On October 20th 2016, at Devonshire St Meeting House, the NSW Quaker Peace and Justice Committee hosted a screening of several peace related films. One of these was War on Trial directed by David Bradbury. War on Trial premiered at Australia Yearly Meeting 2016.
This film documents activities of two courageous peace activists, Bryan Law and Graeme Dunstan, influenced by the work of the American Plowshares Movement . The American Plowshares movement focused their antiwar activities on symbolic targets referencing the Biblical text from Isaiah:
“And they will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.” Isaiah 2: 4
Bryan Law, in 2011, with help from Graeme Dunstan, took bolt cutters to the gate of the enclosure where a $68 million Tiger helicopter belonging to the Australian armed forces was parked during war games conducted by the US and Australian armed forces near Rockhampton, Queensland.
We see Bryan, furnished only with an adult tricycle and a garden mattock, evade a security guard, approach the helicopter and with the mattock whack a hole in the helicopter about the size of a Violet Crumble. By this act he created damage to the value of approximately $160,000, apparently because of the high quality of the special paint on the helicopter’s surface. One cannot escape an awareness of the massive cost of military hardware perhaps better spent elsewhere.
Both men were charged with damaging Commonwealth property but sadly Bryan Law passed away before the charges came to court. So it was only Graeme Dunstan who went to court in August 2013.
Now by this point in the movie I found myself about 10% grumpy with the whole idea. I would never take a whack at an extremely expensive object; like some other Quakers, I’m much too “nice”. It seems so exhibitionistic and, dare I say, violent.
So I’m glad I got the DVD from Quaker Peace and Justice in order to take a second look at it.
Graeme Dunstan emerges as a very complex individual. Inspired by his revered grandfather, a Boer War veteran who enlisted in the First World War and was killed on his very first WW1 engagement, Graeme starred in the cadets through school, and went enthusiastically on to Duntroon . By his second year at Duntroon he was completely disillusioned by the level of bastardisation and other attitudes. He left, went to Uni, and immersed himself in the anti-conscription movement at the time of the Vietnam war. He has spent his life within the peace activism and environmental fraternities.
He is frank in the movie that “nice” protests (my phrase) change nothing. Something more powerful is necessary, like the attack on the helicopter which symbolically references the quote from Isaiah. The publicity generated by such action also touches a large number of the members of the public and stimulates thinking about the issue. He stresses in the film that he and Bryan Law didn’t set fire to the helicopter and destroy it (which they easily could have done); their action was calculated to be symbolic of beating of a sword into a ploughshare .
Graeme was supported through the courtcase by a wide spectrum of faith-based and non-faith-based activists, including Quaker Dawn Joyce from Queensland Regional Meeting. Support also came from Rev. Simon Moyle of the Baptist Church, Donna Mulhearn who had been a human shield in Iraq, journalist Jackie Dent, and Sean O’Reilly who acted as his McKenzie Friend (not a lawyer but someone who supported him in court, because, as he was pleading guilty, he was not eligible for Legal Aid.)
Graeme demonstrated that it is really the helicopter which is on trial when it is exposed to the world, murdering and creating terror. At his trial he screened the Wikileaks documentary footage, now known as Collateral Murder, which was leaked to the world by US Servicewoman, Private Chelsea Manning. It shows a hovering US helicopter crew watching Iraqi civilians tending wounded countrymen (including children) in the wake of a bomb attack. This shocking footage is included in War on Trial. We hear the helicopter crew request permission from their command to destroy the group aiding the wounded and removing the corpses. And we hear the permission granted, Then the the helicopter crew do indeed blast away the wounded and the people helping them.
These are theatres of war to which the Australian Government had committed us, and the battle culture with which we have aligned ourselves.
Servicewoman Chelsea Manning is serving a 35 year prison sentence for releasing this footage to the world.
War on Trial gets tense during Graeme’s courtcase, because his offence carries a potential sentence of ten years gaol. The jury are absent for a long time. It is known to be a “hung” jury, having difficulty reaching a conclusion. Graeme sees this in itself as a “win”, because it makes the point that the jury, a sample of typical Australians, is finding his guilt a matter requiring very deep thought and consideration.
The outcome of the case?
Ah ha! That would be telling! Do you remember what it was? If not Google it, or borrow the DVD from Devonshire St LM library. Maybe you could screen it at your Local Meeting.
And guess what? You get the Quaker Grannies on the same DVD!
Acey Teasdale, New South Wales Regional Meeting
War on Trial a film directed by David Bradbury