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The Benefit of the Doubt

The notorious bombing of the abbey of Montecassino and its monastery in January, 1944 left 2000 casualties and 400 civilians dead. Delayed or wrong information contributed to this unnecessary massacre, but so did confused priorities. In the mayhem of battle it was assumed that the Germans were occupying the abbey, and firing from within its precincts, when they were in fact trying to defend it from outside and signalling to the allies that they did not wish to destroy it. The allies, misunderstanding the signals, bombed the abbey to destruction. Holding back on the bombing in order to save the monastery might, it was also thought, tie up allied forces in Italy when they would have been better placed in France. This particular hunch was correct, as it turned out. But did it justify the destruction?

Tactical questions are invariably best answered with the wisdom of hindsight, as are some ethical ones. I remember my mother saying that the loss of life and injury at Montecassino were worth it, and that she profoundly disagreed with someone who had declared that the life of a single GI was worth more than this particular heritage site. My sister and I were in the back of the car listening to the conversation, unaware of the facts and of the wider context. We were children and we found her response disturbing. I remember asking her, that if we had been among the dead or injured, would she still think that our lives were worth less than the survival of the abbey. “Yes”, she replied as, I suppose, we knew she would. I like to think that she did not know the full story of the muddle, mixed motives and undue haste which led to the attack on Montecassino and that she should perhaps be given the benefit of the doubt.

I am reminded of Montecassino, and of my mother’s response, when I think of Syria and the recent bombing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. I think of the mothers of those suffocating children, of the dead fathers and brothers, and of the ravished homes. I doubt any of them are thinking as my mother did. They are thinking of their dead children and of the ones still left to them, if they are lucky enough to have any.

I am a peacenik at heart but I cannot condemn the decision taken by Theresa May, even though I wish she had sought the support of parliament first. Her reasons for not doing so were probably a mixture of judicious expediency, time being of the essence, and of political self interest; she might have been voted down, and she owed one to the French and the Americans in any case.

At the same time, I find myself wondering if the Syrian mothers of small children are spending much time dwelling on these political nice-ities and on the desirability of due process. Perhaps they are thinking that if there were to be yet more bombs, let them at least aim at the evil of Assad’s weaponry and do so quickly, accurately and with no human collateral damage, all of which was accomplished. The mothers are probably hoping that this will end the war and rid them of the tyrant.

That is the hope in which we all share. But hope is not hope when it is tinged with cynicism, or compromised by doubt. By doubt I do not mean the questioning of means and methods, which have been deployed and which may or may not be justified in view of the ends sought. No one in a position of ‘last word, last resource’ decision-making can be expected to know for sure what is, or may be, the ‘right thing’ to do in such circumstances, but I think it is important to give them the benefit of whatever doubt there is, at least in regard to their own motives; that the ‘right thing’ is what they really want and that they are prepared to take political risks in order to bring it about.

There are times when the wisdom of hindsight belongs strictly to hindsight. In the case of the bombing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, the doubt seems weighted in Mrs. May’s favour.

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