War can show us at our worst, but also at our best

War can show us at our worst, but also at our best

by Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad

What is it like to be licensed to kill? The extraordinary experience of the soldier is that a declaration of war allows you to step over a moral boundary, and find that to shoot someone has now become a virtue, and not a criminal offence.

Life perhaps has nothing more disorientating to offer than this instant moral inversion. I felt it myself, once, travelling into Bosnia as an aid worker during the war there: a mixture of exhilaration and a sickening confusion at the knowledge that whether the men at the next checkpoint proved courteous, or whether they opened fire, there would be no-one to hold them to account. The normal laws of human behaviour had been abolished entirely. In this profoundly strange place, nothing could be predicted.

We have to think, now, of the young people, cast like dice by distant politicians upon the sands, as they look through the windows of their vehicles for target opportunities. Whichever side they are on, they carry immense burdens. They will be afraid. They may suffer private agonies of doubt over the justice of their cause. They may dread an attack by anthrax spores, or depleted uranium. And yet their leaders have entrusted them with an almost godlike power of life and death over half-glimpsed strangers. A teenager may be judge and executioner in no more than five seconds. A small squeeze of a trigger, a faint tap on a computer console, and a whole life is gone.

The religions have insisted that the nobility of the soldier's calling hinges on the way he carries this burden. True, we have a habit of dragging religion into disputes which more usually have their origins in our own stupid failings. It's sometimes said that if truth is the first casualty in war, God is the first conscript. Yet God is really present in war, and He has a message for the young man hunting other young men, which is that the face in the binoculars is His greatest creation. "When you strike", said the Prophet, "avoid the face, for God made Adam in His image". He urged that prisoners of war be fed and clothed no less adequately than one's own soldiers. Women and children were utterly sacrosanct.

War can show us at our worst, but also at our best. Over the past months, older men on both sides have failed many tests. Our prayers now are that younger people will do all they can to pass the stern test which they now face in combat. We must pray that when, as the Koran says, "war lays down its burdens" - and the soldiers return from the nightmarish, lawless world of battle - that they have brought healing, instead of more rancour and division.

© 2003 BBC