Photo by Laurentiu Iordache.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we have the great pause to remember the signing of the Armistice in 1918. The “war to end all wars” did not live up to its name, and the formality on that November day was merely an agreement between the warring nations of World War I to stop fighting.

Twenty-one years later, using the impossible reparations imposed upon Germany after the Great War as one of his excuses, the vicious and ridiculous Adolf Hitler plunged the world into chaos once again.

The time between 11 November 1918 and 3 September 1939 when World War II was declared, was short, but long enough to develop new and more destructive weapons. The total death toll of WWI is estimated at 17 million, while WWII killed more than 60 million people, both figures encompassing military persons and civilians.

Popular reference to “the eleventh hour” concerns the realisation that it is not too late yet, but it is the latest possible time before it is too late. The phrase comes from a parable in Matthew’s Gospel (20:6-7) where a landowner is hiring workers and agrees to pay them a certain wage. In true Jesus style, the parable overturns expected outcomes, and the workers who came just before knocking-off time (the eleventh hour) received the same pay as those who had worked all day. Through this story, Jesus points to the lavish generosity of God. But “the eleventh hour” has become part of our language in a way that presents a more threatening and sinister scenario: we are nearly too late now, and if we don’t act, we will indeed be too late.

Current wars fill our screens and news feeds – Ukraine, Israel, Palestine. Other wars are kept out of sight and out of mind, e.g., the ongoing military oppression in West Papua. Despite the millions of people slaughtered last century, humans continue to develop more and better killing machines, as they did between the two World Wars.

Australia certainly has the duty to defend itself and its people, as all others do. The problem is how to mount that defence.

It is sixty years since Pope John XXIII wrote the great Encyclical Pacem in Terris[1]. It clearly states: “… if one country increases its military strength, others are immediately roused by a competitive spirit to augment their own supply of armaments.” (110) Citizens’ fear increases when they realise how technology ensures unimaginable slaughter and destruction. (111)  It is harrowing to realise that arms manufacturers the world over make obscene profits. Without wars, their profits would diminish.

We are now in a situation of an “escalation to extremes”[2] and with nuclear capability, those extremes are almost unimaginable. Is there a way to avoid this escalation? The Encyclical states: “nuclear weapons must be banned.” (112) But too many other destructive weapons exist, and so now, could the only truly human response be nonviolence?

There is a way that Australia could embrace nonviolence and that is by way of “armed neutrality”. Neutrality has United Nations status, and there are about eighteen countries today with some form of it. A neutral Australia could not enter into treaties which oblige it to wage war, could not supply arms to other nations, as happens now, could not have foreign bases on its soil, and would need stronger defence forces so as not to entice attack from others.

Australia is geographically well-placed to be neutral, with no land borders and the benefits of distance. If very well-armed, it would be a dangerous place to attack. The image of an echidna helps: a creature incapable of attack but with a dangerously untouchable defence system[3]. Neutrality would enable Australia to use its considerable wealth and expertise to combat major threats against the common good: climate change, global hunger, refugees. Pacem in Terris recalls for us the great truth expressed by Pope Pius XII: “Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war.” (116. See note 60)

We have arrived at the eleventh hour. Australia is entering into partnership with the United States and Britain to develop nuclear powered submarines at a cost of 368 billion dollars. Basic machine guns have already accounted for tens of thousands of Australians. What will be the cost if we go further and accept nuclear armed submarines and other nuclear weapons? What do you think?

Susan Connelly rsj

[1] Pope John XXIII. Pacem in Terris. The Holy See: 1963.
[2] Girard, René. Battling to the End: conversations with Benoît Chantre. Translated by Mary Baker. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2010, xiv.
[3] Roggeveen, Sam. The Echidna Strategy: Australia’s Search for Power and Peace. Melbourne: La Trobe University with Black Inc., 2023.