Learning lessons from history, there two mistakes to avoid. The first is ignorance of the past; the second, supposing that it was inevitable. The Battle of Mers-el-Kebir is a good example. Most people don’t know that the navies of Britain and France, allies in the Second World War, fought each other in an engagement that claimed the lives of over a thousand French sailors. Some would argue that sorry battle was inevitable if the Axis powers in Europe were to be defeated.
When Hitler launched his Blitzkrieg in the Low Countries, on May 10th, 1940, no one, not even the Nazi dictator himself, anticipated that France would fall to the Germans within a matter of weeks. The surrender of Paris on June 22nd left Great Britain with a terrible dilemma: how to keep the French navy—the fourth largest in the world, after Britain, the U.S. and Japan—from falling into Axis hands. As William Manchester and Paul Reid note in their biography of Winston Churchill, Defender of the Real, 1940-1965,
were Hitler to grab just one-third of the French navy, he’d almost double the size of the German navy overnight. Britain’s army was small and weaponless; her air force was outnumbered by the Luftwaffe. Sea power was vital to the nation’s survival, but if the French, German, and Italian navies were combined, the Royal Navy would be overwhelmed (106).
As an ally of the British, French Admiral François Darlan had promised that, in the event of collapse, he would scuttle his navy to keep it from falling into Axis control. But by July 3rd, time was running out, and Churchill ordered British forces to seize, peaceably or not, every possible French ship.
Those in British ports and the Eastern Mediterranean were taken almost without bloodshed. It was very different at Mers-el-Kebir, a naval base in French Algeria, where the majority of the French Atlantic squadron was anchored, including two battleships, and two modern battle cruisers, the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg. For eight hours, British Vice Admiral Richard Somerville, negotiated with his French counterpart, Vice Admiral Marcel Gensoul, as the latter awaited orders from Vichy France:
Gensoul said that under no circumstances would he permit his crafts to be taken intact by the Nazis, who, until now, had been their common enemies. Faced with an ultimatum, however, he would defend himself by force. Somerville radioed London that the French showed no signs of leaving their harbor. Churchill, speaking through the Admiralty, told him to get on with it, to do his duty, distasteful though it was. Somerville gave Gensoul a series of deadlines, telling the Admiralty that the French were awaiting instructions from their government and that he was having problem with French mines. However, as the afternoon waned, he realized that the French admiral was stalling while he gathered steam, putting his vessels in an advanced state of readiness for sea. The British intelligence intercepted messages to Mers-el-Kehir from the new French government. Darlan was ordering Gensoul to “answer force with force.” He had informed the Germans of what was going on, and he told Gensoul that all French ships in the Mediterranean were on their way. The Admiralty radioed Somerville, “Settle the matter quickly or you may have French reinforcement to deal with.”
At 5:55pm, the British admiral issued the order to open fire. Within ten minutes one French battleship had blown up, and the other was beached. The Dunkerque had run aground—torpedo bombers from the Ark Royal finished her off—and 1, 250 French sailors were dead (108-109).
Churchill later called the choice he made “a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned” (107). Was he justified in turning to a violent solution? Some have argued that the Prime Minister needed to show the United States, which wouldn’t enter the war for another year and a half, that, unlike the Low Countries and France, there was no violence from which Britain would shrink to preserve her liberty, not even from attacking her erstwhile ally. Yet as painful and morally ambiguous as it was, Churchill’s choice is still repeated daily. When we find ourselves constrained, our way of life and our values threatened, and we also turn to violent solutions that we judge inevitable.
The Prophet Habakkuk lamented:
How long, O Lord? I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin;
why must I look at misery?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and clamorous discord (1:2-3).
However else one might characterize an abortion, however one might justify it, it is surely an act of violence, unnatural to woman or child. Even less defensible is the argument that the state-sanctioned violence of the death penalty is the only sure way to protect innocent life. All can admit that both are acts of violence, ugly business, which some deem a necessity.
But violence breeds violence. Those who turn to it always believe that a little more violence will put an end to the cycle, but they only forge the chain. When the church tells us to choose life—in the womb, in our justice systems, in the way that we solve our problems—there are those who would insist that this mustard seed will never grow.
But who refuses to face reality? The one who wants to try a new way, or the one who chooses, one more time, one more violent act, one always promising an end to violence.
Habakkuk 1: 2-3, 2:2-4 2 Timothy 1: 6-8, 13-14 Luke 17: 5-10