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Atrocities: Up to 15 million died in the Sino-Japanese war

In July 1940, Christopher Seton-Watson, then a subaltern in the Royal Horse Artillery, wrote a letter to his parents. That morning, he had heard "a fiery sermon from the local vicar, a splendid old Tory", for there were such beings in the Church of England at the time. 

The 22-year-old Seton-Watson commented: "I wish there were less talk of the righteousness of our cause, and less crude simplification of the issue into a struggle of good versus evil. Believing as I do in the existence of a God, I cannot believe that Hitler could have achieved so much without the assent of God. The righteousness is not all on one side....Don't let us assume that God is automatically on our side. We have got to make ourselves worthy of his help, to show our worth." 

And indeed Seton-Watson did, both in service which won him a Military Cross with Bar, and as a bachelor Oxford don who wrote about modern Italy and tipped Oriel undergraduates for our secret service. 

The Old Testament presumption that God was on one's side was universal during the Second World War, although the churches toned down the sort of militancy they had espoused in 1914-18. Just consider Churchill's account of divine service aboard HMS Prince of Wales on August 10, 1941, where he and Roosevelt agreed the Atlantic Charter. It is fashionable among biographers of the Prime Minister to omit or dismiss his religious views, which were admittedly idiosyncratic. 

But here is what he wrote about the service: "I chose the hymns myself — For those in Peril on the Sea and Onward Christian Soldiers. We ended with O God, Our Help in Ages Past, which Macaulay reminds us the Ironsides chanted as they bore John Hampden's body to the grave. Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live." Similarly, most of us know about the variant communiqué Eisenhower carried in his wallet on June 5, 1944, the unread one admitting blame for the failure of the D-Day landings. Few can probably recall the wording of the D-Day Prayer which the Episcopalian President Roosevelt broadcast as the invasion got under way: "Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavour, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilisation, and to set free a suffering humanity...With thy blessing we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances." 

"For atheism and Stalin" does not have much of a ring to it, though I suppose Professor Richard Dawkins might enter the lists for the first part of it. He'd be delighted to learn, one suspects, that a US Marine Corps chaplain in Afghanistan — a Seventh-Day Adventist — has a formerly Baptist bodyguard who has Dawkins's books in his backpack for use when the two men argue, as one does, about the power of angels. But I digress. 

The third element of the Grand Alliance, the Soviet Union, was forced by necessity to abandon militant atheism and to allow a deeply nationalist Orthodox Church some slack as part of the drive to mobilise Russia's resources. It is well known, for example, that the Dmitri Donskoi monastery raised funds for a tank brigade, but maybe less familiar that the last issue of Bezbozhnik, the paper of the League of the Militant Godless, was devoted to denouncing Nazi persecution of the Protestant and Catholic Churches. Bezbozhnik disappeared on the grounds of "paper shortages." 

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Riaz Ahmad
November 6th, 2010
12:11 AM
The very concept of justness of war was a creation of imperial mindset. Blessing wars and declaring them just was the religious dimension of the imperial mindset.

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