Some time ago I put up a post about an Australian peace activist who was involved in a trial in Ireland with four others for damaging a US warplane which was refuelling at Ireland’s Shannon airport on its way to Iraq. The group ended up being acquitted by a jury. I wanted to provoke some debate about how far one could or should logically go with nonviolent resistance to wars which you believe to be wrong, but which your own country supports and participates in, and I was using this guy as an example.
The comments on the post ended up getting quite personal and for a variety of reasons I ended up taking the whole post down. I thought I’d have another go at briefly exploring a few of the issues raised by our country’s involvement in wars in various ways, and whether risking long jail terms in nonviolently opposing such involvement is a useful form of resistance.
These types of actions have some extra relevance at the moment, as there is a trial happening in Australia at the moment of four local Christian pacifists who at the end of 2005 conducted a ‘citizens inspection’ of Pine Gap, a USA-Australia military intelligence facility near Alice Springs in central Australia.
This led to them being the first people ever charged under the Cold War era Defence (Special Undertakings) Act of 1952 which carries a seven year jail term. The decision to charge them under this Act for unlawfully entering a prohibited area and operating a camera in a prohibited area (as well as trespass offences under the Crimes Act) was made by the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock. Aspects of the case are also currently subject to a suppression order (and I can’t tell you what it’s about, because it’s suppressed.)
There have been a few of these types of actions in the UK, Ireland and the USA in recent years where protestors enter military bases to damage equipment or to ‘bear witness’. This article by George Monbiot details a few recent cases where the defendants have been acquitted.
The justification for these sorts of actions often touches on the Nuremberg Principles, where following orders is no excuse in committing or allowing a war crime to occur, and where arguably citizens have a duty to act to stop the commission of a war crime. These Principles are not just some ‘left wing’ piece of utopian puristry. They were used as part of the trials of Nazis after World War II. They are not specifically codified in Australian law, but this does not stop them from applying under international law.
However much I wrestle with the issues involved with war and military activity, I’m not a pacifist. I opposed the invasion of Iraq, but supported our troops staying there (until it became obvious their presence was causing more harm than good). I supported invading Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and opposed the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in the lead up to the Iraq war.
But I still admire the courage of someone who follows through with their beliefs to the extent that they are prepared to risk severe personal consequences for an action that most people would consider fairly futile. One of the aims of such (in some ways) extreme actions is to raise awareness and get people to confront their own responsibilities and actions in regard to war. I doubt it will turn me into a total pacifist, but I figure the least I can do is to consider the questions and challenges they put to us all as part of undertaking such actions.
I am a big fan of the principle that the ends shouldn’t justify the means, and the ‘means’ of war are truly terrible regardless of the ‘ends’ that purport to justify them. However, the means used do also affect the end that is reached, and total nonviolence can lead to some terrible ends too, no matter how noble the means.
This link goes to an interesting review of a book called “A History of Nonviolence”. It starts by referring to George Orwell (who was writing around the time of World War II, which brings these sorts of issues into very stark relief).
George Orwell was never much for pacifists. He wrote of his nonviolent political adversaries during World War II: If they “imagine that one can somehow ‘overcome’ the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.” To Mohandas Gandhi, his Indian contemporary and fellow anti-imperialist, he accorded only a grudging and critical respect. Yet because he viewed many pacifists as specialists in evading unpleasant truths, Orwell did admire Gandhi’s unflinching honesty with regard to the Holocaust: When asked about resistance to the Nazis, Gandhi argued that the Jews should have prepared en masse to sacrifice their lives in nonviolence — something Orwell regarded as “collective suicide” — in order to “[arouse] the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.”
It is easy to become relatively immune to just how horrific war is, (whilst also not ignoring some of the horrors that the promoters of war often say they are trying to confront), as most of us only experience it through a television screen. It really should be a last resort and we should be doing a lot more to seek to prevent and condemn it except where it is absolutely necessary, not least through putting much greater priority on disarmament and doing something to reduce the burgeoning global arms trade, which many western nations are up to their necks in.
I’m interested in people’s comments on the issue. (but please keep comments to the issues and principles involved, rather than the individuals).
(PS – click here to see some background on the phrase “resistance is futile”