Reality and Fantasy

Sunday 9th November 2008
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of Remembrance

As the pantomime season approaches, we can all look forward to wicked fairies, gnomes, step-mothers, sorcerers, giants and ugly sisters but, of course, all will not be as it seems; in pantomime it never is. We know what is going to happen before we begin and the enjoyment is in the process of seeing innocence and good triumph over corruption and wickedness; but, as I have just said, all is not what it seems. If you are, for example, going to see Cinderella this Christmas, you might be surprised to know that the original Grimm version describes how the ugly step-sisters have their eyes pecked out.

I thought of this the other day when we were warned on entering an art exhibition at the Fabrica Gallery in Brighton that the exhibits contained graphic pictures of war; much more graphic, it turned out, than anything we are allowed to see in our newspapers or on television. Even in these days of global media networks and the declining power of censorship, we very rarely see war as it is; and even when we see adult films which warn of their violent content, we are still in an unreal world of glamour and slick editing. War isn't what it seems; it's much worse than that. Which raises the critical question of whether we complain about violence on television because we don't want to know what violent behaviour is really like or because, as a species, we abhor violence.

There is some evidence of this second theory in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's On Killing (Back Bay Books, 1995) which says that the greatest stress on the battlefield is not the threat of death but the prospect of killing; this supports work by Brigadier S.L.A. Marshall, published after the Second World War, which argued that only 15-20% of soldiers able to fire on the enemy actually did so. This work was studied by the British Army in the mid 1980s and, after a number of 19th and 20th Century battles were reviewed, Marshall's findings were confirmed; Things are certainly not what they seem. Most soldiers deliberately aim over the heads of their supposed enemies, becoming conscientious objectors on the battlefield. Grossman goes on to say: "A new era of psychological warfare has dawned, not upon the enemy, but upon our own troops" to raise their aggressive effectiveness; it seems that you have to train a fighter into a state close to psychopathy to make him effective. Perhaps that accounts for the increasing prevalence of post combat stress and the increasing number of ex servicemen who end up as dysfunctional, in prison, or begging on the streets. Things are not at all what they seem. If the trenches of the first world war and the poetry of Wilfred Owen didn't completely destroy the image of the heroic soldier exemplified in Horace's Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.

The question we have to ask ourselves in the first instance, then, is whether we are prepared to turn our young people into psychopaths for the sake of curbing the psychopaths who start wars? How often can we say, as we can with the Second World War but not the First, that the suffering is worth it? And, in the current context, is it enough to argue, as many people do, that the justification for war is the sanction of the United Nations? Or do we have much greater responsibilities?

When we think of the classic pantomimes - Snow White, Aladdin, Jack & the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington - we are taken to a world of good and evil that is so transparent that we are invited to take sides right from the beginning but it's dangerous to transfer this kind of storybook morality into real life, particularly when the lives of others are at stake. We know that the military top brass are always the most reluctant to go to war but have frequently been pushed into it by a belligerent population, content to stay at home. On the other hand, I was reminded this week when it was quoted on the election of Barak Obama, that Prime Minister Walpole's comment: "Today they are ringing their bells, tomorrow they will be wringing their hands" was made when he had successful kept Britain out of a war. Jim Callaghan, when asked by Catholic MP Jerry Fitt, to send troops into Ulster to protect the minority community, presciently said that it would be easier to send them in than to get them out, a lesson we are learning in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The problem for us all is that it is very difficult to be proportionate. Osama Bin Laden, Chemical Ali and their ilk, are easy to caricature; but caricature, like pantomime, is no way of thinking about real life; these men are not in the same class as the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk or the poisonous witch in Snow White. And perhaps the reason why we don't become so worked up about very serious wars in such places as the Congo and Kampuchea is that the generals there are horribly boring and serious with no 'comic' side. In other words, we are reacting the way we do to the unedited pictures of horror, shying away because it is all too awful.

It's much the same with religion; we so easily fall into the trap of constructing caricatures of God because the real one is too difficult: there's God The Father looking fierce with his long, white beard; and there's Jesus, some sort of genie that's got out of the bottle to save us all from our sins, and there's the Holy Spirit, hovering benignly; and, of course, there are thousands of angels and saints as extras in the divine pantomime.

But we were not made by God in 'His' image just to sit in the congregation as if we were at a pantomime, cheering the good fairy and booing the wicked witch; Christianity is more serious than that. So just as we need to be careful to detach our moral judgment from caricature, so we need to detach our religious life from caricature. It is too easy to lapse, to think that we can get on with our comfortable lives and not worry about complexities. But the truth that we learn from war and peace is that nothing is simple, just as we learn that often we are forced to choose the lesser of two evils rather than being able to make a choice between the good and the bad.

In this year of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, The Sudan and The Congo, with splutterings in a dozen other places from the Philippines to Colombia, we ought to have learned that nothing is simple; just as, in this year of financial catastrophe and medical miracle, we cannot escape complexity. We blame many of our ills on the media with its sound bites and gladiatorial politics but this is simply a different form of entertainment from the pantomime, another case of black and white. Most of us live in this kind of fantasy world until something real happens - we lose a child in a war; we cannot afford a miracle cancer drug; the value of our pension is halved - and then we have to get real; but it's much better to be proactive than reactive.

So let us all enjoy our pantomimes this Christmas but not confuse them with the complexities and responsibilities of real life.