In the TV Series from the late 90’s to the early 2000’s “The West Wing” there is a conversation the Chief of Staff Leo McGarry has with one of the Airforce Generals discussing the involvement of the Americans in the International Court of Justice. The issue is over War Crimes, and will the Americans allow a foreign power to prosecute their military personnel. In the discussion about what constitutes a crime, the Airforce General makes the comment, “All war is a crime.”
This month marks the 100th Anniversary of the Cessation of hostilities in WW1. This will also bring to a close the four years of the “Australia Remembers” programme which has sought to bring back to the consciousness of Australians the ultimate sacrifice made by thousands of young men and women in The Great War. However, the question still remains, what is that we are doing?
I guess as a former serviceman from the Submarine arm of the Royal Australian Navy I have always had an affinity with ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day. I have always been conscious of the need for a good Defence Force as a means of ensuring the security of this Island Nation which relies on the freedom of navigation on the high seas for our way of life.
When it comes to remembering our returned service men and women, and our involvement in conflicts in general Australia has had a chequered history. Vietnam is a particularly sad moment in our remembering history, but even worse than our shameful treatment of our Vietnam Veterans has been completely forgetting those like our Malaya Emergency Veterans. The reality is, our service men and women do a job that no one else in Australia is either willing to do or wants to do. Coupled with that, while it is true that service in the defence force is voluntary the reality is that our Government sends them on missions on our behalf. They are not the Government of the day’s defence force, they are Australia’s Defence Force. The men and women who serve us don’t sit around the mess deciding to go here or there, the government of the day does that for them.
Coming back to WW1, the so-called war to end all wars was one of the greatest tragedies for the world, and for Australia. Here at home we lost about 62,000 dead out of a population of 5 million. In the intervening years between the two wars, about that number again would succumb to their injuries, or take their own lives. There is nothing to glorify or celebrate in that. In fact, one could argue that the way the war was ended was so incompetently handled that it gave rise to the 1939-45 war. In this case the words of Eric Bogle in his classic “Green Fields of France” are most apt. In this song he is walking along the rows of the dead of WW1 and comes across a 19-year-old. In the last verse he asks the question;
“Now I can’t help but wonder, young William McBride
Do all those who lie here, do they know why they died?
Did you really believe them when you answered the call?
Did you really believe this war would end wars?
For the suffering the sorrow the glory the shame
The killing and the dying was all done in vain.
For young Willy McBride it’s all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.”
Scripture speaks about war, in two ways, the recognition it will happen, (Joel 3:10) and the promise that there will come a time when there will be no war. (Is 2:4, Micah 4:3) These passages remind us that humanity is fallen from its original purpose, of the man and the woman, and God in the midst (Ge 1:26-2:9). The time between this and the end of Revelation is how you get back to Eden. In the midst of this journey back humankind’s depravity leads it to wage war against its self, more often than not. Scripture recognizes this tension between the beauty of creation, and the goodness of creation, and the consequences and reality of sin which is at work in the world, which in fact becomes a crime against the created order. It also demonstrates aptly that without God humankind can not rescue its self from the ravages of conflict which sometimes leads to war. While the world tries to create some sort of utopian Eden of its own creation, the reality of sin means that it will ultimately fail. Only God can provide the solution.
Our Government, and our nation needs to remember at times like these the sacred trust that is placed in the Government and through them the people of Australia to look after those who return from active duty, and the families of those who do not. When the Government fails to do this they not only fail the men and women of the Defence Force, they also fail the people of Australia who has placed the care and trust of looking after Defence Force Personnel in their remit. I think the Government did as good a job as they could with WW1 and WW2 service men and women, however, they have failed us miserably since. They have also not necessarily put men and women in harms way in the national interest, I think they did in Afghanistan but not in Iraq, and they let down our uniformed men and women who did an amazing job there and in countless other conflict sites including Timor, Bougainville, and in Africa.
So, how will I, as a clergyman, but also as an ex Serviceman commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in WW1? Quite simply, I will remember. While it is true I can not remember either wars, as I was not alive then, I will remember with sadness that there comes a point in diplomacy when the only way to resolve the conflict is with violence. I find this incredibly sad, especially when we remember the comment about war in “The West Wing.” While I have full sympathy with the world going to war against the Nazi ideology, I find myself completely unable to accept the premise of going to war in 1914, especially when the world went through it all again 20 years later. I will also use the time to reflect on my own service, and those friends of mine who died in the service of their country while at peace. Just as an aside as I write this I am preparing for a dedication service at the National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour to honour a shipmate who died while we were serving on Submarine Onslow, which is on display there.
So I will give thanks to all our men and women who have served this country, and who continue to serve. I will pray for the souls of those who have gone before us as they await the resurrection and give thanks for their service and sorrow for the need for their sacrifice. I will pray for safety for our current men and women in uniform, and I will pray that our Government will exercise the use of lethal force wisely, justly and with integrity, and that the Government will not break faith with the men and women who go where they direct as the Defence Force of Australia.
Lest we Forget.