Anzac Day and just war scepticism go together



Anzac Day this year falls shortly after a Vatican Conference on Non-Violence and Just Peace. The coincidence is intriguing. At their best both Anzac Day and conferences of this kind are about people and the cost war makes them pay.

Australian Soliders marchAnzac Day invites us to remember the soldiers who have died in war, those who have survived with scars to their body and spirit, and those who have grieved the loss.

Conferences on war focus properly on the people and cultures that war damages. Both kinds of event at their best say, 'Never again'.

The contribution of the conference was to question the legitimacy of just war thinking as a Christian approach to war and peace, and to stress the priority of peaceful over violent ways of making peace.

Its reservations about the value of just war theory are well grounded. The classical arguments originated at a time when casualties were suffered mostly by soldiers.

In modern warfare, including in Syria and Iraq, civilians overwhelmingly suffer, largely at the hands of powers that are not defending their own people. It is increasingly difficult to justify any war by the principles of self-defence and proportionality, to name just two.

Just war theory, too, is largely used as spin to give specious justification to military campaigns in whose devising ethical considerations played no part. Wars that governments wage are always declared to be just; those waged by their enemies are declared to be unjust.

By joining seriously in such meretricious debate churches would seem to be co-opted into playing an intellectual game designed to make legitimate killing and destruction.


"Modern war leaves no excuse for endorsing wars as divinely sanctioned or as a battle of good against evil. That line can safely be left for government spinners to cast."


When used among Christians, too, just war language diminishes the radical edge of the Gospel. The Gospel emphasises non-violence in relationships, the priority of the poor and vulnerable over those who wield power, and the value in God's eyes of each human being, especially of strangers.

When we enter into conversation about just wars we join the powerful in talking about what they can do to the weak. This draws the Gospel's teeth.

In the Catholic Church, which gives authority to its history, it is argued, the focus on the justice of wars conceals and dishonours an essential element of that tradition: the witness of those who suffered because they refused to violently engage in war. These conscientious objectors should be honoured together with martyrs and other witnesses to faith.

The conference commended the force of these arguments in its criticism of the use and validity of just war theory. Because it was held at the Vatican, and so seen as representing official Catholic thinking, it also attracted strong criticism from those who view war from the perspective of those who wage it and see it as a regrettable or laudable necessity. From this standpoint churches that refuse to endorse wars in which their nations are involved risk weakening national solidarity.

I agree with the conference's demand that in their internal conversation churches and their leaders should insist on the radical commitment of the Gospel to non-violence. In public conversation they should draw attention to the faces and lives of those made to suffer by war, including those whose suffering is inflicted by one's own nation.

Modern war leaves no excuse for endorsing wars as divinely sanctioned or as a battle of good against evil. That line can safely be left for government spinners to cast.

But I would argue that, although churches should insist that peace may properly be made only through non-violent means, the questions asked in just war theory have their place. They were first asked in a world where wars were regarded as an inevitable necessity. In that context, just war theory was really unjust war theory — it was a weapon for declaring particular wars to be unjustifiable.

The critical function of just war theory continues to have its place. It confronts supporters of war with compelling reasons why no war, including the one in which they have an interest, can be just. It gives Christians a public language in which to enter from their own radical perspective a secular conversation.

It also remains important to ask what actions are legitimate and illegitimate in the conduct of war (ius in bello). If we believe war is now unjustifiable, that cannot be the end of the discussion. For the harm war causes can be lessened if those who conduct it adopt rules of engagement stipulating, for example, that civilian casualties are avoided, prisoners neither killed nor tortured, and punitive sanctions outlawed.

The conduct of missions in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the importance of these rules to minimise harm. Australian rules of engagement occasionally led their troops to withdraw from some missions initiated by the United States forces whose rules were not as strict. In Syria more indiscriminate Russian and government bombing caused massive civilian casualties.

Even if behaviour like sharing drugs, engaging in casual sex, holding up banks and making war are declared to be immoral, we still need to ask how they can be done in a way that least violates human dignity.

The conference and Anzac Day are both about paying due respect to people. That respect forbids a romantic view of war and those who wage it. It also forbids simply condemning it and then turning our face away.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Anzac Day photo: Chris Phutully, Flickr CC

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Anzac Day, Just War



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There is an article in The Age today by John Coyne in which he claims, rightly I think, that Anzac Day is being turned into a nationalistic carnival. There is no doubt in my mind that the millions of dollars allocated by the Abbott government to the 'remembrance' of Anzac and the other battles of WWI over a four-year period had more to do with shoring up his pugilistic Team Australia nationalism than it had to remembering the contentious and contested nature of our involvement in WWI. While we might be able to understand how some, but by no means all, of our ancestors 100 years ago saw WWI as a 'just war', there is little excuse for us, with the benefit of hindsight, to see it as anything other than a plain old fashioned imperial war fought over access to economic resources that got tragically out of hand because the belligerents stubbornly failed to understand the impact of the technology that they deployed.

Ginger Meggs | 22 April 2016  

Greetings Andrew, Really interesting article. I like a lot of your points. I was one of those who attended the conference. One of the insights was that this is a call to the Catholic Church to focus it's education, teaching, advocacy, and practices on nonviolence and just peace. International law and domestic laws would still maintain "just war" norms. But the role of those who follow Jesus, would be to represent what he teaches and has revealed about the truth of reality. The "public language" of the Church would be dignity, common good of all people, strategies of nonviolence, and just peace criteria that we could use to guide actions and even say which specific acts in war were worse than others, with suggesting that war is just. If we keep using the just war theory, then we have seen for 1700 years that these rules are rarely followed, but more importantly they legitimate a war system, which makes our world more susceptible to war. We think if the Catholic Church would make this shift to just peace and strategies of nonviolence, then we would actually better help our society do war less and build just peace more.

Eli McCarthy | 23 April 2016  

No I don't think so - the Abbott govt. did a lot of good here so more people understand what Anzac Day is all about, especially the young. This can only be a good thing. Staying silent about this does not help . Spending money educating people is essential.

Ian | 24 April 2016  

Well said, Ginger Meggs. Such was my dismay at so often finding the parish coopted into the seasonal carryon promoted by dishonest politicians that I now avoid going to mass around Anzac Day. I might not have risked it in the era when hellfire was threatened for such a stand.

OldG | 24 April 2016  

Thanks, Andy. Food for thought, as always.

ErikH | 24 April 2016  

War exists for many reasons. Prominent as an underlying cause of war is the disparity that exists between those who populate our planet. Until we get serious about sharing the resources of the world to give every human person the necessities to live with human dignity, we motivate war. Proper nutrition, housing, health care, education and opportunity to work and trade all need to be addressed. Instead we find a world being divided: borders being closed to the desperate who flee for their lives; quotas being placed on immigrants lest we be overrun by 'them'; scare campaigns being run to prevent the building of places of worship that do not reflect the majority faith of a nation. Forget just war theory or the niceties of rules of engagement. What needs to be addressed are the underlying conditions that give people reasons to wage wars in the first place.

Ern Azzopardi | 24 April 2016  

The article written by someone with enemy not breathing down his neck,nor ensconced in office with drones above. O the Ignatian spirit of detachment!

Father John George | 24 April 2016  

I've been to quite a number of Anzac Day ceremonies and agree that no-one's intending to glorify war. But while standing bleary-eyed on the sidelines, I thought about commemorations for other tragic events where people were killed, risked their lives or were injured and traumatised... the Port Arthur massacre, the Ash Wednesday and Black Friday bushfires... and wondered why we're still marching to brass bands.

AURELIUS | 24 April 2016  

When I was discharged in 1980 after 6 years in the Army my brothers in arms and I all thought - "war is over, we as a civilisation have moved beyond this". Sadly we could not have been more wrong. The only reason we remember the fallen is for exactly that reason, the human cost, other may put other reasons but at its core is the simple message - "Remember Me".

Peter Maver | 24 April 2016  

Interesting coincidence of Australia/New Zealand's Anzac Day and the Church's conference on Just War theory. Also coincidental is the release of 'Eye in the Sky', a film which puts the moral issues front and centre. Prevent the potential death of hundreds? Yes we can! Do it without killing a single innocent child? No we can't! Utilitarianism wins in the end, but can Christians be satisfied with that? I don't think so....See the movie.

Joan Seymour | 24 April 2016  

Would anyone say that liberating Europe and other parts of the world from Nazism Germany, was an unjust war? The First World War,was known as the Great War, was meant to end all wars. Surely that was a noble intention.

Ron Cini | 24 April 2016  

Not an easy subject, especially for anyone who tries to model his life on Jesus Christ and his teachings. In personal relationships Jesus taught non-violence ie if someone strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other. But as for social conflict, ie, between sectors in a nation (Civil War) or between nations (International War) or between groups of nations (World War) Jesus is silent. One might argue that he passed up the opportunity to give his followers guidance by not condemning the Roman Occupation of Palestine by force. Did Pax Romana justify not rocking the boat? I'm afraid the world has reached such a pitch of distrust between nations that not one of the major and not-so-major powers is willing to forego the 'right' to go to war. And cling to the adage "if you want peace, prepare for war." All that can be hoped for is Harm Minimization as the alternative to Mutual Self-destruction.

Uncle Pat | 24 April 2016  

Big issues indeed! The current film "Eye in the Sky" is well worth seeing as illustrating some of the character and dilema of modern warfare extremely well I thought; especilaly self-defence ( or at least defence of an ally`s common good, and proportionality in doing that). Gallipoli is another case in point where a really nasty but locally limited campaign with hardly any collateral civilian damage , and apparently a tactical failure, had hugely positive strategic importance: esentially knocking Turkey functionally out of the war and so protecting Russia's southern flank, changing the balance of power in the Balkans definitively towards the allies, and leading to the eventual total triumph of the Salonika front with that axis collapse having a major effect on bringing WW1 to a close in 1918.

Eugene | 24 April 2016  

I wonder what prayers were said for conscientious objectors in churches on ANZAC weekend. From peaceable vietnam as I cross DMZ tomorrow. Rex

rex | 24 April 2016  

Anzac day is the saddest day of the year for me. Although I am an Australian by birth, It evokes the typical emotions born and bred in my substantial Irish Catholic upbringing. One of my grandfathers fought in the Somme and survived. Many of my older cousins were killed in the Second World War. I find great difficulty with WWI which could not have been a just war - a couple of in-bred European cousins having a family spat to which a Londoner (Billy Hughes)tried to conscript Australians to join. Dan Mannix, God love him, managed to scotch that. (The Irish coming out). The Second World War was easier to justify. Anzac day is the only day that brings tears to my eyes and has done all my life. Watching the dawn services today and hearing the services has been very watery for me. ( The Irish propensity for irrational, poetic-dimension emotion). It is all made worse by the sound of a bugle and the singing of that great protestant hymn "Abide with me", arguably to an Irishophile like me the best if not the only worthwhile contribution of protestant England to Christian ritual! And then there is the mournful wail of the banshee-like bagpipes. They say that the Irish invented the bagpipes, couldn't abide the wail and gave them to the Scots - definitely a very good move which removed from the Irish a great inducement to more tears. Like many of my heritage I am almost certainly irrational if not raving mad! Anzac Day is the nearest approach Australia has to a genuine religious experience in its celebration of sacrifice of life for others, its brotherhood, the sacredness of its ceremonials and the elevation of the human spirit by its musical rituals. So enduringly sad that those emotive aspects can't be seen in the very same sacrifice of Christ and the rituals of his Church on Earth - although, mind you, the Catholic Church has really buggered up the sacred rituals and the elevating sacred music in recent times.

john frawley | 25 April 2016  

As the pastoral carer working in the Repat outpatients for 18 months I found myself in the heartland of Weary Dunlops memory and legacy. The whole Dept had creatively held his memory in symbol and ritual that represented all the Aussies who had suffered in WW2. I was there amongst the many differing peoples (East European, Middle East, Australian and African) who all needed their 'wounds' attended to on that day. With 5 TVs on, we were repeatedly subjected to the events of 9/11 as they unfolded. I will never forget how this melting pot of the worlds people with differing religious persuasions reacted to each other. The women intuitively comforted their men, then turned to each other to express their horror. The men recoiled into silence and dread. I turned the TVs off. Then conversations began... Stories never told before brought an intimacy to relationships that had resisted vulnerability and tenderness. On that day some people forgave themselves and others, some people spoke to another culture for the first time, some people saw the raw face of 'the other' for the first time. We were all changed people when we left there that day. As I watch the Anzac Day proceedings on TV, I don't see these encounters of humanity and mutual understanding and compassion across the cultures as I saw on that day. Wouldn't it be great to set a public example beyond our own storyline as part of remembrance and commemoration ... What a wonderful gift to leave with our children and future generations ... Just some food for thought.

Mary tehan | 25 April 2016  

The article seems to make little distinction between aggressive warring and defensive measures required to stop unjust aggression. Provided it is proportional, and employed only after sincere political interventions prove ineffective, self-defence does seem justified and necessary. The whole war scenario seems to result from failure to accept the ideals that religions do, or should promote. Instead, religions, from self interest, often exacerbate the divides among people, and actively endorse military action as sanctioned by them. Allegiance to the human institution can seem to displace that owed to God alone.

Robert Liddy | 25 April 2016  

No mention is made of those supplying the armaments which make these modern wars and their destruction and death possible, usually by the superpowers supposedly on the side of justice.

Kathleen Baldini | 25 April 2016  

Thanks Ginger Meggs for having given us John Coyne's views from The Age feature. Realism there. Woodrow Wilson, the USA president who took his country into World War 1 is quoted as having said the war was fought for business purposes. The Irish-born Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne vigorously supported the anti-conscription vote in the two, plebiscites.Conscription was defeated. He famously said it was a trade war. Len Deighton in 'Blood Tears and Folly - The Darkest hour of the Second World War', says the 1914-1918 war "marked the death of many human values and if Christianity was not numbered among the fatalities it certainly suffered injuries from which it has not yet recovered." Could that be why the many peace groups that were formed in Australia trying to bring about a negotiated settlement of the horror fail to get a friendly nod in the huge Anzac Day coverage each year or a favourable mention in the extensive Catholic school observances. Pope Benedict's peace proposals were ignored by the belligerents. Incidentally Deighton writes that another faith shattered on the battlefield (of WW1) was the then Empire's faith in the Motherland. Leon Wolff in his book "In Flanders Fields - The 1917 Campaign" said the war had meant nothing, solved nothing, and proved nothing... the moral and mental defects of the leaders of the human race had been demonstrated with some exactitude." George Kennan described the war as the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century. Some catastrophe.

Rod Manning | 25 April 2016  

Ian, the Abbott government's money was not intended to educate young people; it was meant to indoctrinate. Nor did Archbishop Mannix have an enemy breathing down his neck; would you pass the same judgement on him Fr. John George? The Great War was 'meant' to be 'the war to end all wars' Ron Cini, that was just one of the post war attempts to justify the obscenity and deflect criticism from those responsible. Joan does us a service by reminding us that Kiwis also commemorate ANZAC day, but they do it in a quite different way. Quiet, honest, remembering for them, none of the razzmatazz and sabre-rattling that we see from our belligerent and sabre-rattling politicians.

Ginger Meggs | 25 April 2016  

The simple answer to your question Ron Cini, is found in the New Testament - when Jesus told his own disciples trying to defend him from certain death, to put away their swords, because those who live by the sword also die by the sword. But they do not live according to God's kingdom.

AURELIUS | 25 April 2016  

Can anyone explain why all sincere Christians who are able would not volunteer as stretcher bearers and other non-combatants, trained and devoted to helping the injured on both sides. Perhaps some, appropriately skilled, working diplomatically to find peaceful solutions; others working to restore dignity to prisoners of war - on both sides; providing truly objective war reporting; interceding for peace; there's a long list of such proactive irenic jobs. 'Unavoidable wars' will always need these Peace Fighters - who witness to Christ by their self-sacrificing and non-judgmental service to all combatants. Not taking life but saving life and helping bring peace. Let the children of this world do whatever they want; but let the King's children ever follow our Great Shepherd. With Francis at the helm, one senses the Church could now establish a brand new model for just participation in wars.

Dr Marty Rice | 25 April 2016  

Those who want a brief, clear explanation of the traditional Church teaching on just war would do well to listen to the Scottish Catholic philosopher John Haldane on yesterday's - significantly Anzac Day - edition of Q & A on the ABC. Just wars, he said, were normally wars of self-defence. He also talked about what he thought was a rather shaky extension of this into pre-emptive wars for supposedly altruistic purposes, such as the invasion of Iraq on the grounds it purportedly possessed weapons of mass destruction. He felt ulterior political motives were so involved at the time that it was very difficult to make the moral judgement that this war was just.

Edward Fido | 26 April 2016  

In 2011 the World Council of Churches issued 'An ecumenical call to Just Peace', at the gathering in South Korea. See their website. Background biblical, theological and ethical material and resources are in the 'Just Peace companion'.

Sieneke Martin | 29 April 2016  

Many years ago I came across a published feature by the late Roger Pryke, one-time Chaplain, Sydney University, who later left the priesthood, strongly doubting the just war theory. It interested me greatly. I had held similar strong doubts (I'm sure countless others had also) for some time..I do not recall the name of the publication. I did not keep it. I felt the Boer War certainly did not meet the requirements of that theory and doubted very much if World War 1 did either. By accident I picked up in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, a biog of Pryke (don't recall the name of the biographer) and read it. A sad story. His wife died as a result of a serious fall from a horse. That aspect of his life seems to have remained in my mind, plus a general impression of friction that marked part of his priesthood. The biog may have mentioned his views on a just war theory.

Rod Manning | 29 April 2016  

There was a good article by Matt Condon in Courier mail with a photo of the first Brisbane Anzac Day. Central to the photo was a large banner "Enlist Now" on top of the GPO. Then as now, the main purpose of Anzac Day is to make sure each generation will kill and die for those in power without thinking. As Gandhi said, "The only ones who don't seem to understand that Jesus was a pacifist are Christians!" Than God the Catholic Church is finally coming full circle and teaching just that. Re your final line Andrew, nonviolence is about resisting evil ,(with our lives if need be, but not our enemies') as Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day and M L King taught, not about "turning our face away".

Jim Dowling | 29 April 2016  

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