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The sorrow of war



At the end of the first fortnight of the Russian invasion of Ukraine its character, its consequences and its characterization in public discourse are becoming clear. The war is set to become a bitter and prolonged military battle which will cause great casualties both to soldiers and the civilian population and lead to a huge efflux of refugees. It will also lead to the destruction of cities and cause massive economic harm. Both the United States, Europe and their allies will continue to push against the Russian invasion by broad sanctions directed particularly against its elite. 

The public commentary on the war has been informed by full reporting of the effects of war on the ground and of the response of national leaders to it. Commentators accentuate the contrasts in power, ethical claim and humanity between the Ukrainian defenders and the Russian invaders and between their respective leaders. They emphasise the atrocities and loss of life suffered by the Ukrainian civilian population, and the heroic defence of freedom by their leaders and people in the face of overwhelming odds. Most also advocate the strengthening of economic sanctions imposed on Russia and of the coalition opposed to the invasion.  The war is increasingly seen as an international conflict in which nations and individuals are required to take and name sides. It is seen as the struggle of good against evil.

In the face of the horrors of invasion it is natural to be fascinated by the destructiveness of war and to immerse ourselves in military and political strategies. It is also natural to feel helpless and angry at the destruction of human lives, of cities and freedoms, and from a distance to barrack for one side and against the other. We attribute blame and praise, weigh causes and justifications, and divide the world into friends and enemies.

This response is unhelpful. It is right to attribute responsibility to Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine and for the death of civilians and the destruction of cities flowing from his military strategy. What destroys both friends and enemies, however, is war. In our helplessness and distance we should rather focus first on the sorrow of war, and attend compassionately to all the people now and later whose lives will be devastated by it. The appropriate music is not a military march but the Last Post. 

The sorrow of war and its destruction of human beings and humane values in society have fed reflection from ancient times. Homer’s Iliad is a catalogue both of rage, courage, grief and the loss of human decency.  It reaches its climax when Achilles kills Hector and for a week drags his unburied corpse behind his chariot while Hector’s grief-stricken father looks on.  The story embodies sorrow at the loss of life and of humanity when rage leads to war and war spawns rage. The Biblical stories of David, too, describe killing, grief and the struggle to act humanely in the culture of war. The poems of Wilfrid Owen later expose the emptiness of rhetoric that dignifies the reality of mechanized killing in warfare in which soldiers lose agency.


'Attending to the sorrow of war does not avoid commitment or moral seriousness but deepens them. Its natural effect is to make an enemy of war, to denounce the crimes committed in its name, to resist attempts to divide and exclude people on the grounds of their national origin.'


More recently in a moving novel The Sorrow of War, told from the other side of a war in which Australians took part, the North Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh describes a soldier’s experience of the  privation of guerilla warfare, of the death of people whom he loves, and finally of his revenge killing of man who raped the woman he loved. War has cost him everything that mattered to him, including his self-respect. The theme of the novel is echoed in the underlying sorrow revealed by witnesses in the libel case brought by Ben Roberts-Smith. Although their evidence about events is in dispute, it made clear the enduring effects of war on the mental health and spirit of soldiers living at constant risk of their lives in a nation not their own in which they cannot tell friend from enemy.

To open our imagination to the sorrow of war is the most decent response to the war in Ukraine by those who are distant from it. It evokes compassion for the soldiers on both sides who have lost their lives and limbs in battle, and with them the families who had hopes in them and grieve for them. It embraces the sorrow of Ukrainian people who have remained in the nation and have lost their lives and health and their homes and livelihood to rockets, shells and other weapons, of children exposed too early to horror and to anxiety about life, food and shelter, of farmers unable to tend their crops, of the millions of people made refugees and facing separation from their nation, their language, from their agency and from all that makes a nation a home. It opens out to the sorrow of poor Russian families whose livelihood, savings and employment are affected by sanctions and who rage against their fate, of families in a now divided world whose employment and living depend on supply chains broken by the war, and of precarious people in the Third World who cannot afford the grain and fuel on which their lives depend.

The sorrow of war also encompasses the effects of rage on the human heart: the inability to recognise the humanity of people gathered under a different flag, to negotiate when the alternative is unending violence, to let go of slogans, and to care for the world our children will inherit. The sorrow of war is also that of a divided world that will not act together to address the ever-increasing threat posed by climate change. In the face of the sorrow of war we can only say, Cry, the beloved Earth.

Despite appearances, attending to the sorrow of war does not avoid commitment or moral seriousness but deepens them. Its natural effect is to make an enemy of war, to denounce the crimes committed in its name, to resist attempts to divide and exclude people on the grounds of their national origin, to feel the burden of national leaders in the prudential decisions they must make, to support initiatives at all levels to negotiate, and to focus on the healing of an endangered world. It is a commitment to build bridges instead of blowing them up.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: A child on a swing outside a residential building damaged by a missile in Kyiv. (Pierre Crom / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, War, Russia, Invasion, Ukraine, Sorrow



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Fr Andrew "To Everything There is a Season"
Ecclesiasticus" a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace."

Now is not the time for sorrow. Now it is time to fight and stand up to the warlords who think that might is right and that I've got more guns and bullets.
Putin wont care about the kids and women caught in the crossfire. He wants the land, the gas, the oil, the pipelines and the Ports. He just doesn't want to pay for them.

Francis Armstrong | 10 March 2022  
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It pleases immensely in a Jesuit 'rag' to see Francis for once so overwhelmingly 'Catholic' in his praise of Ecclesiasticus.

Ecclesiasticus, also called the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, is a deuterocanonical biblical work (accepted in the Catholic canon but noncanonical for Jews and Protestants) and, undoubtedly an outstanding example of the wisdom genre of religious literature that was popular in the early Hellenistic period of Judaism (3rd century) introduced to and by the Greeks long after the life and death of Jesus and primarily owing to the influence of St Paul.

As such, not only is it a highly contested book but is full of misreadings, which may help explain why Ecclesiastes, which is within canonised Scripture, is much the more respectable and reputable source of quotation than Francis' from the Apochrypha.

In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon takes the opposite view to Francis, as for instance in the case of the disputed 'ownership' of a baby. Francis would doubtless know the account as well as that the matter was brought before Solomon for adjudication.

Solomon proposed to dismember the child. He then 'awarded ownership' to the woman who placed the child's life above the claim of the other.

Michael Furtado | 19 March 2022  

War produces suffering on an unimaginable scale. The media brings us videos and photos of destruction of infrastructure and devastation etched on the faces of the victims of war. What we do not readily see is the destruction of the psyche of people who initiate wars. There is a sadness to the ultimate futility of war and a sadness at the demise of the humanity of those who have to make tactical decisions. W B Yeats wrote: “I think it better that at times like these/We poets keep our mouths shut, for in truth/We have no gift to set a statesman right” (from ‘On being asked for a War Poem’ 1919). We are silenced in the face of such horror and silent prayer may be the only answer.

Pam | 10 March 2022  

“The sorrow of war is also that of a divided world that will not act together to address the ever-increasing threat posed by climate change”

History shows us that where injustice reigns division remains

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”

This statement answers the fundamental questions, the ones that have provoked the spiritual search since humans first walked on this planet as it confronts the ultimate reality of each individual’s short physical appearance in the Cosmos, which ends in our physical death. Jesus is saying I myself am the Truth that leads to life the ultimate reality of eternal life in our Creator. The future of the planet and discord amongst and within nations is ongoing, we are not to worry as

“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”

Within all of us is a divine spark, timeless is this spark that dwells in the heart/soul, so small yet encompasses all, waiting for the Wing (Higher Consciousness) of the Dove to be fanned by the Truth of love. The divine spark is the essence of our individual spiritual reality and is ignited if we honestly confront His living Word within our hearts as this will induce us to acknowledge our human weakness/sin in humility before our Father in heaven. This causes the divine spark within us to be amplified as in at that moment in time we harmonize with our Creator/Truth the essence of Love and in doing so we receive the reciprocal love of His Holy Spirit permitting us to penetrate the fog of deception (Sin) and grow spiritually (Grow in Wisdom as He did) while becoming gentle and humble in heart which is reflected in this Our Lords teaching

“Take my yoke (One Iota) upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

We as Christians need to be seen by mankind in being honest with ourselves by acknowledging openly our warts and all, in doing so we will be seen to be walking in obedience to the Truth (Way) if we do this His Light/Breath will dwell within us manifesting itself as humility a disarming action in the simplicity of being honest, as His Holy Spirit now dwelling within us will encompass those we encounter along the Way, leading them to follow His Way of Truth/Love onto the spiritual pathway of humility as they also drink from the new wine (Truth) of His Holy Spirit then they too will become ‘new skins’ for Him to dwell within.

Only then will it be possible to put aside historic attitudes of condemnation, misogyny, bitterness, even wars as all these sins commence from the war/discord/conflict of contamination within each individual heart which is reflected in the contamination of our planet.

I have made the statement below which bears witness to the Truth on this site and many others several times over the last two years no one ever responds whereas frivolous (words without action) questions are debated endlessly.

“A humble heart (Church) will never cover its tracks or hide its shortcomings, and in doing so confers authenticity, as it walks in its own vulnerability /weakness/brokenness in trust/faith before God and mankind. It is a heart (Church) to be trusted, as it ‘dispels’ darkness within its own ego/self, in serving God (Truth) first, before any other”

So, is the Holy Spirit active in those who read this statement and remain silent?

As the above statement confronts this reality

“A world (& Church) that’s morally (and physically) collapsing is in dire need of returning to the Gospel Truth. Pope Francis often reminds us of this”

Please consider continuing via the link


kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 10 March 2022  
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Kevin, I am responding to your paragraph beginning “A humble heart…..”. The Church is comprised of people who are certain, uncertain, outgoing, introspective, wounded and courageous. All at the same time. The difference is we (the church) feel a calling and act, however tentatively, upon it. Our brokenness is our appeal. Best wishes, Pam

Pam | 11 March 2022  

Thank you, Pam, for your positive comment “our brokenness is our appeal” Yes when properly understood within our own heart before our Father in heaven as then it produces a humble heart one with the ongoing development of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. While one of His seven gifts is the gift of Understand which you admirably demonstrate in your post above…. “What we do not readily see is the destruction of the psyche of people who initiate wars” .......While I now add, many of whom are aided and abetted by professed Christians

From Donum Vitae “God alone is the Master of life from its beginning until its end; no one under any circumstances can claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human life.”

Abortion is an act of violence upon the innocent, but even today as Christians, do we not still condone violence? As the term ‘Just War’(Theory) continually shatters the reality of this teaching given by the Church.

The teaching by the church on a Just War is nothing more than a minefield with regards to its application of justified murder. Can there be anything more perverse than giving the Holy Eucharist to opposing Christian soldiers just before going into battle against each other?

Please consider continuing via the link

It has been a joy to encounter you on this site Pam

kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 11 March 2022  

A very well written piece Andrew, your experience of the impact of suffering through your years of service is evident. The old adage that truth goes out the window with the bath water and is also a victim of conflict, could not be better reflected than in what appears to be stories of American Biological Testing labs in the Ukraine. It is now becomming a world of ever escalating untruths, the earth is fertile for an ever escalation in war. I pray for a day when the free and humble spirit of people will rise above the torrents of real communism that is setting to entrench us all.

Peter Sumner | 11 March 2022  

In Catholic schools, it was customary to pray in classes the rosary, at least monthly on First Fridays, offering as an intention "the conversion of Russia."
Perhaps that intention could be renewed and adapted with prayer, as Philadelphia's Ukrainian Archeparchy Archbishop Borys Gudziak recently entreated, "for the conversion of Vladimir Putin." Homeroom would seem a good place to start.

John RD | 11 March 2022  

Humans are slow learners. Carl von Clausewitz famously stated: “War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.” In WW1, all leaders acted rationally and in pursuit of their own vital interests. They also acted stupidly.
When dealing with a would-be Peter the Great, Putin’s “favourite leader”, prudence is called for. Sticking to the Minsk II agreements, providing local rule for the pro-Russian eastern provinces within a sovereign Ukrainian state, and Ukraine rejecting NATO membership, could have avoided war.
But in 2017, US Democrat Eric Swalwell explained that because Putin had installed Donald Trump in the White House (a total fabrication), the US should, “Do everything we can to expand NATO’s role.” (Swalwell, on the House Intelligence Committee overseeing Intel agencies, was exposed as having a sexual relationship with Chinese spy, Fang Fang). Last month US Vice-President, Kamala Harris, stated that Ukraine should be able to join NATO: “That should be their independent choice. That is the point of sovereignty.” That is rational, but in the circumstances, stupid.

Ross Howard | 11 March 2022  
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Well said, Ross!

Michael Furtado | 19 March 2022  

‘Ukraine should be able to join NATO: “That should be their independent choice. That is the point of sovereignty.” That is rational, but in the circumstances, stupid.’

It’s an interesting point as to whether something can simultaneously be rational and stupid. Perhaps Ukraine should just let the separatist republics become independent if Russia is so wonderful. Then what’s left of Ukraine, the greater part, can join the gravy train of the European Union like some of its eastern European neighbours and the separatists can look through the window in their tattered rags and expect Mother Putin, who controls a GDP not much larger than insignificant, often sidelined Australia, to feed them.

Or the separatists can stay within Ukraine and send a delegation or two to Quebec to learn from how the Francophoneys (mostly Catholic in name only) play with the Anglophones.

roy chen yee | 23 March 2022  

As the sister of a Vietnam veteran,daughter of a WW2 veteran,grandaughter of a Boer War veteran and niece of a Korean War veteran killed in action I can assure you that many Australians understand very well the darkness of war and it's results over generations on many Australian families.My vote in the next Fed election will not go to those who beat the war drums.

Anne Ramsay | 11 March 2022  
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Yes Anne I won't be voting for those who are beating the war drums either.

Jan Wright | 13 March 2022  

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” .... In this case ‘daughters’ Anne and Jan
kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 13 March 2022  

Well, John RD, Vladimir Putin purports to be a Christian, just like the late Queen Victoria, under whom the British Empire was at its height. As in Victoria's time in Britain, very few in what is basically the Established Church in Russia will speak out against the man who is behaving like the reincarnation of Peter the Great. I would imagine, in true Russian Imperial terms, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church would be regarded as subversive.

Edward Fido | 11 March 2022  
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Putin may well wear a cross, but his vision, ambitions and actions in Ukraine are those of a world estranged from Christ's beatitudes. My Ukrainian Catholic friends are not surprised at the general silence of the Established Church in Russia.

John RD | 13 March 2022  

Well observed, Edward. JohnRD suffers from selectively amnesia in not disclosing that Ukrainian Catholics were complicit in siding with the Nazis, a factor that Russia remembers well.

John, please recommend to +Gudziak that he lead the recitation of the Sorrowful Mysteries in atonement for the widespread Ukrainian Catholic massacres of Jews.

Around 100,000 joined police, providing key assistance to the Nazis. Many others staffed the local bureaucracies or lent a helping hand during mass shootings of Jews (Wiki: Holocaust).

Simon Wiesenthal: 'Ukraine has never conducted a single investigation of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone prosecuted a Holocaust perpetrator'.

Israeli Holocaust historian Yitzhak Arad: 'In January 1942 a company of Tatar volunteers was established in Simferopol under the command of Einsatzgruppe 11. This company participated in anti-Jewish manhunts and murder actions in the rural regions.'

In the Ukraine Dieter Pohl estimated 1.2 million Jews murdered, and more recent estimates have been up to 1.6 million. Some of those Jews added to the death toll attempted to find refuge in the forest, but were killed later on by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or by some nationalist units of Home Army or other partisan groups during the German retreat.

Jesus Weeps!

Michael Furtado | 19 March 2022  

From Batman (1989):

Batman : You killed my parents.

The Joker : What? What? What are you talking about?

Batman : I made you, you made me first.

The Joker : Hey, bat-brain, I mean, I was a kid when I killed your parents. I mean, I say "I made you" you gotta say "you made me." I mean, how childish can you get?

roy chen yee | 24 March 2022  

This is well written and humanely balanced. Thank you Andrew,

Marie Bourke

Marie Bourke | 14 March 2022  

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