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Book Reviews

living by the sword? the ethics of armed intervention

by Tom Frame

Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 2004
278 pages, AUS$ 34.95

Reviewed by Arthur Gans

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Book coverTom Frame is the Bishop Ordinary to the Australian Defence Forces (ADF). He is a former serving naval officer, an expert on naval history, and a professional ethicist of some skill and repute. The book Living by the Sword? is a revised version of the New College Lectures presented in 2003. The invitation to give this lecture asked Dr. Frame to “examine “the general topic of war with the brief that he was to provide a Christian response that would engage people of varied world views in order to open up dialogue and lead to a shared understanding.”1 I believe, along with Dr. Trevor Cairney, the Master of New College, that Dr. Frame has completely fulfilled the charge that was given to him.

This book is both Christian and Australian in its presentation. Dr. Frame begins most chapters with an examination of the Biblical tradition before moving to either the historical or modern situation. And, although the bibliography shows a very complete mastery of the primary and secondary resources dealing with military professional ethics from around the world, most of the examples that Dr. Frame discusses relate directly to the Australian situation. In my opinion, this is a useful trait because it shows clearly how the study of military professional ethics has developed outside the North American context, as well as the particularities of the North American military experience.

Following a brief preface that gives a biographical setting for the author’s interest in the topic, there is a photo essay entitled “Humanitarian Interventions” that pictures some of the incidents participated in by the ADF. The first section of the book consists of an Introduction, followed by an examination of war before and after 450 AD. This is followed by a photo essay entitled “Political Interventions,” showing another form of intervention by the ADF. A second, and major, section follows, consisting of chapters dealing with pacifism or just war, “Just War and Iraq,” Church-State Relations, Interventions, the idea and possible use of an international constabulary, and Conscientious Objection. Two brief summary chapters close the section, one dealing with the particularity of Australian experience and situation, and the other a brief epilogue.

Why should Canadian military personnel be interested in this book? Apart from the fact that Australia probably is our closest relative in the Commonwealth, I believe that the Australian experience provides us with some very interesting parallels in the area of military professional ethics. Australia has participated in most of the wars in which Canadians participated. They share with us a devotion to the regimental tradition in the army and to the British naval tradition in the navy. Their history parallels our own in many ways – in particular the fact that both our countries moved toward real independence as a result of what our military forces accomplished during the First World War.

Another reason for reading this book is that it shows a somewhat independent development of a military professional ethic not directly engendered by the experiences of the US forces. Australia participated in the Vietnam War, but its experience in that conflict appears to me to have resulted in a different result than the experience engendered in the United States. In particular, Australia does not feel that it is called to be the “world’s policeman,” as the Americans appear to be. Finally, the fact that the Australian military are all volunteers, as are the Canadians, made their Vietnam experience different from that of the Americans at the time.

One major difference in the Canadian and Australian experiences is the participation of Australia in the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. Dr. Frame has a lengthy chapter examining the question of whether the second Iraq War was a just war. His conclusion: “The campaign has not satisfied three of the nine just war criteria: the cause was more expedient than just; alternatives to force had not been exhausted; and the cost may prove over the next decade to have been out of proportion to the outcome.”2 This chapter is closely and carefully reasoned, and there is no way that I can do complete justice to it in this brief review. Suffice it to say I believe Dr. Frame has covered the subject thoroughly and completely. Without question, there will be some who disagree, but they will have to produce more evidence than has been provided to date in order to overcome his arguments.

In the chapter on Conscientious Objection, Dr. Frame deals with what is one of the most difficult questions there is in the Just War Theory – the question of selective conscientious objection. He does this through a close examination of the history of the changes in the Australian Defence Act. As someone who, during the Vietnam War, was charged with examining those claiming conscientious objection to that particular conflict, I believe that he has provided one of the best summaries of the problem with which I am acquainted. It is a problem that is often ignored, but, if the just war theory is to have any meaning at all, it is one that must be dealt with and acted upon. To put it simply, if the military is called upon to fight in a manner in accordance with the precepts of International Humanitarian Law, there must be some method of provision for selective conscientious objection. Otherwise, the justification of “following orders” can excuse any and all war crimes, as long as the individual giving the orders has the legal power to do so. I believe that the Australian Government has provided a good response to the question, and would suggest that the Canadian government should do the same.

I strongly recommend this book to all military professionals. It provides a good and reasoned presentation of some of the major questions concerning military professional ethics in our day. And, although it speaks specifically from a Christian point of view, I believe it would be helpful to those of other religious traditions as well.

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Major the Reverend Arthur Gans is a retired army chaplain who has a particular interest in military ethics.


  1. Trevor Cairney, Foreword, Living by the Sword?... p. 8
  2. Ibid., p. 142.