Returning to the ‘Scene of the Crime’

In 2014, our friends Greg Rolles, Tim Webb. Sam Quinlan, and Dave Sprigg were brutally assaulted by SAS soldiers on Swan Island, a highly secretive training base off the coast of Victoria. They were hooded, stripped naked, threatened with rape and drowning, dragged along the ground kicked and walked on. (Journalist Kieran Finnane has written an excellent article about it here.)

swan island activists at gates with banners guardian photo

Last weekend, I returned with Greg to Swan Island along with Dominican priest, Fr Peter Murnane and a friend, Shane Anderson. We went once again to offer ongoing witness and resistance to Australia’s war crimes in the Middle East.

The response from security agencies to our action was radically different from that experienced by Greg and colleagues six years ago. There was no violence towards us, nor threats of violence. It seems the Brereton Report has – at least for now – made an impact.

The Australian military is facing the most shameful exposure in its history. A long investigation has concluded SAS troops murdered at least 39 unarmed Afghanis, often for no other reason than the desire to kill another human being.

This is Australia’s Mai Lai.

SAS execute a civilian in a grassy field

For ten years prior to the release of this report, a group of Christians had been offering nonviolent resistance to Australia’s illegal and immoral wars, by blocking the gates or walking or Swan Island, to place their bodies in front of the war machine.

While being assaulted in 2014 more than one of the victims told later of a thought going through their mind, ”If this is what they do to us, imagine what they do to Afghans and Iraqis?”.

Now we know.

As I said above, our own reception last weekend was nothing like this. I believe the change reflected the universal shame the military and Australian people are feeling right now.

We entered the Swan Island base before dawn, walked to the training area right near the scene of the assaults, and held our banner, “Stop Training Killers – Abolish the SAS”                                       

When we were finally spotted by a security guard, he calmly told us the police were coming. Soon after we heard over the loudspeakers, “There are peace protestors on the base. All personnel are to remain in their quarters till further notice.”  Greg live streamed all our activities. No attempt was made to stop him. In fact, he continued to record in the back of the police van.

The police were ultra polite. They drove us off the base and released us. Summonses for trespass would be sent in the mail they said.

Is there no one to condemn us?

On the same day as we entered Swan Island the Chinese published the artwork depicting an Australian soldier cutting the throat of an Afghan boy holding a lamb. Indeed, one of the charges from the enquiry is that the SAS cut the throats of two 14-year-old boys and left them on the side of the road “for others to clean up the mess”.  The Prime Minister immediately demanded an apology. But none is forthcoming. The China /Australia diplomatic war has just opened up its most shocking front.

On the long drive home to Brisbane, Greg and I turned on the radio for the first time, and there was Senator Jackie Lambie demanding the head of Defence Chief Angus Campbell resign over the whole issue. Mostly though, she was talking about the terrible problem of Defence Force suicides. The recent developments can only exacerbate the problem.

It is indeed a tragedy.

But the solution is not to cover up the horror of war with empty platitudes about our brave and noble troops. Such platitudes help ensure each succeeding generation of youth, who have not seen the horror of war, will bravely sign up for it.

We need to see a time when the truth is told. That war is a terrible evil, that dehumanises all who take part. We need to face up to the war crimes not just of individuals, or even the generals who Jackie Lambie seeks to blame.

Surely the first war criminals are the politicians who sent young men off to kill people who posed no threat to us.  As someone once said, “War is about killing people who are not our enemies for people who are not our friends.” The Howards, Abbotts, Gillards, Morrisons of this world should all be put on trial for instigating and/or continuing this mindless bloodshed: blood shed for the rich and powerful to become more rich and powerful.

Once the initiators of the primary war crimes are held accountable, maybe we can honestly face the shame. Let’s #AbolishtheSAS

Peace activists at the gate 2020
swan island 4 2020

Watch parts of the live streamed video Anti-war activists of faith shut down Swan Island SAS training base where we share our motivation and insights. 

Jim Dowling

Jim Dowling is a long time activist from the Catholic Worker movement based in Brisbane. Amongst many acts of resistance, he entered the Pine Gap military base in 2005 and again in 2016 facing Supreme Court trials in Alice Springs on both occasions.

References: Best Articles on the SAS War Crimes

The Conversation: Why Australian Commanders Need to Be Held Responsible 

The Guardian : Key Findings

The ABC: Angus Campbell’s speech in full.