Books blog: The inspiring Catholics who strived for peace amid war

Lt Col Chris Keeble, who was second in command of 2 Para at the Battle of Goose Green (PA)

There has been much talk recently about just war theory in relation to the conflict in Syria and the UK’s possible involvement in bombing strategic ISIS-held positions. Having read about the question from both sides, I find I have some sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn’s view. What is the point of a limited campaign from the air when everyone agrees that this alone won’t win the war against ISIS? The other side invokes the spectre of Nazism and our failure to stop its aggression in time – and so it goes on.

I have just been reading From Burma to Rome: a Journey into the Catholic Church by Benedict Rogers, published by Gracewing at £12.99. Rogers, who works for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, describes the inspiring Catholics he has met during his work for peace in troubled places around the world and who helped to influence his decision to convert: they include Cardinal Bo of Burma, Cecil Choudry and Shabaz Bhatti (later murdered) of Pakistan, Sister Maria Lourdes from East Timor and Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Keeble DSO.

It is the last-named person I want to write about here. Keeble, who was educated at Douai before going to Sandhurst, saw action in Northern Ireland and in the Falklands War. As related in Rogers’ book, Keeble writes that the night before embarking for the Falklands he prayed on Salisbury Plain: “My prayer was that the whole campaign would be a spiritual experience, and that I would gain something spiritually from it all, and I really did.”

“A spiritual experience” while engaged in violence that might involve killing others? This might seem nonsensical to people of a Quaker persuasion or to Jeremy Corbyn but it made sense to me. Living in a fallen world we need soldiers to protect us (from terrorists among others) and to keep the peace. The Gospel doesn’t forbid the carrying of arms. Keeble goes on to relate the battle of Goose Green and the death of his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H Jones. As second-in-command he took over. “We outflanked the enemy defence…closed in on them, and then it became clear to me that the enemy’s will was going.”

And then there occurs the passage that really moved me, foreign as the whole experience of warfare is to me: “If you go back to Catholic social teaching and the dignity of life, and you hold that seriously, you cannot use violence if the other side is not prepared to fight. The game’s over.” Keeble made the unusual (Rogers calls it “extraordinary”) decision to withdraw more assault on the enemy and to open up a line of negotiation. “But it wasn’t as simple as that because the clarity of what I have just said was not available to me on the battlefield; I hadn’t slept for 40 hours, it was very cold and one in six of us was killed or injured, the whole cohesion of the battle had broken down, control had broken down because everybody was dispersed, radio batteries failed because they had been used up and we were threatened with a counter-attack. So things were pretty bleak.”

At that moment Keeble remembered that he had in his pocket the ‘Prayer of Abandonment’ of Charles de Foucauld. His company commanders asked him what they were going to do. He asked for a moment’s pause, went down to a gulley “full of dead bodies and the detritus of battle around me”, knelt down and prayed. “In a moment I knew exactly what we needed to do. I felt elated and inspired. And so then I arranged for a cease-fire. I released a couple of prisoners of war and met the enemy. Their first words to me were “Thank God you’ve come” They didn’t want to be there either.”

Keeble goes on to relate that this was “a seminal moment for me. I had been pretty lukewarm about my faith until then. I had said my prayers, went to Mass – but there is a world of difference between that and abandoning yourself for God and living each moment in that space.”

Having issued an ultimatum inviting their surrender, Keeble let the enemy soldiers do so with dignity, not wanting to make them “feel victimised or humiliated. They asked for a brief time of prayer, which we granted. They sang their songs, said their prayers, laid down their weapons and became our prisoners of war. And we cared for them – they had been very badly fed and clothed.”

The story doesn’t end there. Five years later an Argentine platoon sergeant, Horacio Benitez, came to Britain in search of reconciliation. He met Keeble and said to him, “On behalf of myself, my platoon, battalion, army and country, I seek your forgiveness.” Keeble asked him “what it would be like in Argentina if the Falklands War had not happened. Benitez explained that the junta would still be in power, there would be no democracy, widows would still be wailing outside the Casa Rosada, people would still be disappearing, it would be a nightmare.”

Keeble reassured him that, “We had to go through this suffering together in order that some greater good could emerge, not only for the Falkland Islanders but for Argentina.”

Critics of Margaret Thatcher’s decision to go to war sometimes forget this last point: that an unforeseen good consequence was the collapse of a hated, repressive and cruel military junta. But the wider point for me in this story is, as Keeble indicates in his straightforward, soldierly style that good can come from evil – including the evil enacted before our eyes today in the Middle East. People might point out here that the Falklands War was a very limited conflict with nothing like the complexity of what we face on the ground with ISIS (who themselves are nothing like the ill-prepared and ill-equipped young Argentinian men sent off to fight). That may be so; yet Keeble’s story illustrates that, whatever the circumstances, it is important to behave with restraint and mercy wherever possible, and that the wisdom to discern whether to be just or merciful in particular circumstances requires real spiritual insight; it is much more than a matter of military skill or judgment.