safer by seizing the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we were there to save the people of Iraq from their own government and replace it with the single best way of organising all societies: liberal democracy. This feeling was so persuasive that it led to many troops feeling that the Iraqis were somehow ungrateful when they started to shoot at us for invading their country.
By my second tour of Iraq in 2005, it was clear that no WMD would be found and the society that was evolving was far from the one envisaged. Morale was at a low ebb as the gap between the mission and what we were achieving widened. We were stuck in a Catch-22. We would hand over to local security forces when the security situation improved enough for us to do so. However, the security situation couldn’t improve while we were still there. It would improve only if we left. The conditions that would allow us to leave were us already having left. Most troops were stuck inside the wire, their only purpose seemingly to be mortared or rocketed for being there. I was asked why we were there, especially when soldiers witnessed their friends being injured or killed, or saw the destruction of the city we’d come to liberate. They needed meaning, it couldn’t all be pointless. Meaning was found in protecting each other. My team of 30 or so men and women found purpose in trying to collect intelligence on those planting deadly improvised explosive devices along the main routes in and out of the city. Members of both the team before and the team after us were blown up trying to do so…