Gen. Peter Cosgrove has been appointed the governor general of Australia, representing Queen Elizabeth II as the country’s head of state.

A practicing Catholic, Cosgrove was chief of the Australian Defense Force during the beginning of the Iraq War. Prior to that, he served as a soldier in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery during an assault on enemy positions and led peacekeeping forces in East Timor in 1999. In 2001, he was named Australian of the Year.

Since 2010, he has served as chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, one of the largest Catholic universities in the English-speaking world, with 23,000 students. In January, on a visit to Rome, Cosgrove sat down with the Register to discuss the university and share how his faith has affected him as a soldier.


What has been the secret of the success of the Australian Catholic University? Has it been faithfulness to the magisterium?

We have a mission, identity and a set of values that anyone would embrace. They are Catholic values, but they are shown to the world as being ones that anyone would feel comfortable [holding] in this environment. This does not stop people within our university from having the most deeply Catholic practices, doctrines and value sets, so there is no attempt to confine or shape the span of attitudes.

What we do is we encourage our staff and students to know our values, and they must behave within the confines of our values, but they don’t have to say these are my exact values. So, from time to time, we have people who would challenge us on right-to-life issues. Equally, we have people whose attitudes would be so deeply conservative so as to challenge other more radical views. We don’t mind that. We ask our dons [teachers], when they speak on issues, to speak privately, not to say these are the views of the Australian Catholic University. We also have tremendous help and support from the bishops.


How has your faith influenced your military service?

My faith has had to grow stronger, in the sense that I was a little urchin schoolboy in a nuns’ school and then a brothers’ school. After school, I went off to a military college. Your first years in service tend to be overtly secular. In my case, I was at war; I was in Vietnam. You pray to God privately to keep you safe and to keep your people safe and to give you a grounding in the midst of the unnatural human act of war. I say unnatural, in that a natural act is one to embrace, but we’re inclined to find reasons to have wars. So you’re doing that, and you say your religion is somewhat private.

But then, as you get older and become a father and a senior commander, you suddenly understand the awesome responsibility of trying to be a role model. It turns you back to your instinctive or inherited values: family, school, church; and you find yourself counseling and acting as a father to a whole raft of people, many of whom will have some faith and many of them none at all. And you must be the sort of person they turn to for comfort and direction.


Do you think the faith also gives you a sort of innate heroism or a willingness to self-sacrifice in the darkest moments of war? Does your faith inspire you to go that extra mile?

I think it provides you with great solace in what I call the "quiet moments," when your frailty descends on you. When you are in the midst of battle, you are what you are. You enter that moment with an armory of training, of being seized by the needs of the moment, and then the innate you. Now, what is the innate you?

If the innate person is prepared and thinks, "I may die," you sense from your youngest days to that moment that there is another place. I think somebody who says there is another place is in better shape than someone who thinks there’s now and then there’s nothingness. So I believe you’re prepared for the moment, but it’s a very long experience, or sometimes a revelatory experience, for people who have only come to belief in God. But in the quiet moments, when you’re in context, when you’re in an operation, when you’re possibly confronting a very dangerous moment, tomorrow or in an hour, that’s when you need to fortify yourself and when you are fortified.

Now, I think for a soldier the saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes" is very trite, but that doesn’t make it untrue. It’s only trite because it’s been said so many times, but it is of great comfort. Catholics and people who believe in God are as frightened as the next man in war. It’s a moot point — I’ve never been in the other place; I’ve never disbelieved, so I don’t know. But I just would never go there, because, to me, my faith is a comfort. It is an embrace.


Do you have problems reconciling your faith with the horrors of war and having to kill people? Has that been a struggle for you?

No, not at all. And maybe that’s an advantage or a flaw in my character. There are challenges to values which cannot be endured without losing one’s sense of self, and I will not allow those challenges to overcome me — or, more particularly, the people that have been trained and sent to me to protect.

I’ve been trained and sent to preserve a state of being, whether it’s a political state or the safety of the community, and those people behind me don’t have what I’ve been equipped to do. I have been equipped to do that, and I will do it. Now, there are strict limits. One must not maltreat people, foe or not. One might kill them [in the line of duty], but one must not abuse their dignity as a human creation. They’re one of God’s creatures, so torture, No; maiming, No; oppressing the helpless, No . ... In fact, you must give that person succor. All of those sorts of things are axiomatic.

I’ll give you an example, as a solider: I was disgusted and horrified when I was chief of the Defense Force in Australia and we learned of the events at Abu Ghraib. To me, that was just intolerable; and not only were we politically tremendously concerned, because we were part of that coalition and wanted to know: How could this be? — Are we involved in any way? Is any person involved? — but we were morally repulsed. And there’s no mealy-mouthing in that sentiment.


Has it been hard to act against your conscience as a soldier?

Well, one needs to ask: What is your conscience? Let’s take a hypothetical situation: I’m a young soldier in East Timor. The militia, they are basically East Timorese people preying on their fellow East Timorese with military rifles, homemade guns, machetes. They’re chopping them up and burning them. I come around the corner of the scene; I’m securing, and I’m going to shoot somebody who’s doing that. I’m not repulsed. I have no crisis of conscience at all.


Have you always found them to be just wars, just causes?

Yes, I believe there were WMDs [Weapons of Mass Destruction] in Iraq. I believe that Saddam had been complicit with terrorists. I believe the fact he’d used chemical weapons against the Iranians, against the Kurds, was evidence he would either use them or provide them for other people to use. ... And I believe he was in defiance of the U.N. inspection regime and the [U.N.] Security Council resolution. And the fact that in the final hours before the final ultimatum expired, the U.N. inspectors were saying, "We’re not sure; we’re not sure," well, they’d been saying he was in defiance of where we believed he’d still had them for months, months and months; and suddenly they changed their minds. They didn’t want to be the cause of war, you see, and I understand that. But perhaps if they had been saying earlier on that "we’re very satisfied with the inspection regime, and we conclude it’s unlikely that he’s got anything" ... but they wanted it both ways.


Who is the ultimate authority for you in war? Is it Christ or the state?

The ultimate authority of any person is themselves. What am I? I’m a bag of flesh and bones holding it up. I have a brain which functions as my human control system, and beyond that, I have a spirit. Embracing that spirit is faith, so, in the end, the ultimate authority to me is the spirit, which exudes or imbibes a faith.


So one’s formed conscience?

Absolutely; so, in the end, the motivation to get out of bed in the morning and to be one of Christ’s children is an act of faith. Now, it might be to perform a whole series of trained or inherent behaviors, but the will to get out of bed and to say, "Today I’ll be a better person" leans on faith.

Some agnostic might say: "Well, I do that anyway." Yeah mate, but what’s your value system? Tell us all about it. And when they tell you, you say to that agnostic or atheist: It sounds very Christian, without Christ.