The following is the text of the sermon I gave today at St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin, as part of World Peace Day Sunday:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

I would like to extend my thanks to Dean Trevor James for asking me to give the sermon this morning. It is really a tremendous honour for me to speak to you in such a wonderful place – our beautiful cathedral – and on such a special occasion when we gather to re-commit ourselves to the sacred task – and I believe it is a sacred task, one that is deeply rooted in our faith – of building peace in a violent and suffering world.

The International Day of Peace, or, World Peace Day was first established by the United Nations in 1981. The UN declared that “Peace Day should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations.” At the same time, the International Day of Peace is also a Day of Ceasefire – a day for making peace in both personal relationships, and the larger conflicts of our time. On Ceasefire Day, the world calls for, and prays for, the guns to fall silent everywhere, at least for one day. This year, the theme of Ceasefire Day is a question: Who Will You Make Peace With?

As a consequence, yesterday, millions of people around the world, including some of us here who spent the day in the Octagon, gathered together to wait in silence, pray, meditate, learn, sing, dance, light a candle and in a myriad of creative ways, commit themselves anew to the task of making peace a reality in the world. And today, together with people of faith around the world, we also gather in this cathedral to pray, to seek inspiration and strength, and to ask for God’s blessing on our individual and collective efforts to follow in Christ’s footsteps as peacemakers. 

Before I go any further, let me confess: I am no theologian, and I have never undertaken any formal biblical or religious studies. I do come from a family tradition of clergy. If I had gone into the ministry, as my family once hoped for, I would have been a fifth generation minister. However, it was not be. I found another, though not dissimilar, vocation. The point is, I have no particular qualifications to speak to you today. This means that I can only speak from the heart about what I personally believe and how I, as a practicing Christian, read the bible, and in particular, how I understand the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

I must also declare that I am a pacifist. I am a pacifist for three main reasons – because I am scholar, because I am human being, and because I am a Christian.

As a scholar, I have studied war and political violence for more than twenty years now, and I have come to three general conclusions about war. First, every argument advanced by scholars or legal experts or politicians for the necessity and legitimacy of war in general, or indeed for any specific war of the last sixty years at least, upon careful examination, lacks proper foundation in both reason and evidence.

Second, the weight of evidence – historical and contemporary – clearly demonstrates that war is incapable of establishing lasting, genuine peace. The primary effect of war throughout history is to create the conditions for further episodes of violent conflict and future wars. This is not to say that war does not sometimes lead to temporary peace. But it is to accept along with Gandhi that, “I oppose all violence because the good it does is always temporary but the harm it does is permanent”.

Third, my studies have led me to the conclusion that there are far more effective means of resolving conflict and creating the conditions of lasting peace than using military force and violence – if only we have the vision to see them and the courage to try them. There are, in other words, proven alternatives to war. War is never the sole remaining option, nor the optimal choice, in any given situation.

Apart from my scholarly reasons, I am also a pacifist because I am a human being who has seen war first hand and experienced a small taste of its horror. I was born and raised as the son of a missionary in the southern part of Zambia, not more than 20 miles from the border with what was then Rhodesia. During the Rhodesian war –what is now called the Zimbabwean war of independence – the fighting spilled across into Zambia, and I experienced first-hand the fear of proximity to military battle, and the absolute terror of being manhandled by a soldier off a bus at a military roadblock to be taken to what I believed was my likely execution. At that moment, I experienced the moral abyss of war: in war, there is no law, no rules, no protection, just arbitrary violence.

During this war when I was growing up, I also spoke at length to soldiers who at the age of 19 or 20 were psychologically scarred by what they had seen and done in combat. As many of you will also have experienced, veterans come home from war with deep moral and psychological injuries, which are then often passed on from generation to generation.

In any case, these experiences confirmed to me that war is probably humanity’s greatest evil, and its greatest tragedy. In fact, war is the time and place where the human capacity for sin and evil finds its greatest expression. There has never been a war where hate, fear, malice, cruelty, rape, lack of control, torture and murder have not been present – and where once ordinary and decent human beings have remained unaffected or uncorrupted by these evils. To put it another way, I know of no single person in history who has experienced war firsthand who has ever found it to be uplifting, or enriching, or ennobling, or life-affirming. War, which is the organized killing of fellow human beings, is utterly destructive and disfiguring to the human body and spirit. There is nothing redeeming or good in war. This is why I reject war in all its forms. This is one reason why I am a pacifist.

Sadly, in our society, the true horrors of war and its inherently craven nature, are too often obscured. In our movies and television shows, our news and our memorials, we more often prefer to hide the awful reality of the human suffering and death that results from war. Instead, we focus on its heroism and nobility, sacrifice and nation-affirming character.

However, perhaps the most important reason – and what I want to focus on today – is that I am a pacifist because I am also a Christian, and I believe that my faith demands a radical commitment to principled nonviolence, anti-militarism and peacemaking. This flows directly from my firm belief that the starting point for any Christian on any ethical issue is the example and teaching of Jesus. So, what does Jesus say about peace, and violence, and war? Among many verses, I’m sure we are all familiar with the following:

·         “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5: 9)

·         “You have heard that it was said, ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 5: 38-39, 43-45)

·         “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you… Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6: 25)

·          “Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword.” (Matt. 26: 52)

The only way I can read these verses is as an uncompromising opposition to revenge and retribution, violence and war, and as heralding a new ethic of love for enemies, and a radical non-violent response to injustice and oppression. And as I read about the life and teaching of Jesus in the New Testament, I am left with the following questions:

Would the Jesus we read about in the Gospels ever, under any circumstances, stick a bayonet into another human being?

Would he drop a bomb on village full of people?

Would he shoot someone in the face, or run someone over in a tank? 

The answer is unequivocally, No. As Reinhold Neibuhr put it, “The ethic of Christ is uncompromisingly pacifist.” Moreover, it is clear that this is both a personal and a communal ethic; the listeners of Jesus would have interpreted it as applying both to individuals and the people as a community.

Later in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul re-affirms this radical new ethic proclaimed by Jesus. He says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends… Do not be overcome with evil; but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 11: 17-21). Paul also admonishes Christians to “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6: 14-15). And then, he reminds us that as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22) – will be produced in us. These are all the values which are the direct opposite of war and violence, and they come from Christ’s indwelling in our lives. 

In the Old Testament, we are told about the Peaceable Kingdom which is foretold and inaugurated by the incarnation of Jesus, who is according to the Prophets, “the Prince of Peace”. In God’s Kingdom, peace prevails as its primary characteristic, as the following verses clearly state:

 ·         “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat… they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11: 6, 9)

·         “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” (Hosea 2: 18)

·         “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Micah 4: 3)

·         “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9: 10)

As before, I find that I can only understand these verses as saying that God’s Kingdom, which is both foretold and inaugurated in Christ, is characterized by peace, justice and love for enemies. And that there is no place for war in God’s Kingdom: “Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land”. In fact, there is not even a place for training for war: “nor will they train for war anymore”. In God’s Kingdom, the instruments of death and killing are transformed into instruments of life and human well-being: “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

This reading of the Bible, and the ethical position it entails – the position of principled nonviolence, of refusing to participate in any form in war, in working tirelessly to establish God’s Kingdom of peace on earth – is in fact the oldest tradition in Christianity, and one which continues today in the historic peace churches, such as the Quakers. For the first few centuries after the life of Jesus, Christians did not join the military, nor did they engage in violent resistance to oppression and persecution. I believe that this is the original Christian tradition. Origen (185-254), one of the great figures of the early church, wrote: “For we no longer take sword against a nation, nor do we learn any more to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”

But what about that other Christian tradition – the tradition of Christians serving in the military, of Chaplains attached to the armed forces, of bibles being distributed to soldiers, of military services held in churches, of congregations praying for the success of their nation in war? This tradition began with the conversion of the Roman ruler, Constantine, in the third century, and his declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent fusion of religious and temporal power in the institutions of the state. In order to justify the use of military force by the now Christian state, and the participation of Christians in the army, theologians of the day were compelled to develop the Doctrine of Just War. This doctrine has guided many Christians, especially the official state churches of many countries, ever since.

Briefly, Just War Doctrine states that a number of conditions need to be satisfied for a war to be considered just, and for Christians to therefore support it and participate in it:

·         The war must be for a just cause;

·         The war must be declared by a lawful authority;

·         It must be fought for a right intention;

·         It must be a last resort after peaceful alternatives have been tried;

·         It must have a reasonable chance of success;

·         The force used must be proportionate;

·         Innocent civilians should not be harmed.

Just War theologians argued that if these strict conditions were fulfilled, Christians could fight in the war with a clear conscience. Importantly, the original Just War Doctrine was rooted in the understanding that war was inherently evil; it could never be considered good nor heroic.

However, in my view, Just War Doctrine is wrong on a number of grounds. First, as most ethicists and political philosophers now accept, it is incoherent and inconsistent as a guide for moral behavior in war. This is because among its many inconsistencies which I cannot go into here, it separates means and ends, it separates intentions and actions, and it creates two separate moral spheres – war where killing is permissible, and peace where it is not.

More seriously, Just War Doctrine elevates the political community – the nation-state – above the rights and morality of individual human beings, and makes killing other human beings in the name of the state a duty. This creates the absurd, and I would argue anti-Christian, situation where fellow Christians may be compelled to kill each other in the name of different nation-states who are at war. At the very least, it involves children of God killing other children of God in the name of political institutions – which, I might add, were not created by God, but most often created by war, dispossession, and the forceful incorporation of peoples into a new unit.

Importantly, I would argue that no war in the last one hundred years at least can confidently be said to have adhered properly to Just War precepts, for the simple reason that there is no war I know of where all other nonviolent options have been properly tried first. What I mean by this is simply that vast resources are poured into preparing for war, training for war, and making war. No similar level of resources – financial or human – have been devoted to training for, preparing for, or attempting peaceful methods of conflict resolution. Compare military budgets with diplomatic budgets. Compare how many people are trained to fight in the military with how many people are trained in nonviolence and conflict resolution. Compare how many scientists are working on weapons development with how many are working on peaceful solutions. We cannot say that war is the last resort until we have put at least as much effort into finding nonviolent solutions as we have into preparing for, and making, war.   

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for us here today, I believe that Just War Doctrine is wrong is because it clearly contradicts the life and teaching of Jesus, and the values of his Peaceful Kingdom. The violence, the harm, the injury, the hatred, the brutality of war contradicts everything about the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

In the end, my Christian pacifism is renewed each time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, particularly the line “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Each time I pray this, I ask myself this:

·         Is it God’s will that more than 100 million human beings have been murdered in wars in the past century? 

·         Is it God’s will that hundreds of millions of people are driven from their homes, forced to flee and live in appalling conditions because of war?

·         Is it God’s will that tens of thousands of women and girls are raped and sexually violated in war every year?

·         And is it God’s will that men and women study and train and discipline themselves to kill and maim their fellow human beings in combat?

·         Is it God’s will that scientists and strategists work tirelessly, year after year, to devise ever more destructive ways to kill, and maim and destroy other human beings?

·         Is it God’s will that people spend their days working in factories to make cluster munitions and other horrible weapons that will spread around the world and be used to tear apart the bodies of their fellow human beings?

·         Is it God’s will that uncountable trillions of dollars have been spent, and continue to be spent, on maintaining military forces while millions of children are under-fed, families are un-housed, entire generations of young people are un-educated, and millions lack in basic medication?

·         Is it God’s will that veterans come back from war with physical and emotional wounds which diminish and distort their lives, and poison their relationships, for decades after?

·         Is it God’s will that we as a society seem to revel in war and killing as entertainment, turn it into video games for our children, and mythologise soldiers and warriors – who are the professionals of killing in our society – as heroic?

The question I ask myself is this: how can I pray the Lord’s prayer in all sincerity, week after week, year after year – thy will be done on earth – if I then support war which is clearly against God’s will?  I cannot pray for God’s will to be done on earth and then work against God’s will by supporting war. If I do, then my prayer is not sincere and I am a hypocrite.

Peace is at the core of God’s kingdom. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came down from heaven to give us his peace. His peace has both an individual dimension and a collective dimension. At the level of the individual, he offers through his redemptive grace the chance to make peace with God and peace with ourselves. At the collective level, his life, death and resurrection inaugurates and brings into existence a new Kingdom of peace, love, and justice.

As Christians, I believe we are called equally to both kinds of peace. We are called to make peace with our God, and make peace in the world with our fellow human beings. Too often, we have focused on the one – inner peace – and neglected the other – Kingdom peace on earth. This is because too often, we have been afraid to follow the radical example of Jesus; we have been too afraid to speak out against the dominant values of our friends, our families, our society; perhaps we have been too afraid of losing respect and influence from the powerful in this world.

So, sisters and brothers, children of God, what should we do? Both of my parents are ministers and they taught me that a sermon always ought to end with some practical suggestions for how we might respond. I believe we follow a practical faith of real relevance to the world; without actions, our faith is meaningless. Individually, I take from this reading of Jesus the challenge to continue educating myself – to learn more about the biblical basis of Christian pacifism; to learn more about the true nature of war, and the practicalities and potentialities of peace.

I am also challenged to ensure that I am at peace with God and my neighbor – that peace and peacefulness characterizes all my relationships with others, and with the earth that sustains me.

Lastly, I am challenged about my commitment to making peace in the world, to being a blessed peacemaker and working for Christ’s kingdom of peace on earth here and now. In this respect, I try to look for ways of contributing to peace organisations and peace groups, to actions and forms of activism that promote peace and oppose war and militarism. There are peace organisations in our own church, such as the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, as well as many others in our city, our nation and the wider world.

And what about collectively? How should we respond as a community of faith to Jesus’s life and teaching? I believe that as a church, the Anglican Church, particularly as the main Christian church which has a long tradition and close historical relationship with the New Zealand state, I wonder if we need to ask some potentially difficult and painful questions.

·         Do we compromise our faith in the name of maintaining political favour by officially supporting war and militarism – by providing religious sanction to the nation’s military, to its wars and interventions, to its patriotic myths?

·         How can we honour those who serve in the armed services while also following Jesus’ call to radical pacifism and the Kingdom imperative to end war and the preparation for war?

·         Do we deny our Lord when we fail as an institution to speak out against all forms of war and militarism, and when we fail to denounce the violence and destruction of some of our nation’s policies?

·         Is it time for the Anglican Church in this nation, and for St Paul’s Cathedral in our city, to make a radical commitment to being peacemakers, and to take a more consistent, principled and open stand against war and all forms of militarism – to speak out against military spending, for example, particularly while so many children live in poverty in this country?

·         In a practical sense, is it time to devote significant financial and human resources to the study and practice of nonviolence – to educating and training Christian peacemakers who can offer peaceful alternatives to military forces and violent intervention?

My hope and my prayer is that all of us here today, and St Paul’s Cathedral and the entire community of faith in Dunedin, will grow in God’s peace, will try harder to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and will be blessed peacemakers; and that our homes, our churches and our city will bring about God’s peace on earth as it is in heaven. This will be an extremely difficult task. It will require dedicated and tireless struggle. Fortunately, Jesus promises help; he gives us his peace as a source of strength: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14: 27).

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.   

Yesterday, I saw the report from the BBC Panorama team in Syria who witnessed the aftermath of a horrific attack in which an incendiary bomb was dropped onto a school playground. The images of children with napalm-like burns over their bodies, weeping and shivering in pain, will always stay with me. I felt physically sick and deeply disturbed. The sheer inhumanity of war staggered me once again. It left me wondering about a world that could even imagine, much less make, a scene like this.

How can any pilot even consider dropping a napalm bomb on fellow human beings knowing that it will burn away at their skin while they shiver and shake with pain until they die from shock?

And how can any officer consider ordering a pilot to load his plane with napalm bombs and send them out to drop them on fellow human beings, knowing that people will burn and writhe and die in excruciating agony?

And how can officials and company CEOs make deals to sell and deliver napalm bombs to places like this, knowing that they will be dropped on fellow human beings who will suffer and die like that?

And how can cabinet ministers sign off on deals to supply governments with napalm bombs knowing that they will be dropped on playgrounds and hospitals and roads and markets and places where they will be certain to burn fellow human beings to death?

And how can workers sit on an assembly line manufacturing napalm bombs knowing that they will be dropped on fellow human beings, burning away their skin?

And how can scientists study and experiment how to make napalm bombs that burn the flesh off their fellow human beings, and then go home and play with their children while other children writhe and scream and die?

When I saw the suffering of these children, I couldn’t help thinking that we have all failed Syria, not because we haven’t gone in there and dropped our own napalm bombs on the government forces, but because we have made a world where our economic prosperity is partly dependent on the manufacture and export of weapons just like the one dropped on a school playground yesterday in Syria; because we agree to maintain a stupid and absurd line which says that war is fine as long as you kill children with napalm bombs or phosphorous weapons, and not poison gas; because we tolerate our own governments secretly assisting dictators to use poison gas against our enemies; because we believe our leaders when they say they are committed to the protection of human rights; because we accept a distinction between the use of phosphorous weapons and depleted uranium shells by our own militaries and those of our allies, and the poison gas of others; because we tolerate our governments’ long support and assistance for dictators and despots in the war on terror; because deep down we still think, despite knowing full well the immeasurable suffering it causes, that war can usually be justified, and it can be right and good and heroic; because we see war and violence as entertainment and militarism as patriotism; because we are willing to live in a world where governments maintain armies and spend uncountable trillions on weapons and reserve the right to settle their disputes by dropping napalm bombs on playgrounds; because we are willing to let our governments use military force in our name over and over again, year after year, despite the pointless suffering it causes and the long-term instability it generates; because we refuse to accept that any good that violence achieves is always temporary and always vastly outweighed by the harm it causes.

When I saw the skin burning on these children, I couldn’t help but think that we all failed Syria because we didn’t assert strongly enough that all weapons that tear off human flesh or rip bodies apart are wrong; and that our governments ought to give up their weapons of mass destruction too; and that our arms industries ought to be converted to agricultural and medical production; and that all the money spent on weapons and militaries ought to go towards improving human life and establishing social justice so that wars are less likely in the first place; and that all the scientists working on more efficient forms of killing should be re-deployed to figure out nonviolent solutions to disputes and how to improve human life; and that our leaders ought to go to prison when it turns out that they lied and warred and killed innocent people in our name; and that our national interest ought to be defined by a commitment to values and making the whole world more just and humane; and that we expect our leaders and fellow citizens to try harder to make a world where all violence is seen as abhorrent and illegitimate, and where all conflicts are settled by dialogue and compromise and nonviolence.

The sad truth is that the war in Syria is just one more example of the world we have made and continue to make every day with our acquiescence, and our indifference, and our wilful ignorance, and our failure to demand a change. We, as human beings, have made this world of violence, duplicity, double standards, geo-political games, militarism and self-interest. And this is the main reason why I oppose military intervention in Syria: it won’t do anything to change the basic nature of this world, it will only reinforce it and make the next Syria, the next intervention, the next burned children, more likely. It’s a naive and dangerous illusion to think that this time violent intervention will magically work to make lasting peace; that this time it will deter the wicked and contain the violent; that this time it will result in security and stability. Its only certain outcome is that it will make the factories churning out napalm bombs hum a little faster. The same world that made this vicious war possible will still be there after we have bombed yet another country in an effort to save it.

We are smart enough to make napalm bombs and efficiently deliver them to school yards anywhere in the world. Are we smart enough to figure out how to solve conflicts and protect people without killing? Maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe we ought to ask: are we willing to do what’s necessary to build a world where children will never be napalm-bombed again?

Today, I read that the United States government once gave regular intelligence updates to Saddam so that he could use chemical weapons against Iranian troops who were threatening to break his defensive line.

Yesterday, I read that the US, UK, and New Zealand governments, among many others, have been illegally spying on their own citizens, violating the privacy of millions, for years.

Last week, I read that the Israeli government sometimes sprays Palestinian villages with a chemical called skunk designed to make them and their houses stink in a form of pointless collective punishment.

Last month, I read that the UK government held thousands of Kenyans in concentration camps and tortured them in the most horrible ways when it was fighting the Mau Mau insurgency.

Last year, I read that Coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were committing war crimes on a regular basis, murdering civilians for sport and torturing prisoners on orders; and that the US and UK governments had engineered a coup in 1953 to overthrow a popularly elected government in Iran; and that dozens of countries assisted the US in its illegal rendition programme after 9/11; and that the US has killed thousands of people in extrajudicial drones strikes across the Middle East, including many children… Actually, I have since lost count of how many stories like these I’ve read in the last few years. It is a litany of shame added to every day.


Today, I read that the UK government wants to make it a criminal offence for people of conscience to leak the truth about the crimes their government commits. Yesterday, the US jailed a man for 35 years when he exposed his government’s crimes.

Today, I concluded that what our governments really desire is the freedom to gas people in foreign lands, torture them in  dark cells and break the law with abandon, and then suppress the truth and punish anyone who exposes their crimes. Today, I have the whistleblower blues.

I once spent a year studying all the violent international conflicts between 1945 and 1995. Fifty years of people killing, raping, torturing, terrorising and brutalising each other. It was research for an encyclopaedia of international conflict. It was a great opportunity for a grad student to co-publish a book with a well-known professor, a real boost to my academic career. I had to carefully catalogue who attacked who, how many people died, where all the refugees fled to, when they finally stopped killing each other, which countries sent arms to the protagonists, what was done to try and stop it. All the gory details of organised political murder.

To this day I can remember reading a story about the Korean War in Keeings Contemporary Archives. I was sitting in the university library. It was a bright Autumn day. There were students all around me. I could hear them writing, turning pages, gossiping, munching on snacks. I started reading newspaper summaries of the conflict. After outlining the current state of fighting, one report mentioned a new kind of flame thrower developed by the American forces. It fired flaming liquid a hundred yards. The sticky, flaming substance would cling to human flesh while it crackled and burned. The report described in unusual detail the horror of setting a dozen Chinese soldiers on fire, and how impressed the senior officers were with their new weapon. I was utterly unprepared for the visceral description. The details were so vivid. I was appalled. I could almost smell the burning flesh, see the bright flames. Sitting at that library table, amongst the ordinariness of student’s studying, I must have covered my mouth with one hand as I read, although I don’t remember such a gesture. However, the fact that I can remember that day so vividly speaks to the horror I felt – and still feel – reading about how some young men, of a similar age to me, were turned into human torches, burned alive, no doubt screaming pitiously for mercy that never came.

I’ve since done similarly horrific research for subsequent academic publications on internal war, torture, state terrorism. There are many other such painful moments burned into my memory.


Monday: I go to a lunchtime lecture by a visiting professor. It’s about how victims of physical, psychological and sexual violence in state-run care homes try to get a little justice and recognition for their state-sanctioned, society-condoned suffering. It seems that no one in authority or the media wants to believe them or to accept responsibility. So they engage in various forms of self-harm. Some try to take the government to court. None of them is undamaged by their experiences; they carry the trauma around with them like little backpacks of acid. The personal stories read out by the professor are seriously heart-rending. I feel a little weepy by the end. It’s hard to go back to my office like nothing ever happened, but I have other work to get on with.

Tuesday: We watch a documentary about Sierra Leone in my security studies class. It is pretty brutal: mutilated corpses, piles of severed hands, people being executed, beatings, terrifed refugees, children with stumps instead of feet. I show it because my students have no real idea of the reality of war. The television networks won’t show that stuff anymore, and the course readings are all so abstract and detached. So they only ever see cinematic violence in cool, stylised, slow motion. I’ve seen this video four or five times already. I can’t watch it anymore. It disturbs me too much, especially when they start to beat a little mentally ill boy they think is a sniper. The terror in his screams cuts right through me these days. It tears at my spirit and crushes my chest until it’s hard to breath. I go out of the room and come back at the end to lead the discussion.

Wednesday: I go along to a seminar on gender violence. I sit in the audience and listen to the horrific statistics – hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands – on mass rape in war, honour killings, domestic homocide, female circumcism, and lots of other equally traumatic violences enacted against women and girls. At least there aren’t any personal stories or photographs of dead or mutilated women on this occasion. Still, it’s very hard to listen to. I’m glad when it’s over, but feel ashamed of my sense of relief. It’s a really important issue. I know that. Someone needs to research this more deeply. But I can’t face any more today.

Thursday: In my terrorism course we discuss state terrorism, especially the use of torture as a way of intimidating whole populations. We talk about how some of the democratic countries innovated so-called ‘clean torture’ – torture which leaves no obvious physical marks, like sleep deprivation, stress positions, water-boarding, use of chemicals. I explain that these torture victims suffer a double torture when no one believes their accounts. I tell them stories about people I’ve met who were tortured in the war on terror. I show them some of the Abu Ghraib pictures and we discuss the deep hatred and racism that created almost identical photographs in the American South and the Holocaust. After the class, I feel drained. I sit for a long time in my office trying to gather the pieces of my self together. I need to get back to work.

Friday: I stay at home and read a PhD thesis. I am the external examiner. It is about how we might better understand why ordinary people would take machetes and systematically hack their former neighbours to death. There are stories of unbelievable horror leaking out between the pages. I have to make a real effort to be detached, objective. I try to remain focused on whether the thesis meets sufficient research standards, whether it reaches the required level of scholarship. But the stories haunt my thoughts as I cycle home. I look at the spectacular scenery. It’s impossible to think about death and torture when you’re really looking at beauty. I know the stories will slink back into my mind later, when I’m lying in the dark.

Sunday: I work on a piece I’m writing about how a regular person becomes a militant, willing to kill and die for their cause. I like to work on a Sunday sometimes. It’s quiet. I find I can think a little more clearly. It’s based on real-life stories of militants, some of whom killed children, elderly people, innocent people. Many of them experienced shocking violence themselves, or their relatives, friends, colleagues did. Or they read about horrific violence in the newspaper, came to the conclusion they had to fight back. Fire with fire. Atrocity with atrocity. I’m immersed in their pain and anger; I feel it pour out of me onto the pages.

Monday: Another week starts…


Some days I feel like I’m being slowly crushed under the weight of this unholy knowledge. It constricts the breath out of me, squeezes my heart in a vice. No matter what I do, the stories creep back into the crevices of my mind, leaping out on me like a great toad, piercing my calm, snarling and snapping. I can’t stop thinking about the man who wouldn’t let go of the severed head of his three-year daughter in a filthy refugee camp in Eastern Zaire, even when he was taking a shit. Or, the two frightened young conscripts who had their throats cut after surrendering, writhing to death in a ditch while their captors laughed. Or the young girl who was gang raped and then had her face cut off by her abusers. They had to tranform her into the faceless victim to erase their crime. So many stories, peeking through the cracks of my work, whispering through the pages I read every day.

I don’t really understand how I do it, study this horror day after day, year after year. I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I honestly can’t say for sure how I maintain my sense of self in this daily sea of blood. It’s a miracle I don’t sink below the depths, that I’m not a depressive, an alcoholic, suicidal – or worse, an IR scholar, writing and speaking about human suffering like it’s a balance sheet, a simple tally of abstract values. I think it’s the love and kindness so freely given to me every day by my wife, my friends, my family, my colleagues, my students, sometimes complete strangers, which keeps me going. Those moments of warmth and fellowship, of being in the moment with others. And maybe the fishing, out in the mountains, or the music, jamming on guitar with mates.

Despite this burden, which is no burden at all compared to those who actually do suffer these horrors, I know this is the right path for me. It’s the right thing to do right now. Somebody needs to study this, to try to make sense of it so that we can perhaps begin to find ways of transforming all the hate and the unnecessary violence. I’m thankful to have such courageous fellow travellers, this cloud of peace scholars who share this painful road. My hope is that one day we will no longer be needed. Our work will be finished, over. We can all go for a drink. I can go fishing.

As I head away to another academic conference, this is the hope I need to sustain me.

I’ve been interested in the way societies remember war ever since I began to seriously study how war is socially constructed and legitimated. I have a fascination with war memorials and the kind of ‘banal militarism’ they represent and engender. I will always visit and photograph them when I get the chance. As material embodiments of narrative, identity and historical remembrance, they are endlessly fascinating to me. I believe they can tell us a great deal about how societies concieve of war, justify it, remember it.

This is why I was so interested to see the famous war memorial in the centre of Melbourne on a recent visit. When I got there, I was really surprised to note that it was called ‘The Shrine of Remembrance’, which is a The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourneclear indication of its religious significance and the role that religion plays today in the way we have come to remember war in Australia and New Zealand. After all, it could have been simply called a ‘memorial’ of remembrance which would have had no obvious religious connotations. A shrine, by contrast, is by definition a religious place, a place of worship and religious ritual and reflection. In this case, the shrine was also designed like a Greek temple on a hill overlooking the city.

The religious dimension of Melbourne’s shrine to war remembrance can also be seen in one of the prominent statues in the surrounding gardens. A very masculine-looking soldier poses in a very obviously The Christ-SoldierChrist-on-the-cross pose. It’s religious-sacrifical motif is linked to other aspects of the shrine’s structure, such as the Eternal Flame which burns beneath the World War II monument outside the shrine’s walls.

The eternal flame

Its religious characteristics can also be seen in the very heart of the shrine, where a plaque in the centre of the floor is engraved with the words, ‘Greater love hath no man’. This is part of a Inside the shrineverse in the bible which says, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). Here, sacrifice in war is being rewritten as a biblical virtue, a sacred duty to the nation. The architectural design of the shrine is such that on the 11th of November at 11 minutes past 11:00am (Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day), a beam of sunshine from a gap in roof moves over the words, illuminating the word ‘love’ at the moment of silence.

Inside the sanctuary of memory, the sacred names of the glorious dead who died for the greatest form of love are illuminated. They glow with a warm, holy light. The entire inner walls are surrounded by these holy books of names, each with an illuminating light and the flag of the nation. The sacred book of namesThe nation’s flag is ubiquitous – inside and outside the shrine. It symbolises the unbreakable bond between war, memory, and national identity, all of which has become wedded to a sense of the sacred.

But it’s not just religion that is being used to construct our memories of war in this place. Masculinity and its associated values are also a common motif in the shrine, much like they are in a great many war memorials. The masculine warriorsecond Vietnam War Memorial in Washington has four muscled and well-armed men looking over towards the more well-known wall of names, for example. In Melbourne, two highly masculine-looking soldiers are displayed back-to-back, an attitude of comradeship and brotherhood. One of them holds a gun; the other poses like Christ on the cross.

Similarly, in the crypt, two soldier-brothers keep watch back-to-back over the sacred regimental colours in a state of stately discipline. Not far from these brothers in arms, there is a wall of medals. A sign explains how medals celebrate the place of courage in military culture.

Manly brothers in arms

Importantly, this sacred shrine to religiously-sanctioned manly violence in the name of nation and brotherhood sits on a hill overlooking the central city. From its steps, you can look straight down into the heart of the central The gods look down on the citybusiness district. This is a deliberate design: not only do the gods watch over the city and all its ways, but citizens simply need to glance up to see the sacred shrine and be reminded of sacrifice, nation, and religious duty. It’s the reason why so many churches – and war memorials – are put on hills overlooking the town. Importantly, the inherent religiosity of this particular ‘shrine’ is quite apart from the religious ceremonial practices which go along with it. On ANZAC Day, for example, senior religious figures will participate in all the remembrance ceremonies; scripture verses will be read; hymns will be sung; and many prayers will be said.

Interestingly, in Australia and New Zealand, war remembrance has been constructed around the so-called ANZUS myth, where members of the ANZUS Regiment were needlessly slaughtered in their thousands at Gallipoli. This was not the worst loss of life for Australian and New Zealand troops in World War I, but it has in recent decades become the central narrative and symbol of war remembrance – and a primary narrative of national identity. Today, ANZAC ceremonies are attended by thousands of young people, and any national The Myth of ANZACpolicitian who wants to remain popular must be seen at them. At these events, and in a great many ANZAC remembrance materials and practices, such as movies, novels, statues, plaques, memorabilia, and so on, the central mythology is reiterated over and over: these brave and selfless soldiers went off to war to fight for our freedom and democracy; they sacrificed their lives for the love of nation, the love of the comrades, and as a consequence, we owe them a solemn debt of gratitude.

One of the interesting things about these ways of remembering, these kind of practices and material structures, is that they not only function to make us remember, they also make us forget. We forget the horror, the massacres, the war crimes, the injustices, the political controversies, the mistakes, the enemy soldiers and civilians. Instead, weAll wars rehabilitated remember the ‘glorious dead’ who died for our freedom. In this way, the practice of remembering past wars is empitied of politics. We forget the political controversies and instead unite to remember the heroic soldiers who died doing their duty. By this method, wars are rehabilitated from nasty, brutish, politically divisive, avoidable tragedies, to sacrificial hero narratives. This is why there is no irony or contradiction in remembering, for example, the Vietnam and Malaya campaigns in the foundational structures of the shrine of remembrance. Through sacred remembrance, all past wars can be rehabilitated into a new unbroken national narrative of duty and sacrifice.

Interestingly, despite all efforts to the contrary, the truth about war sometimes seeps out and confronts us with its uncomfortable truth. I was surprised to see that on the side of the shrine of remembrance, in massive letters, it proclaims to all that the men and women of Victoria died in the service of the empire. This February 2013 068is the truth of the matter: they fought to protect the British empire, with all its oppression of millions of people around the world, its domination of territories, its racist ideology, its greed for resources, its brutal violence. They certainly did not die for the freedom of Australian or New Zealand subjects, or for democratic government; the British empire tried its hardest to prevent the emergence of democracy for many of its territories for as long as it could.

In the crypt, there are two plaques on the walls, either side of the entrance. On the right hand side as you enter, it says that the crypt was erected to the honour and memory of Victorians who gave their lives in the The empire leaks outservice of the empire. This is another instance of the truth seeping out into places it is not welcome; these poor men and women were sacrificed, and gave their lives, in the service of imperialism. On the left hand side, another plaque has been erected, perhaps much later, I couldn’t really tell. This one re-writes the narrative of the opposite plaque, perhaps as a way of correcting Re-suturing the myththe impression any visitor might take. In this case, it is stated that this ‘holy place’ (note the religious reference once again) commemorates the ‘glorious dead’ who gave their lives that others might live in peace and freedom. In this way, the momentary tearing at the fabric of the heroic narrative is re-sutured. We can all rest easy in the knowledge that they died for freedom, not the continuation of oppressive imperial rule.

Finally, beyond the shrine and beyond the crypt, there is an educational centre and a memorial shop where you can purchase teddy bears wearing army uniforms, t-shirts and hats with the words and logo of the shrine of remembrance emblazened across their front, postcards, and a great deal of other war remembrance and ANZAC memorabilia. In the educational centre, peace makes an unexpected appearance. There are photos and stories commemorating Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr, A corner of peacethe Quakers, UN peacekeepers, and many other peace activists. In this way, the ‘glorious dead’, with their heroism, their comradeship, their holy love for their brothers, become part of a larger narrative in which the Australian soldiers are also ultimately fighting and dying for the cause of peace. They can be counted alongside Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, the Quakers and all those brave souls who struggle for a world without violence. Thus is the slaughter for empire in World War I, the horrors of Vietnam and Malaya, and all the other bloody and brutal wars of the past century rehabilitated into a sacred narrative of duty, sacrifice, nation and the struggle for peace.

What disturbed me about this particular memorial is that we all know how powerful religious ideology can be as a means of motivating people to commit or accept violence in war. Constructing a religiously-infused, ‘sacred’ kind of war remembrance and sense of national identity is a double-edged sword: while it helps a heterogenous settler society construct a sense of collective identity and binds people together in a new land, it also creates an emotionally-charged kind of national identity that can more easily be motivated into accepting the necessity of going to war against others who don’t share our identity or religion.

I was also disturbed that the central themes and narratives of the war memorial were so thoroughly de-historicised and de-politicised; the shrine (and the ceremony that typically accompanies it) contains no information about what really happened in those conflicts. As a consequence, by remembering we forget the horrors of war, the mistakes and miscalculations of politicians, the greed and hubris, the oppression, the unnecessary violence, the dead civilians. By not remembering the terrible things about any of the wars, it makes it so much easier for politicians to convince us to participate in the next one. They can remain safe in the knowledge that even if it turns out to be a complete and utter disaster, one day the names of the glorious dead will be inscribed into the sacred books and remembered with dignity and honour. One day soon, I expect, the soldiers who died in Iraq will have their names inscribed in the book and the words ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ will have its place on the wall of the shrine next to listing of ‘Vietnam’, ‘Malaya’, and all the other glorious campaigns. We will have then forgotten that Iraq was a disasterous, divisive war for which no politician was ever held accountable – like pretty much all the wars that came before.

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“Hi, my name is Richard and I’m a pacifist. Hi, Richard! I’ve been off violence for eleven months and twenty days…”



It can be quite hard to admit that you’re a pacifist these days. Say the words out loud in polite company and you’re likely to be ridiculed or made to feel naïve and weak. At the very least, you’ll face a barrage of strident questions about Hitler, Rwanda, genocide, people coming into your house to murder your wife, and UN peacekeeping. It has taken me until quite recently to come out as a fully-fledged, paid-up pacifist. For several years, when I was an International Relations scholar, I kept quiet about my growing pacifist tendencies, only voicing doubts about the utility and morality of organized violence in the gentlest terms possible, and only on those rare occasions when I perceived a low risk of derision. In the silence of my office, I would think through all the intellectual and ethical arguments I wanted to make against militarism, war and violence, but then push them deep under the surface of my mind when I walked into a lecture or seminar. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I wanted to be taken seriously by my students and my peers, which meant never openly challenging what is now the most widely accepted commonsense about war.

I am a pacifist today in part because I’m a scholar. I have considered the arguments and evidence in support of militarism, just war, national defence and humanitarian intervention and found them wanting. Upon sustained analysis, it seems to me that all of the well-known arguments for organized violence soon crumble into dust. At the same time, the arguments and evidence in support of pacifism, nonviolence, and civilian defence seem to me to be both convincing and ethically consistent. On balance, therefore, I am convinced that pacifism is intellectually and ethically superior to militarism; at the very least, it is as defensible as the pro-violence viewpoint and thus ought to be the default attitude for clear-thinking, ethical people.

However, the most important reason I am a pacifist is because I am a human and I have come to understand at the deepest level that war and violence is fundamentally anti-human. I came to this understanding in many ways through a series of deeply affecting personal experiences when I was a young lad growing up in Africa – a series of encounters which lead to moments of profound emotional insight and moral recognition about the nature of war.



When I was twelve years old I had a slight, some might say fairly trifling, brush with the Zimbabwean war of independence. What I mean is, compared to most people who have experienced war directly my story would not even merit a passing mention. To me, however, the memory of this brief encounter with political violence continues to evoke a deep feeling of anxiety; I can still feel the same terror I felt all those years ago by the side of that dusty road in Africa.

It was 1979 and we lived in Zambia’s Southern Province, a few miles from the border with Rhodesia where a vicious war for independence had been under way for some years. Zambia officially supported the freedom fighters against the racist Smith regime, which meant that Rhodesian military forces would regularly conduct raids into Zambia, including an audacious assassination attempt on Joshua Nkomo, a prominent Zimbabwean rebel leader living in Lusaka. I can remember that a few days after the raid, my friends and I cycled across town to Nkomo’s house and collected spent bullet shells. The Rhodesian Air Force would also bomb guerilla training camps; some days, we’d hear the jets screaming overhead and the teachers would make us get under the desks. At first, it all seemed quite exciting to a young boy immersed in The Adventures of Tintin and The Great Escape. Later, of course, when friends of mine were injured by a land mine, and after I came face-to-face with the threat of being shot, it seemed a lot less like an adventure.

As a consequence of the Rhodesian raids, the Zambian army deployed and set up military check points on roads leading to the capital, Lusaka. The situation grew increasingly tense: the Zambian troops felt helpless in the face of constant Rhodesian attacks, and viewed Europeans living in Zambia with great suspicion. They believed that Europeans held secret sympathies for the white regime in Rhodesia, and might even be spying for them. Getting through the military checkpoints became a fraught and terrifying experience, especially at night when young conscript soldiers were prone to drunkenness, boredom and aggression. Rumours spread that people who could not produce their national identity cards would sometimes be taken into the bushes by the side of the road and summarily shot. I was particularly frightened because I was tall for my age, and the roadblock soldiers were perennially reluctant to believe that I was not sixteen, the age at which everyone was obliged to get a national identity card. They insisted that I should have an identity card and often became belligerent and threatening when I insisted that I was too young to have one.

One evening, my father and I were on a bus home when we stopped at one of the checkpoints. A blank-eyed soldier walked down the aisle, the barrel of his machine gun pushing into the faces of the passengers, demanding to inspect everyone’s ID. When I could not produce my identity card, he ordered me off the bus. My father pleaded with him that I was too young, but he ignored him like he didn’t even exist. He pulled me down the aisle, off the bus and onto the side of the road. He slapped the bus and told the bus driver to drive on. My father followed, pleading to let us back on the bus. It was to no avail; the soldier started marching me towards the nearby bushes. I genuinely thought I was about to be shot, like the others everyone had heard about. In that moment, the whole world disintegrated until all I knew was the most profound ontological terror. My body was stiff with fear, my breathing shallow. By the side of that dusty road, in the midst of a state of war, there was suddenly no law, no justice, no reason or dialogue, no mercy; only indifference and the threat of deadly violence.

This tiny little brush with war, a brush without even a single shot fired (I may not even have been in any real danger, it’s hard to know, and I had friends who had much more traumatic experiences than this), nevertheless revealed to me the way in which war strips away all assurance, destroys all rules; the way in which it reduces people to nothing more than bodies in fear, receptacles of terror. War, in other words, is the opposite of law, the opposite of moral and ethical certainty; it is the negation of the rules that make social life livable or even possible. War strips away all those inhibitions and structures which would make it impossible for a defenseless child to be shot at a road block by an angry soldier. War is the deliberate construction of an anti-society.

As it transpired, in fact, an officer appeared from somewhere and following a discussion with the young soldier in a language I did not understand, my father and I were allowed back onto the bus, which, against orders, had mercifully waited for us. I collapsed in relief into my seat, although it was a temporary respite because there several more roadblocks to negotiate before we reached home. I do not know what was said by the officer or why, but it seemed I had garnered a reprieve from whatever fate awaited me in the bushes. Although I escaped physically unharmed, I felt I knew what can happen in war.



Not many years later, John (not his real name), a graduate of the international school I attended, returned to Lusaka from service in the South African Defence Forces. He was treated like a returning hero at the school, feted by the great and the good; everyone wanted to be his friend. One day, while I was waiting to be picked up, John and I talked about his experiences since leaving school. We were the last people on the grounds; I remember how quiet it was, the wind whistling along the empty corridors. I was surprised when he started to speak very frankly, holding nothing back. It was as if he needed to unburden himself, although I couldn’t fathom why he chose me, a boy several years his junior, to tell his story to.

He began by explaining that he had wanted to join the South African army straight out of school because he really wanted to experience the adventure of war. He knew there was a war in South Africa, and he so much wanted to be a part of it. A few weeks after his basic training, he found himself deep in the Angolan bush, on guard duty. Two rebels, with explosives on their backs, ran out of the scrub towards the encampment. He shouted at them to stop but they kept coming. He opened fire and killed them both, saving the lives of many of his comrades. Within a few hours, despite the accolades of his superiors and fellow soldiers for his heroism, he felt physically sick and was confined to sick bay. For two weeks, he lay shivering in his cot, ill and unable to function. After he recovered, he marked his time and resigned from the army as soon as his contract allowed it. The adventure was well and truly over.

John cried as he told me his story. I was shocked to see a strong, strapping man like that cry in front of a junior like me. He seemed utterly broken, undone by his experiences. I will never forget seeing him trying bravely to smile through his tears as I walked away towards the car that had come to collect me. I never saw him again after that day, and I don’t know what became of him. Did he later commit suicide, as so many other former vets have done? Or did he find a way of dealing with his pain and go on to lead a normal life? I only know that in that moment I realised that war injures and disfigures everyone and everything it touches: the soldier pulling the trigger and the rebel who takes the bullet into their body; the living and the dead. The fact is that no words or legitimate justification can heal the wound of knowing or thinking you have taken the life of another human being, even when they are an enemy soldier trying to kill you. War, in other words, is the ultimate destroyer of souls, the ruin of human minds.



It was a hot day in 1983, the kind of day when sweat dries quickly and leaves a white salty crust on your face. Your cheeks ache from squinting against the relentless sun. I was trudging down the road on the dusty outskirts of one of the nondescript little towns that dot the South African high veld thinking about an ice-cold glass of water and where the best place might be to hitch a lift to Pretoria. Ahead of me, two young men came into view. They had blond buzz-cuts, jungle fatigues and sun-darkened faces and forearms. They were smoking, joking around, holding out their thumbs to occasional passing cars. I nodded as I walked up. They nodded back, momentarily subdued but not unfriendly. I stopped and put down my backpack with a groan of relief. In Africa, you never walk past a fellow traveler on a lonely road without taking the time to rest awhile and converse.

It turned out they were conscripts on leave from deployment somewhere in Angola. In South Africa’s desperation to hold back the spread of national liberation engulfing Southern Africa (Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe had all recently thrown off colonialism; the tide of liberation from white rule sweeping the region seemed to be inexorable), every young man had to spend two years in the military, often fighting with South Africa’s UNITA allies in Angola or searching for ANC infiltrators along thousands of miles of open border with Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. These guys were hitch-hiking home to Bloemfontein to spend a week with families, girlfriends, their community; and they were very glad of it, if their nervous, relieved joking about was anything to go by.

We all managed to catch a lift together and spent the next few hours talking. They spoke in heavily Boer-accented English which I frequently struggled to decipher. Most of all, I remember feeling sorry for them. They weren’t much older than me, and they were soldiers who’d been fighting in a brutal, vicious bush war. I could not imagine the terrors and hardships they must have endured, where snakes, scorpions, wild animals, and a thousand different diseases and infections were the very least of their worries. They seemed somewhat fragile, tightly held together.

Flash forward a few years, and I was talking to a young South African diplomat at an African studies conference in Melbourne, one of the few white South Africans in the newly liberated nation’s Foreign Service. As a young man he had fled to London to avoid going to prison for refusing to fight on behalf of the racist government. It was widely known that those who refused to do military service would be sentenced to harsh prison sentences where they would suffer serious physical and sexual abuse. It was apartheid society’s way of discouraging draft avoidance and war opposition, punishing disloyalty to the volk. Instead, he fought hard against the apartheid system with his fellow exiles in London, only returning when the ANC won the first free elections.

Over a beer at the end of a long day of conference panels, he told me about South Africa’s wars in Angola and other places, and about some of the men who fought them – men he personally knew. The conscripts were usually given a few weeks of basic training and then, if they were particularly unlucky, they were shipped to the Angolan bush to fight the Cuban-backed MPLA forces. He explained that one of his friends had done the six week course, been driven across Namibia to somewhere in Angola, and two days later, as the golden African sun sank into the horizon, his friend had joined in a football game his fellow soldiers were playing where the ‘ball’ they were kicking around was the head of an enemy soldier.

As I listened to stories like this (and others besides, such as how captured ANC infiltrators would sometimes be tied to the front of a jeep and then driven through a forest of African thorn bushes until they were nothing more than tattered shreds of flesh hanging off of shiny white bone), I wondered if those two young men I had met on that hot day in 1983 had witnessed or even committed similar acts, and what effect it had had on them. What were they doing now? What did they think about when they looked into the darkness at night, when they crept back down the road of memory? Did they imagine a scene of boys joyfully playing football in the setting African sun – not recoiling with horror, not tearing off their uniforms and running screaming towards home – but shouting and laughing with youthful enthusiasm: ‘Pass it here! Pass it here!’



These stories – these encounters in which I experienced a moral recognition – are not unusual in the long annuls of war. In fact, they are barely even noteworthy compared to what so many others have suffered. Since those days, I have heard far worse – utterly unspeakable, in fact – stories of the brutality and sheer depravity of war. I have learned that there is no bottom to the moral abyss humans can sink in situations of war, and that war disfigures all of its subjects. Collectively, all of this – my personal experiences, my study, the stories I have heard – convinces me that pacifism is the last remaining ethical position for a person of principle to take. War cannot be defended for the good it allegedly does; neither can it be redeemed or tamed. It is purely destructive of humanity. Clearly, any system which can transform boys into monsters, causing them to hack off the head of a fellow human being and kick it around in a sick parody of a football game, is inherently anti-human. This means that war in any form should never be tolerated; and neutrality is not an option, as it functions as a form of consent. Instead, war must be condemned, opposed, resisted, and deconstructed from our common life, lest we suffer its cruelty and injury evermore. This is the only moral course of action left. Perhaps most importantly, there exist numerous viable and ethical nonviolent alternatives to war. This is why I am a pacifist.


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