A culture of disarmament begins with ourselves and with how the world values people.
When he was five years old, the father of St. Aloysius Gonzaga gave him armor, presumably complete with a small sword. That was taken for granted back then. Noble families had to be ready to fight in the perpetual wars and alliances on which their possessions and lives were based. St. Aloysius was the eldest son and was thus prepared for his later duties of forging alliances and fighting battles to ensure security. To the annoyance of his father, Aloysius had little desire for war and renounced his succession in favor of his younger brother.
This story shows how big a challenge is World Disarmament Week Faces to get leaders or their people to disarm. [Disarmament Week starts on 24 October, the anniversary of the founding of the UN.] War and fear of war are in our culture. Children are still playing with toy warplanes, tanks, artillery, rifles and pistols. The media is filled with stories of wars and making new enemies. Fear of war is easily fueled, and huge expenditures on military equipment usually win the support of all parties and voters.
The culture of disarmament must begin in the heart of man and especially in changing the qualities that our world values in man. Little Aloysius’s armor was designed for war and conquest. In our culture, these bellicose qualities are often equated with a high price. Programs like the men’s program of the Jesuit Social Service promote a masculinity characterized by respect and responsibility. These are the human qualities that make disarmament possible.
A week devoted to global disarmament reminds us of the cost and danger of securing peace through increasingly destructive and costly weapons. If we look at the major military adventures Australia has participated in as an ally of the United States over the past 60 years – Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – the cost has been enormous. Billions of dollars spent on weapons and other assistance to our soldiers, the deaths and mental illnesses of soldiers, the enormous numbers of civilians killed, wounded and uprooted from the nations we fought in long-term land degradation and the promises to bring peace and freedom to invaded nations that are not being kept. As soon as a war in the name of freedom ends, another enemy will be found.
This is the direct cost of modern war and modern weapons. However, the indirect costs are just as high, especially due to the loss of opportunities to create a freer and more humane world. Giving priority to war preparation involves massive spending on armies and weapons. It creates an industry that employs and replaces many people domestically and exports surplus arms to other nations. These inevitably fall into the hands of armed groups and stir up deadly violence against civilians. Often times, the same weapons used by government forces and rebels come from the same wealthy nation.
Although arms exports create violence and misery, the arms trade is so important to the economies and politics of wealthy nations that it is considered unpatriotic to criticize it. It’s highly profitable. But importantly, it impoverishes nations. Huge military budgets coexist with great inequality, poor health systems, high unemployment, inadequate spending on education, and a lack of awareness of the reality and threat of global warming.
The costs are increasing continuously. 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 where a single weapon can destroy a large city and its civilian population and make it uninhabitable. It is a world where the division of the world into armed blocs, each of which strives for military superiority, is prone to destruction at the whim of a psychopathic leader or to technical and human communication errors.
Pope Francis constantly speaks of the curse of the arms industry and the need for disarmament. It is often dismissed as unrealistic and naive. But the confidence that everything will be fine if we carry on as we do now seems at least as naive.
Fr. Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant for Jesuit Communications