The United Nations’ Disarmament Week runs from 24 to 30 October
When he was five years old, St Aloysius’ father gave him a suit of armour, presumably complete with a little sword. At the time that was par for the course. Noble families had to be ready to fight in the incessant wars and alliances on which their possessions and lives rested. St Aloysius was the eldest son and so was being prepared for his later responsibilities to make alliances and fight battles in order to secure safety. Much to his father’s anger, Aloysius had little taste for war and resigned his claim to succession in favour of his younger brother.
This story reveals how great a challenge World Disarmament Week faces in persuading leaders or their people to disarm. War and the fear of war are in our culture. Many boys still play with toy fighter planes, tanks, artillery, rifles and pistols. The media are filled with stories of war and of the making of new enemies. Fear of war is easily stirred, and vast expense on military items usually wins the support of all parties and of voters.
The culture of disarmament must begin in the human heart and particularly in the change in the qualities that our world values in human beings. Little Aloysius’ armour was designed for war and conquest. In our culture, these war-like qualities are often identified with being male, at a heavy cost. The Men’s Program at Jesuit Social Services works to encourage a masculinity characterised by respect and responsibility. These are the human qualities that make disarmament possible.
World Disarmament Week reminds us of the cost and the danger of trying to secure peace by increasingly destructive and costly weapons. When we look at the main military adventures in which Australia has been engaged as an ally of the United States in the last 60 years – in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – the cost has been enormous. Billions of dollars spent on weapons and on other support for our soldiers, the deaths and mental illness of soldiers, the enormous numbers of civilians dead, wounded and uprooted from the nations where we fought, the long-term degradation of land, and the promises to bring peace and freedom to invaded nations not kept. As soon as one war in the name of freedom ends another enemy is found.
These are the direct costs of modern war and weaponry. The indirect costs, however, are equally great, particularly in the loss of possibilities of making a more free and decent world. Giving priority to preparation for war entails massive expenditure of armies and weapons. It creates an industry that employs many people at home and exports superseded and surplus weapons to other nations. These inevitably fall into the hands of armed groups and fuel lethal violence against civilians. Often, the same weapons used by government and rebel forces originate in the same wealthy nation.
Although the export of weapons breeds violence and misery, the arms trade is so important to the economies and politics of wealthy nations that to criticise it is seen as unpatriotic. It is highly profitable. But in important ways it impoverishes nations. Huge military budgets coexist with great inequality, poor health systems, high unemployment, inadequate expenditure on education and lack of attention to the reality and threat of global warming.
The costs continually rise. The movement towards nuclear disarmament has stalled at a time when there are enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over. We live in a world in which a single weapon can destroy a large city and its civilian population and make it uninhabitable. It is a world in which the division of the world into armed blocs, each of which strives for military superiority, is vulnerable to destruction by the whim of a psychopathic leader or to technological and human mistakes of communication.
Pope Francis speaks constantly of the curse of the arms industry and of the need for disarmament. He is often dismissed as unrealistic and naïve. But the confidence that all will be all well if we continue to act as we do now seems at least just as naïve.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.