By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ
Disarmament Week, observed each year from 24-30 October, rarely provokes deep conversations. It is seen as an ideal that is unrealisable in the real world. This year it is likely to be summarily dismissed as swimming against a riptide. Arms manufacturers cannot keep up with the demand to sustain the war in Ukraine, to support other military operations and to serve a host of geopolitical ends.
In a time of financial stringency, Australia has committed itself to enormous expense to acquire nuclear submarines. Wars themselves are becoming more lethal, with the development and deployment of drones and other smart weapons. In this climate it appears to be commonsense to compete with other nations in seeking access to more destructive weapons with which to defend yourself. If you are strong enough, you will deter other people from attacking you.
There are two weaknesses in this brand of commonsense. The first is that when nations stockpile weapons powerful and numerous enough to destroy human life in the world many times over, the destructive power of the weapons becomes taken for granted. People cease to be shocked by it. As a result, the risk of a paranoid or reckless leader using them without regard to the consequences grows higher rather than diminishing. In such an event it is also more likely that other nations will respond by using their own weapons.
The second weakness in the argument is that it ignores the lost opportunities involved in amassing powerful and costly weapons. The money spent on weapons could have been allocated to public transport, hospitals, schools, care for the ageing, more generous benefits and social housing, for example. Instead, the profits from arms sales, often magnified by lax oversight from Government Defence Departments, go to large corporations and contribute to inequality. This in turn further impedes the ability and willingness of governments to fund just social programs. In nations which allow and encourage large firms that make weapons, their very production becomes a significant part of the economy. Disarmament is then seen as a threat to employment.
The dangers of a world in which peace depends on nations matching one another in the destructive power of their weapons are evident in the current international conflicts. In Ukraine, Russia possesses nuclear weapons and strategists talk openly about how Ukraine’s allies should respond if they are used. North Korea also possesses nuclear weapons and leans on their possession for their own security. The rivalry between China and the United States, both nuclear powers, too, risks descending into open conflict in which Australia could be involved. It is understandable that many nations have expanded their arms budgets.
The irrationality of an arms race based on a balance of terror and the terrible suffering caused by modern wars has led Pope Francis, like his predecessors, to condemn the arms trade and the reliance by governments on weapons of mass destruction. He also points out the connection between personal conversion and international disarmament. If nations stockpile weapons out of fear, so are our personal relationships often marked by fear, defensiveness and retaliation. Non-violence must take root in our most intimate relationships.
The recent focus in Australia on the effects of domestic violence also bears on our attitudes to disarmament. Attention has rightly turned to the sufferings of victims, overwhelmingly women, perpetrators predominantly being men with a brittle understanding of their masculinity as toughness and control and with little tolerance of frustration. Reliance on violence both in intimate and international relationships is destructive. In both fields we need to find a better way.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ was recently made a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association.
Feature photo by David McMahon.