‘Total war.’ Even today it has an ominous ring. The phrase was coined by the German General Erich Ludendorff to describe what happened in the First World War on all sides. Victor of the Battle of Liège and of the Battle of Tannenberg, he was for last two years effective leader of the German war effort along with von Hinderburg. Der totale Krieg meant all that mattered was winning: the traditional laws of war and other civilities might be abandoned on all sides, military and civil conscription imposed, civil liberties suspended, and distinctions between combatants and non-combatants diminished. Population centres would be sieged and commercial shipping raided. Pretty well any weapon might be used. All one’s own civilians and civilian resources could be co-opted; and almost any target on the other side regarded as fair game.
Horrible as we know that war became, in 1914, when war was announced, there was cheering in the streets of London and people were convinced it would be over in a few months; few imagined that war would become so total that under the Defence of the Realm Act it would soon be illegal in Britain to loiter under railway bridges, speak a foreign language on the phone, or whistle for a taxi after 10pm. In Australia, too, young men joined up with great enthusiasm for the war that made the ANZACs, little understanding how merciless would be the trench warfare, the mustard gas and the rest; meanwhile under the War Precautions Act of the young Commonwealth, people were interned without trial, incomes taxed for the first time by the federal government, and produce compulsorily acquired and rationed. A century ago ‘total war’ was a relatively new and frightening concept. But ‘the Great War’ that made the ANZACs would change for ever what war means to us.
In our reading from the Book of Wisdom tonight we heard that “The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God; their passing seemed like punishment, disaster, annihilation; but they are at peace, in glory, immortal.” (Wis 3:1-3) With readings such as these, other high sounding speeches and grand monuments, we try to persuade ourselves each war we’ve fought was worth it, each death a sacrifice given in a noble cause. There is some consolation there for relatives, and pride for citizens, and justification for rulers. But how real is it all? Were the young Australians who died at Gallipoli or in countless campaigns before or since really more virtuous than others? Were they really more courageous than the veterans who returned to march each year in their memory? More noble than the parents, wives, or children they left behind? More righteous than those who died on the other side of the trenches? More gallant than those of us who, by God’s mercy, have been spared warfare?
Those of us lucky enough never to fight for God and Empire, never to lose a relative for Queen and country, never even to suffer the effects of war on liberties and economies at home, are tempted in many directions: to romanticise war and exaggerate courage; to ignore war as something distant and alien; or to wag fingers at generals and soldiers as naive or worse. The war that made the ANZACs is now commonly seen as a total war fought without reason or moderation; a terrible combat directed by warlords who from a safe distance sent millions to their deaths and destroyed the social fabric upon which their own world depended; a conflict in which the war poet Robert Graves said all the ‘Big Words’ like honour, loyalty, peace, faith and love came to naught. And certainly as we track the poets or the letters home we note how ‘the initial patriotic fervour … (collapsed) into cynicism and anger’.
So, are all the words empty, the marches and last posts, and the rest? No: there is something about heroism under fire that rightly inspires our admiration, if also our fear; there is something genuinely awesome captured in words of Scripture or poetry, in cenotaphs and national memorial days. We grieve for those lost and those who miss them, and for those injured physically or mentally or otherwise haunted by war. Yet their courage under fire properly stimulates our pride also, and gratitude, as do patriotism, mateship, the very innocence of the young soldiers: “Naught broken save this body, lost but breath”, wrote Rupert Brooke, “Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there.” The ‘big words’ for which they fought, like honour and loyalty, faith, love and peace, were not empty words: they were words exemplified by them in their acts of honour amidst hellfire, in their loyalty to comrades, their faith in homeland and their dreams of peace. If we recoil from the thought of total war, we also rightly rebel against the view that all wars are equal or all kinds of warfare, that there can be no justification, no honour, no surviving goodness.
Like the deaths of the martyrs, the deaths of soldiers that count for virtue are deaths in terrible circumstances for a good cause. Yet no-one dies for God or country unless he has to some extent lived for them: how we live now prepares us for our deaths; we practise our dying in our living. Courage, innocence, fidelity, mateship: these do not appear out of the blue on the deathbed or battlefield, though sometimes we may demonstrate qualities we never guessed were in us. But in us they were, for the souls of the virtuous are souls practised in virtue, drilled as it were, like soldiers; perhaps not always paraded, though those closest to us may see them; but sometimes on show, at least when challenged by enemies or difficulties of one kind or another.
As we gather each year to commemorate that first ANZAC Day in 1915 and all it has come to mean for our nation; as we pray for eternal life for those who have died in service of this country and in the hope of a better future; as we intercede, likewise, for the injured and the grieving and those presently in harm’s way; so also we pray never to be tested as they were tested and never to romanticise what tested them. We pray that if and when the hour comes that ‘our soul is troubled’ (Jn 12:27), as theirs was, that we shall prove worthy of them and of the country for which they fought. When our time comes, may we be glorified as Christ was, and as were all His own: not by worldly triumphs but by that victory which is holding fast to what is true and good and beautiful, standing by your mates, your family, your country and your character.
This is the edited text of the homily of Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the ANZAC Day Vigil Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, on 24 April 2017.