Seeking peace amidst the turmoil: the terrible tragedy of warfare

Seeking peace amidst the turmoil: the terrible tragedy of warfare

On a visit to Italy’s largest military cemetery in 2014, Pope Francis said “war is madness; humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.” He believed, it was said, that we are in the midst of a Third World War—a piecemeal war, but a world war, nevertheless. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the sturdy resistance of the people of Ukraine, and the consequent involvement of NATO and western nations, is the most immediate sign of this war.

If this is a 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. Everyone loses. War causes such pain, such turmoil, such hurt, such dislocation.
World War I was supposed to be “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 battle fields, 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 is never-ending.


Can this current war be won? Should resources and personnel be devoted to “winning the war”? 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 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 irrelevant.

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).

And as people of faith, that ultimate goal of peace 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.

Rev. Dr John Squires is Presbytery Minister (Wellbeing) for Canberra Region Presbytery and the Editor of With Love to the World. This reflection originally appeared on his blog, An Informed Faith.

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