As we walked on the military base in the dark early hours of Monday morning, with a full moon setting a stunning scene across Port Phillip Bay, it was hard to imagine that I was risking torture again. This was the place of my nightmares, my years of flashbacks, where my SAS torturers probably enjoyed a laugh and a few cold beers after they scarred me for life.
As my friend was naked, with bound hands and feet, a bag over his head, the SAS soldier screamed at him: “Do you know you’ve put the SAS at risk? You’re risking diggers lives?” My friend, Tim, was a peaceful protestor. Minutes earlier, this man or his accomplice had been torturing me to get the rough location of Tim. At first Tim was shocked and saddened at the thought of putting people at risk. That was the opposite of our purpose. Then Tim remembered the horrific war crimes Afghan families had spoken of and decided, no. It was the actions of the SAS that had put families at risk. It was October 2014.
During that peace protest, there was malleable fear of exposure from the Swan Island military staff. They wanted no media, no photos released and no attention on what they were doing 90 minutes from the Melbourne CBD. More than six years of physical and mental health struggle, protracted court cases and knowing what our troops were doing in my name to my poorer neighbours, I returned.
So why did I go back on to the island where I was tortured.
The Brereton report exposes what Afghan families and anti-war activists have been saying for decades. The shock of politicians, conservative media pundits and the general Australian community astonishes me. Calls for senior leadership to be held accountable are founded but miss the point. On our watch, as an Australian community, we funded murder and war crimes. Obviously, Australia’s toxic military culture and our worship of the Anzac legend, stoked by jingoistic politicians, allowed the SAS to commit its brutal murders and war crimes. But ordinary people who care about peace in Australia need to ask ourselves a more serious question. How did we let this happen?
Last Monday, with three others, I returned to Swan Island. A friend and I drove from Brisbane to Melbourne, just for the action. With two others, we got on to the island in the early hours of the morning. I feared a repeat of the assaults, or worse, from an angry SAS. But more than that, I did not want government and military bosses to let these abuses fade from public view. The Afghan families deserved far more justice. And Australia, especially those who claim to care about peace, needs far more serious introspection after the event.
As we walked on the military base in the dark early hours of Monday morning, with a full moon setting a stunning scene across Port Phillip Bay, it was hard to imagine that I was risking torture again. This was the place of my nightmares, my years of flashbacks, where my torturers probably enjoyed a laugh and a few cold beers after they scarred me for life. But my thoughts turned to Afghanistan, to the sheer terror that victims and families must have felt in the moments before their death and I knew I was in the right place.
Most people claiming to stand for peace disagree with, or even discredit, such direct action as trespassing on to a military base. They see it as extreme that potentially puts more people off than it attracts. I understand these points of view, but I think these criticisms fail to understand the essence of why the atrocities in Afghanistan happened.
The powerful do what they can and the powerless endure what they must is an old maxim. For too long the Australian government and the SAS in particular had done whatever they wanted to the people of Afghanistan. I am an ex-soldier, a few years in my youth 20 years ago, but an ex-soldier anyway. I left in 2003 when it became clear that the ideals the military uses to recruit people is a cover for theft and murder. Since leaving the army I had found a new power. Nonviolence. And it is the most powerful force in the world.
On Monday morning, as we walked through a fenced off area on to the base where I was assaulted six years earlier, I felt some unease in my stomach. I was accompanied by some spiritually solid friends, including an 80-year-old Dominican priest, so I felt we would be safe. But with the assaults in 2014, I could not be sure of what would happen this time. After 20 minutes of walking along a road with a banner reading “Stop training killers – Abolish the SAS”, a security guard drove out and followed us on foot.
Shortly, having walked as far as we could, against the gate of the base headquarters, I was busy trying to get us on to Melbourne morning radio when we heard an announcement come over the speakers on the base. “Attention Swan Island: There are peace protesters on the base – please remain in your barracks.” We stood for a few hours while police came from Geelong. We live-streamed and spoke of peace, while SAS soldiers who might normally be taking classes or doing physical training that time of the morning stayed inside their rooms. An organisation guilty of murder and brutal war crimes was stopped from training for a few hours. By four men aged 39 to 80 holding a banner and a mobile phone.
When the police arrived, I was expecting to have my phone seized, or to be handcuffed. Instead, we were gently ushered into the back of the police van. With phone in hand, I continued to live-stream. Nonviolent action by absorbing the violence of the SAS brutality and persistent disruption had taken some power back. From secrecy and brutality at our peaceful presence in 2014, to the submission we saw on Monday, we exercised nonviolent and peaceful power on a home training base of the SAS.
To significantly challenge Australian militarism and violence, we will need far more people involved, and far more nonviolent resistance. On Monday, a few of us showed it can be done. Education and communication are key aspects of nonviolence, but so is escalation. We must lovingly put our bodies in the way of the violent systems. With the spectre of fascism, climate collapse and war hanging over the death throes of our exploitative economic system, we need to lovingly disrupt the training and operations of such groups as the SAS. If we don’t, assaults on Australian citizens on Australian soil will not be a one-off freak occurrence. They will be a portent of what our children will have to endure. We can stop this future. If we can take our power back.