The first reports of Russian tanks moving into Georgia came over my car radio as I drove through the killing fields of World War One in northeastern France. The day before, the world had watched the breathtaking Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing, with George Bush and Vladimir Putin both sitting in the audience. In ancient times, the Olympics guaranteed peace among all competing parties for the duration of the games. Apparently the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, didn’t know that.
Or perhaps he thought, like the Chinese, that the eighth day on the eighth month on the eighth year of the millennium would be his lucky day! For while the world was focussed on games, that day he launched an attack on the rebel zone of South Ossetia killing soldier and civilian alike.
It is too soon to see what the long term effects of his reckless action, and Russia’s bullying response, will be-on world peace, on Georgia and the Caucasus, and on missions in that region.
What seems certain is that we have turned a corner. Two decades of improving east-west relations seem to have come to a sticky end. And who knows where it may lead?
I was returning to Holland after a week at the YWAM centre in Le Gault la Foret, near the Marne river east of Paris. Just 15-minutes’ drive from that village stood an enormous 35-metre memorial to the two battles of the Marne fought at the beginning and at the end of the Great War, with huge cost of life.
Dotted across the countryside as I drove towards the Belgian border were graveyards and memorials of many nationalities-from two world wars and from earlier Napoleonic campaigns.
As I crossed into Belgium, a Georgian politician was complaining bitterly on the BBC about those nations (Germany and France) who had blocked Georgia from joining NATO, thus ‘encouraging Russian belligerence’. He assumed of course that NATO membership would have discouraged the Russian occupation.
I was now entering the outskirts of Ypres (Ieper) and passed another series of war cemeteries. This Belgian town close to the coast and across the French border from Dunkirk represented the northern end of the trenches that had stretched all the way down through Belgium, France and Germany to the Swiss border. I had heard of the museum in Ypres about the Great War. Having just visited the Marne region, I wanted to further my education on ‘the war to end all wars’.
Suddenly I felt the acuteness of the news I was hearing on the BBC. What if Georgia had been accepted into NATO? Would not Russia still have attacked, judging the West to be too weak to stop her? with a lame duck president in the White House; a European Union unable to agree on a constitution for effective and streamlined action; the loss of America’s moral capital in the world’s eyes through Iraq and Guantanamo Bay; Russia’s strong grip on one third of Europe’s energy sources; the Kosovo precedent for breakaway zones becoming independent, set by the West; Iraq and Afghanistan already stretching western military resources; and a deep-seated European reluctance towards military showdowns?
Had NATO already embraced Georgia, I realised, then all NATO countries could have been committed to military engagement with Russia! How reminiscent was that to the chain of events that sparked the First World War?!
With this sense of foreboding, I parked the car and walked towards the In Flanders Field
war museum, in the centre of
a town that had been completely rebuilt after being razed by warring armies dug in on its outskirts.
‘Every intelligent person in the world knew that disaster was impending and knew no way to avoid it.‘ This quote from author H.G. Wells, greeting each visitor to the museum, took on new meaning in light of the day’s events.
As I walked around the exhibitions-about life in the trenches, and the surrealistic live-and-let-live atmosphere when men from both sides came out of the trenches at Christmas to sing carols together, play football and share meals- I tried to reassure myself.
But this is the 21st century! I thought. We’ve learnt many lessons since 1914, haven’t we? The Cold War ended two decades ago. Surely war in Europe has been rendered impossible by ‘ever increasing union’…
The ‘Gott mit uns’ belts reminded me that, as with the current conflict, both sides claimed the high moral ground. Propaganda films were produced on both sides, dehumanising and criminalising the Germans, the French, the British… How much of the conflicting reports I had heard in the car was propaganda?
A week has since passed-a long time in politics-yet there is still no resolution in Georgia. The future has suddenly become less secure. The US and Poland announced plans for a rocket shield… ‘against rogue nations like Iran, not Russia’. But from the Kremlin’s perspective, how different is that from the Cuban missile crisis?
I have found myself this week confronted with the question, where do I put my hope? In the ‘inevitable progress of western liberal democracy’? No, Mr Fukuyama, we have not reached the end of history. War has not been made obsolete. Yes, the Kingdom has been inaugurated, but not yet consummated.
Our hope for the future is not based on NATO, the EU, the US or the UN. Salvation is not found in chariots and horses, tanks and rockets-but in the Sovereign Lord of history (Ps. 20:7).
Much in Europe will one day come under God’s judgement. And God can always use crooked sticks to hit straight, as he did with Babylon and Judah.
Till next week,