Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Gratitude needs ambivalence on the costs of war


I confess to being quite ambivalent about Anzac Day. Yes, it is a day to be thankful for what we have in Australia, and to honour those who served. On the other hand, how much do we acknowledge the damage that war has done to so many people? Not just the men and women sent away in uniform to fight the war, but their families left behind, and of course the civilian populations of the countries where the wars have been fought.

My father was a member of the RAAF during World War II, and spent a great deal of time serving in New Guinea, the SW Pacific and Labuan (an island of the coast of Borneo). Dad came back from the war quite undamaged physically and psychologically, but I remember my mother speaking of her fear for him while he was away. When Dad went away, Mum and my eldest brother, then a toddler, went to live with her mother in Lygon St, Carlton. Decades later, Mum would tell me of being with her mother and her sister (also married to an absent serviceman) working in the front garden, and often seeing a telegram delivery boy turn into Lygon St on his bicycle. She said ‘Every woman on the street would stop, watching him and praying that he wasn’t delivering a telegram to their house.’ Those telegrams seldom had good news.

I’m a veteran of the second Gulf War. I was sent to the Middle East in 2003 as chaplain to an RAAF unit involved in that campaign. At that time I believed that our government had made a decision on good evidence that the Iraqi regime headed by Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s), and that their record as warmongers and their aggressive rhetoric was such that we were justified in invading their country and bringing about regime change.

Subsequently of course we have found that there were no WMD’s. Indeed, we now know that before making the decision to send troops into combat our government had received intelligence advice that this lack of WMD’s was probably the case. The results of that war have been catastrophic for many people in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Should Australia have participated in that war? Saddam Hussein may well have been an evil, bloodthirsty dictator, but is that in itself justification for invasion?

In recent years the Australian Defence Force has been involved in our longest ever war – the campaign in Afghanistan. From 2001 to 2021 over 26,000 Australian personnel have served in Afghanistan. There is still much history to be written about that war, but at present one would have to question whether the Afghan people are better off because of it. 41 Australian soldiers died in this war, and over two hundred are recorded as being injured. However, the long term psychological, emotional and moral injuries have not been yet counted. The vast majority of Australian defence members deployed to Afghanistan behaved honourably, and did their best to bring peace to that country. However, war crimes investigations of a few Australian soldiers certainly seem to indicate that, at least, there have been serious moral injuries inflicted on some of those who have served in Australia’s name. A moral injury can be defined as ‘the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values or ethical codes of conduct’ (from the Moral Injury Project of Syracuse University, New York.) It is now recognised that moral injuries can have serious long-term emotional, psychological and even spiritual effects.


'Maybe we, as citizens, should be requiring of our government more openness and honesty about the reasons they send the men and women in our country’s uniform into danger.'


Despite these issues, a fair reading of history tells us the vast majority of Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen who have participated in wars have done so bravely and ethically, following the principles of Just War. Similarly, Australians have given valuable service keeping the peace in difficult and dangerous places, and the results of those deployments have been positive for the people of those countries. Deployments to Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, and Timor Leste have all given those nations opportunities to lead a more stable and peaceful existence. As a nation, we can be proud of much that has been achieved by our Defence force members. I certainly am grateful that I had the opportunity to be chaplain to the many fine Australian men and women I served with in the Middle East, Timor Leste, and on bases here in Australia.

When we celebrate Anzac Day we think of the bravery and sacrifice of our defence members, and that of those who supported them, both in the field and at home. This is good, and it is important that we realise that, as well as the sacrifice of those who died directly in war, what we have in Australia has cost many individuals, and their families, their health (physical, mental and emotional) and wellbeing. Anzac Day gives an opportunity to reflect on this. As Christians, of course we should hold them in our prayers that they will return from deployment safe in body, mind and spirit, and as citizens we should commit to supporting those who return damaged.

We should also reflect on the results of the wars that Australia has been involved in. Yes, ‘hindsight is a wonderful thing’ and it is easy to be an armchair critic, but it can be questioned whether a number of the wars Australia has been involved in recently have resulted in a safer world, or a better life for those living where the wars were fought. Maybe we, as citizens, should be requiring of our government more openness and honesty about the reasons they send the men and women in our country’s uniform into danger.




Deacon Jim Curtain served in the RAAF from 1981 to 2013, serving as a chaplain from 1995. At present he ministers as a deacon in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

Main image: The repatriation ceremony held for Private Sher on 7 January 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Jim Curtain, Anzac Day, Peace, War, Remembering



submit a comment

Existing comments

This is a very balanced and carefully nuanced article, both factually and morally. It is the sort of way we should remember Anzac Day. A historian at Sandhurst - a Kiwi - said that the original Anzacs broke the back of the Ottoman Army at Gallipoli and in Palestine. The Light Horse were the first into Damascus, despite the lies of T E Lawrence. The courage of Australian service men and women is not in any doubt, nor should it ever be. The consequences of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the invasion of Iraq are still with us today. Andrew Wilkie lost both his career and his marriage for calling out the false information on WMD. In Britain General Sir Mike Rose called for the impeachment of Tony Blair for taking the country into the Iraq War. Those two men showed real moral courage in speaking out as they did. Any war crimes investigation should proceed legally and with the normal presumption of innocence for the accused. It is not the time for sensationalism or trial by the media.

Edward Fido | 25 April 2023  

The ambivalence about Anzac Day is certainly justified. WWI, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were all ill-conceived conflicts into which we servilely followed our allies – conflicts which had precious little to do with defence of Australia and everything to do with geopolitics. Appalling destruction and loss of life vastly greater than our own sad losses were inflicted on innocents of the countries where those conflicts were fought.
We’re fortunate in Australia never to have experienced the shocking realities of warfare within our own borders, but perhaps if we had we’d be less wedded to the carefully nurtured mythology of Anzac.

John Quilty | 28 April 2023  

European Australians may never have experienced the shocking realities of warfare within our own borders, but our First Nations' people have.

Ginger Meggs | 06 May 2023  

John's reference to the 'carefully nurtured mythology of Anzac' is pertinent. There are the facts of the action at Anzac Cove, and there is the mythology, and the connection between the two has often been tenuous. The remembrance of the facts was initially an act of mourning. They were, for the most part, secular acts in secular settings, for and by those who were grieving for those they had lost. The mythology came later, and it was crafted for many purposes, including to encourage recruiting, to justify further aggression, and to stifle questioning and criticism. For some in government, that is still its primary purpose

Ginger Meggs | 06 May 2023  

Similar Articles

Remembering Father Bob Maguire

  • Michael McVeigh
  • 26 April 2023

Some people live large. Their presence fills a room and stays with you for a long time afterwards. Father Bob Maguire, who died last week, was one of those people. Fr Bob’s voice, his presence, left a mark on the lives of so many people, from so many walks of life.


Saida Pearlie: A nurse's window to war

  • Erica Cervini
  • 24 April 2023

A small autograph book from an Australian army nurse in World War II provides a unique glimpse into the lives of those she cared for in Palestine. With sketches and heartfelt inscriptions, the book illuminates the overlooked efforts of nurses whose dedication continued even after the war.