Tamara Lazaroff reviews Peace Crimes by Kieran Finnane
Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, National Security and Dissent
by Kieran Finnane
ISBN 978 0 7022 6044 5
Reviewed by TAMARA LAZAROFF
I have to admit I jumped at the chance to review Peace Crimes, partly because I know two of the six so-called ‘criminals’ – the Peace Pilgrims – who are Finnane’s subjects. Andy Paine and I have moved in some of the same circles for close to a decade, including the Brisbane zine community. I have become acquainted with Franz Dowling more recently through my occasional volunteering at the Friday night Food Not Bombs street kitchen in West End, which Franz co-coordinates. Way, way back in late 2016, I also knew that Andy – I hadn’t yet met Franz – had an upcoming trial in Darwin. It had something to do with a direct action, a non-violent trespass into the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap (just 19 kilometres outside of Alice Springs), and he was – all six Pilgrims were – facing up to seven years in gaol. But my understanding about what exactly the group did, why they did it, and how their action fit in with the larger picture of war; war crimes, Australia’s involvement, resistance and civil disobedience, was vague. Of the enormity of their considered, courageous act of protest, I had no idea.
Helpfully, Finnane begins her book on the night the Pilgrims begin their journey by foot to the facility. She draws links, and not incidentally, I don’t think. (If anything, the entire narrative’s undercurrent is concerned with our undeniable connectedness.) In any case, in her recounting of that 28 September, 2016 late evening, she is looking up at the starry sky on her bush block on the southern side of Alice while the Peace Pilgrims – Jim and Franz Dowling, father and son, Margaret Pestorius (whom the police cast as an ‘elderly woman’, though she self-describes as a ‘direct action goddess’), Timothy Webb and Andy Paine are only just setting out on their 15 kilometre walk through the darkness, spinifex and scrub, and rocky, unknown terrain, sometimes uphill. It is the very same night that a missile from a US drone strikes the village of Shadal Bazar in Afghanistan, killing 15 people and wounding 19, most of them civilians – though the group do not know this yet. When they reach Pine Gap, Franz and Margaret, who have carried along their musical instruments, a guitar and viola respectively, begin to play a lament for the dead, for the victims of war. Andy livestreams the event on a borrowed mobile phone. They all pray, especially for those who have died by drone strike because of Pine Gap. As Finnane clearly details, this military facility supplies targeting data ‘used for drone killings in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq and in countries with which Australia is not at war, such as Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen’ (12), making Australia potentially responsible for war crimes and the terrorism that is returned in response, not to mention incomprehensible human suffering. The number of strikes are rising, too. In Afghanistan alone, there are currently about a hundred a month – that’s about three a day. It is this the Pilgrims wanted to draw attention to – even at risk of their own incarceration – and they did. As a result of their on-site arrest, there was the subsequent trial at the NT Supreme Court and the international media interest that followed. Peace Crimes ultimately contributes to and advances this project of awareness-building.
Finnane is a journalist by trade. She is, in fact, one of the founders of the Alice Spring News, which has been publishing since 1994; and she personally reported on, and was present for, the entire two weeks of the Peace Pilgrims’ court case. Her first book, too – Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia (2016) – is focussed on the courtroom, violence (domestic, this time) and is also centred in Alice, where she has been living since 1987. With such long and close links to the town, Peace Crimes definitely has an insider’s perspective – and a lot of heart – alongside being incredibly well-researched, as would be expected. Particularly fascinating – engrossing even – are the sections on the history of the anti-war movement in Australia and overseas, which serve to foreground the Pilgrims’ actions. For example, during the Australian anti-conscription movement of the early 1910s, 34,000 citizens were prosecuted and 7,000 were imprisoned for their anti-conscription activities, including the future Prime Minister John Curtin! These details and more on the purposes, successes and challenges of civil disobedience, recent and past, are intertwined with the history of Pine Gap and those who oppose it (including another former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser). It is all compelling. Equally compelling is the court case itself – Nobel Peace Prize winner Richard Tanter, among many other public figures, come to give expert evidence for the defence – and the legal machinations on display are also, on occasion, a little farcical. All of this makes for mind-boggling, mind-expanding reading. Really, however, it is the protagonists themselves who shine the most brightly in the story that Finnane tells. She writes:
I was drawn to write about the Peace Pilgrims because of the large view they take of their social responsibilities. They may join campaigns, but really, their field of action is the whole of their life, as far as their capacities and nonviolence can take them. They are connected to movements, and even specific groups within them, but within the bounds of their strong spiritual and moral frameworks they seem remarkably free – unconstrained by waiting for consensus, or theoretical coherence, or numeric strength … (247-48).
For me too, as a reader, it is the parts of the book in which Finnane illustrates the ways the Pilgrims ‘embody justice’ (190) in their everyday lives – not only their more pronounced political actions – that are some of the most engaging, and heartening. Franz Dowling, for instance, co-facilitates a house of hospitality in Greenslopes, which is also his own home, providing free shelter and food for people in need in the Catholic Worker tradition to which he belongs. Jim Dowling, Franz’s father, a long-time peace activist also motivated by his Christian faith, lives in voluntary poverty on a farm in Dayboro with his wife Anne Rampa where they have brought up their seven children. They have a biogas toilet that fuels the stove, and other ingenious green power facilities, including a veggie oil-powered vehicle. Similarly, Timothy Webb, who was raised in hand-built house in New Zealand, lives a life that seeks to harm others as little as possible; his parents, like Franz’s, instilled in him the understanding that ‘the luxury and convenience of Western lifestyles were paid for by the ‘short, unbelievably miserable lives’ of other people halfway around the world’ (24). Andy, too, practises radical renunciation; he lives on less than $5,000 a year (without Centrelink), though his days are filled with endeavour – the production of his weekly community radio program The Paradigm Shift, for one. At the time of the writing of the book, too, he was ‘sailing towards Manus Island with a group intent on protesting Australia’s asylum seeker policies’ (243) in order to, once again, stand up for others. On the other hand, Margaret Pestorius, a social worker and therapist, ‘questions, gently, her friends’ dedication to voluntary poverty’ (25) – though she, too, shares her house Peace by Peace with others, including a friend she was at the time nursing through cancer. At home in Cairns, she has long been involved in organising healing rituals, such as the Frontier War memorial on Anzac Day eve for indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. And finally, Paul Christie – the sixth Pilgrim who walked alone a few days later on 3 October, 2016 and had his own separate trial – moved to a rural cooperative upon the hearing’s resolution as a response to and action against climate change.
Like the Peace Pilgrims themselves, Peace Crimes is an inspiring and radical work – though it shouldn’t be. Hopefully in these post-COVID times we will together begin to recreate our society for the better, and for all, in a spirit similar to the Peace Pilgrims’. For a further taster of Peace Crimes, you can watch this short video of author Kieran Finnane speaking about her motivation for writing the book against the backdrop of Arrernte land and the Pine Gap base, the huge information-collecting radomes in the distance.
Here is the link for the bolded section above:
TAMARA LAZAROFF is a Macedonian-Australian writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She lives in Brisbane on Yuggera and Turrbal country. Her collection In My Father’s Village & Other Freedom Stories (Pollitecon Publications) was shortlisted for the 2020 Woollahra Literary Digital Literary Award; and her novella Husk, Root, Bone was recently published by Big Fiction Magazine (USA).