ANZAC Day and the Language of Redemptive Sacrifice

In this post, my second concerning ANZAC Day, I want to focus on—and challenge—the way in which the language of redemptive sacrifice has been applied to those who die in battle.

An interesting phenomenon seems to have crept into many churches whereby the language of Jesus’ death on the cross is commonly (mis)applied to the death of soldiers in the ANZAC tradition. You may have seen some of the pictures that float around social media at these times with a picture of a (possibly silhouetted) soldier, perhaps a flag, and a cross, with a bible quote attached to bring the message home. Usually, this bible quote is taken from the gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 13:

Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Now, on the surface of things, this seems like a perfectly reasonable connection to make. The rhetoric of war has convinced us that the death of our soldiers is for our benefit, our ‘life’, and therefore their sacrifice (‘their life for ours’) must have been worthwhile. Indeed it’s taken to be redemptive: they bought our freedom with their lives. It’s only a small jump, then, to the sorts of words we find written about Jesus.

The problem is, however, that the work (and sacrifice) of soldiers in war and the work (and sacrifice) of Jesus on the cross are antithetical to one another.

I think there are basically two main reasons for this.

1) Firstly, the work of soldiers (acting at the behest of nations) in war pits ‘us’ against ‘them’, while the work of Jesus tears down the ‘dividing walls of hostility’ that have plagued humanity.

There is simply no escaping the fact that war rises out of nationalism and imperialism, and can only function in a situation where division is not only accepted, but enforced. Whoever ‘we’ are fighting against becomes the symbol for evil in the world, and it is only through the complete domination (or annihilation) of ‘them’ that peace can be achieved. The caricatures of ‘the enemy’ may not be so blatant these days as they were in WWI or WWII, however the underlying framework is exactly the same. ‘We’ are not ‘them’, and what’s required is that the threat that ‘they’ represent be ‘neutralised’ (to use a chilling euphemism so often used in war).

But the work of Jesus goes to the heart of tearing down these very divisions. So much of Jesus’ ministry was about drawing in those who had been excluded. The nationalistic ‘identity markers’ that separated those who were included and those who were excluded were discarded and, quite shockingly, the command was to show love to one’s ‘enemy’. The Apostle Paul understood this clearly, and that’s why he spent so much time in his letters showing how the formerly warring parties (‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’) were now joined together in one new family. Is this not a profound undermining of the very foundation on which war is built?

2) Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the actions of soldiers in war perpetuates violence and conflict, while the actions of Jesus in his life, ministry, and death on the cross shows up violence and domination for what it truly is and illustrates an alternate way of understanding (true) victory.

We have been fed the lie that peace can only be achieved through war (or the threat of war). Again, there is a Latin phrase that captures the idea well: Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”). The idea, of course, is that there will be no inclination to enter into conflict if there is a party so powerful that battle with them could only bring certain disaster. Now, obviously, ‘we’ don’t want such unbridled power to fall into the ‘wrong’ hands, but ‘we’ are the good guys (right?) and therefore it only makes sense for us to be the ones wielding such might(!).

But this does not bring peace. It brings either reluctant capitulation, or active resistance (which therefore necessitates brutal demonstrations of power in order to restore equilibrium). But this is not peace; it is the tactic of bullies. It is a corrupt form of reasoning that invites further corruption, and it has always been the same.

Furthermore, it doesn’t actually work. The ancient Romans used the tactic to great effect, but the Pax Romana (the ‘Peace of Rome’) was in fact a sham. It was ‘peace’ at the end of a sword. Admittedly, it often brought capitulation, for a time, but it wasn’t lasting. Even in the face of such great power it was not enough to subdue all opposition. The Jews in the first century, as just one example, engaged the Romans in all out war—even in the face of overwhelming odds (and eventual catastrophic consequences). The same happens today. In what we might call the Pax Americana, we have a situation where the incredible might of the U.S. (symbolised horrifically, yet perfectly, in the bombings of Japan in WWII) becomes the de facto ‘sheriff’ in world affairs, but it is not peace. And it will not last. Furthermore, even in the face of such a dominant force, there are some who will still not capitulate. Despite significant, brutal shows of force, there are many who actively oppose even the great might of the U.S.

And the reason is quite simple: military might rests on the threat of death, and those who have no fear of death are not intimidated by it. This was the case for militant Jews rising up against the Romans in the first century, and it is the case for militant Muslims rising up against the U.S. in our own time.

The problem, of course, with these responses, is that they nevertheless perpetuate the cycle of violence. Death begets death, and on and on it goes. But this is where the work of Jesus makes most sense, and where it brings the whole edifice of war crashing to the ground. Through the resurrection, Jesus has gained victory over death—not through opposing war and violence on their own terms, but by undermining their very basis. Jesus didn’t respond to the challenge of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem or the power of the Romans by embracing war (and perpetuating the cycle of violence), but rather he highlighted the shallowness of such bullying tactics and robbed them of their power. In his life, ministry, death and resurrection, Jesus has completely destroyed the very foundation on which war stands.

It is for these reasons, therefore, that I feel the need to call this ‘heresy’ out for what it is. It is imperial ideology masquerading as Christian theology (in the name of ‘respect’), and it’s incredibly dangerous. The actions of soldiers in war and the actions of Jesus on the cross are not the same thing. In fact, they are in direct opposition to one another.

Now, I have no doubt that some will take what I’m saying here as being disrespectful to the memory of our fallen soldiers. To that, I would simply ask if it is not disrespectful to the memory of Jesus of Nazareth to turn his legacy precisely on its head?! Even a cursory glance at the gospels gives one the impression that the ‘Kingdom of God’ operates in exactly the opposite way to the great empires of human history.

The great ‘victory’ of God in Jesus was not in crushing ‘the enemy’ through might and domination; it was in the scandal of love—a love for the whole of humanity so passionate that Jesus laid down his life without the counter-attack (which perpetuates the hostility) in order to overcome hostility at its very core, bringing the possibility of (true) peace to formerly warring parties.

So many of us Australians have relatives who fought, and died, in wars throughout our nation’s short history. I do not mean to be disrespectful to them, or to you who are reading this.

But I can’t stand by and watch this co-opting of the language of redemptive sacrifice being (wrongfully) applied to those who died in war any longer.

The scandal here is not that I’m saying these things. The real scandal is that we’ve allowed history to be rewritten in order to justify war. We’ve allowed the tragic deaths of so many in generations gone by to be used in cynical support of the war machine. We’ve allowed death to be called life.

Soldiers dying in war is not redemptive; it’s a shocking waste of life. The ‘fruit’ of it all is death, not life. It bequeaths only brokenness, division, hate, and hostility.

There is, however, another way.

To confuse the two simply robs the beauty of this alternative of its power, and the cycle of violence continues. It makes sense, then, that this is exactly what is now happening.

Anzac Day and ‘The Old Lie’

I have, for a while now, been contemplating the possibility of writing a few posts about war and, in particular, the way in which we Australians approach our military history.

ANZAC Day, and all that goes along with it, has become (for all intents and purposes) like something of a ‘State Religion’ for Australia. There is the tradition, the ceremony, the sacred space, and the requisite mythology that must accompany such things.

As such, I am acutely aware that whatever I say on this topic, unless it simply affirms the status quo, will no doubt upset some people. To express a point of view that does not conform to the official script has the potential to be viewed as disrespectful at best, sacrilegious at worst. This is why I have chosen to wait until after ANZAC Day this year to write. In the midst of the extraordinary emotion of it all, I see little possibility of reasonable discussion and debate. My hope is that now, after the intensity of the day itself has passed, we are in a better position for such discussion. I guess we will soon see.

In this post, then, I want to discuss what I see as one of the core untruths of the whole ANZAC tradition. Quite simply, I want to challenge the idea that the tragic death of so many young men (and women) has any meaning at all.

Please let me explain.

For many, the idea of fighting—and dying—for one’s nation is a good and noble thing. From at least the time of the Roman poet Horace onwards (and no doubt before), it has been expressed quite clearly that such a notion is to be admired. As Horace expressed it: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country!”).

It is my firm belief, however, that such deaths as we commemorate on ANZAC Day were both unnecessary and obscene. Young lives wasted in the service of reckless fools who treated them with scornful contempt as expendable pawns is not ‘sweet’ or ‘right’ or ‘noble’. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions!

Such patriotic, nationalistic propaganda is to be challenged and opposed, not applauded.

Of course, there will be those who will suggest, in light of what I have just said, that I am being disrespectful to the memory of those who fought and died—that I am an ungrateful wretch who does not appreciate the ‘freedoms’ for which our brave servicemen-and-women fought and died.

To those people, I would simply say four things:

  1. I have no doubt that many of our servicemen-and-women—at least before they experienced the horrors of it all—absolutely believed that what they were doing was the right thing to do. Many went out of a sense of duty and a belief in the nobility of it all. This does not, however, make it so. It is more a testament to the power of patriotic rhetoric, and the effectiveness of official propaganda machines. The numerous testimonies from many who fought, however, show that such propaganda was often shown up quickly for what it truly was when the horrific reality of war was made known. Such testimonies speak of the futility of it all, and sometimes detail the sense of betrayal felt when such realities were made known.
  2. I am also convinced that there were many acts of tremendous courage and bravery in the midst of battle. Again, however, this does not make it ‘right’. Human beings are amazing creatures, and are capable of truly incredible things under certain circumstances. That soldiers would perform acts of exceptional bravery in the midst of raging battle comes as no surprise. That they were put into such situations is cause for regret.
  3. I passionately believe in caring for returned soldiers who have been scarred physically and emotionally by their experiences. I am not one of those people who would spit on or despise returned servicemen-and-women. I believe it is our responsibility as a nation to properly care for those who have fought ‘on our behalf’, even if I don’t endorse (or even passionately oppose) the fighting itself. Multitudes of returned soldiers experience significant physical and psychological wounds that require long-term/permanent care. The reality of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is alarming, and we need to do so much more in regards to the wellbeing of those who are experiencing such things.
  4. There is very little or no case at all for suggesting that any of the wars that Australians have fought in have secured our ‘freedoms’. Nearly every one of them have had nothing at all to do with Australia itself. WWII might be argued as a possible exception here, but it can only be argued as such if we were to believe that our ‘enemies’ in that war popped up out of nowhere. War does not begin in a vacuum. There is always a context, and the years (or even decades) before war officially breaks out are extremely important to keep in mind. Once war begins, it is easy to argue that we are simply ‘responding’, but it is rarely, if ever, truly the case.

But there is a more subtle untruth that creeps in too.

Many people I speak to, who do see through the patriotic nonsense of dying for one’s country as ‘sweet’ or ‘right’, nevertheless still fall for the lie that I call the ‘myth of retrospective meaning’.

This argument acknowledges the bogus nature of what Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’, but nevertheless falls victim to the belief that, even if we accept the futility of the fighting itself, and even if we call out the incompetence and wilful neglect (and perhaps outright evil) of the leaders who sent so many to fight and to die, we can still invest their deaths with meaning if only we live our lives in such a way that their ‘sacrifice’ wasn’t wasted.

This is a popular, and powerful, lie.

There is nothing that we as a nation, or I (or you) personally, can do to make such deaths ‘worthwhile’. Trying to retrospectively invest the meaningless with meaning is as futile a pursuit as the wars themselves.

As far as I can see, this is just another (perhaps more subtle) attempt to keep the myth of noble war alive. The problem is, it’s just not true.

What’s worse, it seems to lead only to the justification of sending yet more into ongoing battles. Nothing changes. No lessons are learnt. More lives are needlessly lost.

I have thus come to the conclusion that such an argument is nothing more than an insidious attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance that inevitably arises when we seek to confront the Old Lie in the context of the State Religion of ANZAC tradition.

The truth, to my mind, is that the only thing we can do to truly honour the memory of those who fought and died is to embrace the horror of war in all its terrifying reality and let it break our hearts to the point that we can no longer tolerate the sending of soldiers to fight and die in meaningless battles ‘in our name’.

We must acknowledge the utter meaninglessness of it all so that, once our collective conscience is pricked by the magnitude of such wasted life and potential, we might collectively agree: “never again”.

Though the facade of untruth is certainly more comfortable, I believe such reflection is necessary.

Lest we forget.


Dulce Et Decorum Est
(by Wilfred Owen, 1917)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.