As we draw nearer to the annual ANZAC Day commemorations, we prepare to remember those who have served in military forces in many theatres of war over the past decades. As I keep on hearing, now, this annual day is not a day to glorify the exploits of those who took part in those wars (which is how I experienced it, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s), but rather, a day to reflect on the cost, even the sacrifice, of those combatants.
Certainly, the mood of sober reflection on the cost of war, the damage that it does to those who have served, and also the courage that many showed under situations of great adversity and danger—this is what usually predominates in our time. (Although my liturgical sensitivities still cringe, every time a local RSL branch leads an ANZAC Day service using antiquated language and creakingly-obsolete theology via the “approved order of service” and the hymns that are taken straight from the vault of Antiques Roadshow.)
I recently read about a visit that Pope Francis made to Italy’s largest military cemetery. It was in 2014, but what the Pope said merits our consideration: “war is madness; humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.”
The report indicated that the Pope believed, even back in 2014, that we were in the midst of a Third World War—a piecemeal war, but a world war, nevertheless. The current Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the sturdy resistance of the people of Ukraine, and the consequent involvement of NATO and western nations, could well be seen to be the most immediate sign of this war.
If this is a world war, and if the West is heavily invested in this war, then will the West be able to gain victory? The bottom line, for me, is that war is never a winning strategy. There are no winners in warfare. Certainly, there appears to be winners—in the short term—as well as losers—also in the short term. But in the long term, everyone loses. There are no winners. War causes such pain, such turmoil, such hurt, such dislocation. “War is madness; humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.”
World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”. The Armistice signed in late 1918 was supposed to ensure peace in Europe, and across the world. However, within two decades, the world was at war again. World War II was, in many ways, dealing with the consequences of the way that World War I was resolved, both on the battlefields, and in the negotiating rooms. The League of Nations became the United Nations, pursuing a programme of seeking peace across the world—a programme that still, today, is ongoing, and never-ending.
Can this current war be won? Should resources and personnel be devoted to “winning the war”? Certainly, Russia is showing every sign that it intends to “win the war”; whether they will, remains to be seen. And the Ukraine is valiantly demonstrating that it intends not to be the “loser” of the current war being waged in its territory; whether this will be the result, will depend on the tenacity of Ukrainian troops and the level of support (military, sanctions, trade embargoes, and the like) from NATO and others. Only time will tell who the short-term “winner” and “loser” will be.
It is true that going to war is seen by many as a legitimate way to resolve disputes and solve arguments, on a large scale. There have even been, through the ages, sophisticated arguments mounted to justify warfare. The Just War theory (originating in Ancient Greece, developed by St Augustine, and further developed by Thomas Aquinas) could presumably be used to support a western pushback to the current Russian invasion. Fighting evil is seen as essential. War is reckoned as the way to do this.
But, as the Pope said, “war is madness; humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.” We know that war has many consequences. It damages individuals, communities, societies, and nations. It has many more innocent victims than the casualty lists of enrolled personnel indicate. And there is abundant evidence that one war might appear to resolve one issue, but often will cause other complications which will lead to another war.
As I have noted, when we look at the outcome of the Armistice at the end of World War One, we can trace a direct sequence of events that led from World War One to World War Two. The same connections can be made, for instance, between colonisation (itself a process that involves warfare, as invasions require the subduing of Indigenous Peoples) and subsequent civil wars in the USA, Sri Lanka, and in various countries in Africa and Asia.
Sometimes, pitched battle warfare seems to be the only possible way forward. In the current situation, resisting the Russian invasion seems to be a vital strategy, especially as we see the pictures beamed from building reduced to rubble, lines of homeless people seeking to find refuge, hospitals that have been bombed but are seeking to continue to operate under difficulties. These pictures pull at our heartstrings, and validate our support for a direct western response to Russian aggression. A non-violent response seems harsh, uncaring, selfish, and doomed to failure.
Yet, overall, a commitment to peace is surely what we need to foster. An aversion to war is what we need to develop. As we follow the man from Nazareth who advocated turning the other cheek, praying for those who abuse you, and loving the enemy—the man who blessed those who work for peace—it would seem that a non-violent response is essential. And that is the ultimate goal.
To achieve that ultimate goal, a culture of respectful disagreement and honest negotiation, rather than pitched rhetoric and savage violence, is surely what we ought to aspire towards. However, that can’t suddenly be brought to bear in the current situation. I think the imperative to respond “in kind” is too strong to ignore. The justification for an aggressive western response is strong.
But over time, our leaders need to foster a much more constructive sense of relating in positive ways through diplomacy that is nurtured over time—rather than public posturing and media-oriented sound bites. That takes hard work and persistent commitment. Instead of rattling the sabres to grow in popularity during the current battle, why not commit to the military response that is currently required, but also seek to develop robust ways of developing respectful and mutually-constructive ways of operating.
That longer path of peace must surely be the direction that our governments must work for in the coming years. The Uniting Church has had a long commitment to seeking peace in local, national, and international spheres, stretching right back to a 1982 decision of the National Assembly, affirming that “the Uniting Church is committed to be a peacemaking body, seeking to follow the Lord of the Church by encouraging political authorities to resolve political tensions by peaceful means.” (82.57(1)(c))
We know that “war is madness; humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.” Those papal words might inspire us to pause, reflect, weep—and pray. And as people of faith, the ultimate goal of peace (not just of “winning the war”, but of “bringing peace with justice”) must surely be the focus of our prayers—as we pray for those displaced, injured, or mourning in this current war, so too, we pray and work for peace in the world on the basis of justice.
So may it be.
On civil war in the USA, see https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2020/03/a-war-for-settler-colonialism/
On civil war in Sri Lanka, see https://hir.harvard.edu/sri-lankan-civil-war/
On civil wars in former colonies in Africa and Asia, see https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/asia-and-africa