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Faith in Practice

To Liberate Not To Conquer

Miles Salter

Known to fellow soldiers as 'Nails', Colonel Tim Collins led UK forces to war in Iraq with  a speech that George W Bush hung on his wall. When we spoke to him in 2006 he feared that that war had 'no ending and no goal'.

TimCollins.jpgI grew up in Belfast during the troubles. It's an abnormal state of affairs, without doubt. A situation of civil conflict like that one leaves a bad impression on any individual. It made a bad impression on me too. It did not influence me on my choice to become a soldier however. Later on I commanded the troops ensuring the children got to school at Holy Cross. It was a bad state of affairs. There was nothing to excuse either community for their behaviour.

I'm very private about my faith. It's not something I often comment on. I have my own beliefs, and I adhere to them, but I don't force them on anybody else. I have a religious aspect to my life. I go to church on Sundays, and bring my children up as Christians. I think it's important that the children learn something, and enjoy it, and gain from the experience. Apart from that, its between me and my maker. In anybody's career their spiritual life is important. It's part of their moral compass, and how they choose to live their life. None of us has all the answers.

I'm not one of the creeping Jesus sorts that goes around proselytizing. Some people are insecure, and they feel that in order to justify it to themselves they need to force their faith upon others. That's weak-minded in my view. I'm secure about my beliefs, and therefore don't feel the need to do that.
My faith is clearly a guide or model for how one should live. I think faith can help to give you great strength, it's been a great strength to me when things go wrong. Having a faith makes it easier to endure hardships, rather than being totally self-reliant and selfish.

I don't see having a faith and being a professional soldier being in competition with each other. You live your life in relationship to God. It's not about 'tapping into' something, like sticking a plug into a wall. It's not like you choosing a mobile phone network.

In my military life, I worked alongside a few padres. They were there to provide spiritual guidance to the soldiers. But I had to sack two padres. They were both inadequate in their own way. One had difficulty relating to people, and didn't speak to anybody. He made a mess of a funeral - he didn't know the name of the man he was burying. The second one was quite a selfish man. I had a 19-year-old killed, and his body was lying near me. The padre asked if that would effect his holidays. I felt that was inappropriate. The vast majority of men in the army would profess to some sort of belief. But it isn't split down partisan lines of Catholicism and Protestantism.

In March 2003, at the start of the Iraq war, I made a speech that was widely commented on in the media [extract below]. I wanted my men to behave correctly in the challenges that they were about to face. I was asking them to take human life, and my expectation was that a number of them would be losing their lives. The commanders of the army hadn't issued an explanation, I felt I owed my men an explanation. I was reminding my men that the Iraqi people weren't their enemies, that we were there to liberate the Iraqis, and that the Iraqis should be treated with respect. That's what should happen when you liberate a group of people. If you don't have compassion for the people you fight, you turn into the people you are routinely fighting against. If that compassion is absent, men are tempted to behave in a manner that falls short of expectations the public would like. That's what you get in situations like the one at Abu Ghraib. Those situations are clearly wrong. The individuals involved in those things would know that they are doing something wrong. They tend to do it because they're part of a group. If something like that happens, it's a failure of leadership.

In Iraq, some of our allies behaved with a lack of sophistication. They didn't understand what it was they were required to do. To rush into Iraq and shoot everyone in sight, kick the Iraqis about, and blast them into the Stone Age was, in my view, reprehensible. Does it happen as in inevitable consequence? No. To think in that manner is to misunderstand what soldiers do, and the nature of warfare. Armies are legally formed and act on legal orders. That does not permit the abuse of anybody. Anyone who does so is committing an offence. I was very proud of commanding my battalion, and I led them to the best of my ability.

What's the difference between abuse and dropping bombs on people? Military targets, within the rules of war, are legitimate. You are permitted to drop bombs on them. That's what happens in war.

Looking back on Iraq, I think it's a great pity that we didn't have a comprehensive plan to give the people of that country some form of protection from the consequences of removing Saddam Hussein's regime. We didn't have a plan for that. As a consequence, Iraq [in 2006] is a worse place than when we found it. That's very regrettable. If you create a vacuum, you have to fill it, and if you don't fill it, you have to live with the consequences of that.

Tim Collins was talking to Miles Salter. The interview first appeared in
Third Way in Summer 2006.