Henry Disney, War is a Failure of Politics: A Collection of Poems, 2015. Pneuma Springs Publishing
A review by APF member, Professor Nick Megoran
Henry Disney is a Cambridge University entomologist whose latest collection of poems is a searing critique of the Bush-Blair era wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most have been published previously, but War is a Failure of Politics draws together his anti-war poems in a single volume.
Central to Disney’s anger at ‘the misguided pair’ is that ‘both believe in Christ, they say / But both ignore his way of peace: / For both rely on force instead.’ Claims to be followers of Jesus are negated by practical worship at the shrines of Mars and Mammon: ‘Both Bush and Blair profess belief / In God, but by their acts it seems / They worship Mars and Market Place.’ For all his ability to see public relations strategies, Blair is ‘blind / to Gospel’s word to use the force / of love.’
The core of Disney’s text is exactly this advocacy of a model of enemy love based on Christ’s life and teaching: ‘The use / of death, as means to end, is not / a choice in eyes of Christ, who taught / a special care for those we hate,’ and eschewed revolutionary violence against the Roman oppressors. This is an Anabaptist-type emphasis on Christ’s words and lifestyle as authoritative for us. This reviewer missed a deeper theological reflection on war as a manifestation and consequence of sin (rather than simply a ‘failure of politics’), and on the significance of the cross and resurrection for what the New Testament calls ‘the gospel of peace.’
Nonetheless, this is no naïve, unreflective pacifism. A number of poems anchor it in his youthful experience fighting for the British armed forces in Cyprus: ‘my lasting hate of war derives / from time in youth, as solider sent / to play a minor part in fight.’ Disney saw this as a futile attempt to shore up order, that cost lives but did nothing to prevent the eventual disintegration of the state. He writes movingly of the ambiguity he feels of participation in Remembrance Day events as a veteran. Anger at the Greek Church’s backing of nationalist Cypriot violence informed his lifelong objection to the welding of church authority to military power. Its reappearance in the ‘war on terror’ thus attracts his particular ire throughout the book.
Nor does the book ignore the problem of evil. Although Disney places the blame for violence squarely at the feet of politicians and sees its solution in the gospels, he nonetheless asks ‘so why does God withhold his might? / And why not intervene to halt / the terror gangs before their bombs / are primed? Is freedom such a boon / when children die?’ This question is left unanswered.
Although the book focuses on the movement between Cyprus and the war on terror, it is sensitive to ways in which the militaristic belief in the rightness of violence infiltrates society. He damns the Duxford Imperial War Museum for boasting about its ‘ghastly ordnance’ presented in beguiling slick exhibitions to children. Likewise he takes a wry swipe at an absurdly pompous ‘classics scholar’ who admires Rome yet is ‘blind to nasty facts behind / its ordered state. His weighty tome / selected data most admired / ignoring trampling legions feet.’
Henry Disney’s poems state bold truths clearly. They are also tragically prescient, warning of the unintended implications of ignoring Christ’s command to ‘put up your sword.’ Disney writes that Tony Blair ‘never paused / to contemplate the deaths and tides of hate he’d thus unleash.’ In a poem imploring George Bush to ‘desist for all our sakes,’ he believes that ‘he cannot see he’d light / a fuse unleashing hell,’ and warns his war would ‘trigger chain reactions far and wide for years to come.’
On one thing, though, Disney was wrong. He wrote that the ‘replenished hate’ produced by the UK-US wars will ‘fester down the years ahead. / But when the seismic vents erupt / Anew our pundits will be dead.’ The dreadful eruption of Islamic State from the seismic events of the Iraq invasion has occurred within the lifetimes of most of the war’s cheerleaders.