James Boyce

The second event was more recent. Just a few days ago I was crossing the Bowen Bridge over the Derwent, from where there is a view of Prince of Wales Bay and the inside of Incat’s construction halls where the giant cats are built. It looked to me from this distance, and I may be wrong, that the signature grey paint indicated that there is another machine of war now being constructed. And I thought it is time, surely time, when I honestly faced the truth about this particular Tasmanian ‘success story’.

IN March of this year I along with about 100 others gathered in Hobart to hear an American Jesuit priest, Father John Dear, give an inspirational talk on non-violence. Dear does much more than speak about the teachings of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Jesus . He has been convicted and imprisoned for non violent protests on US military bases, and he encouraged Tasmanians to support non violent actions against the American military presence in Australia, especially at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory.

Despite the radiant goodness of the man, by the end of Dear’s talk, I was growing uncomfortable. Had this saintly bloke, I wondered, even been told by his Catholic Church hosts that just a few kilometres from where he stood, powerful new weapons for his nation’s military forces had been built? What would be the reaction if I got up and challenged the audience that perhaps the real test of our moral courage on this issue was not whether we engage in protest about the Iraq war or opposed US bases on Australian soil, but whether we were prepared to make a stand in our own town?

I said nothing at the time, confused about what I felt about the commercial activities of one of Tasmanian’s largest employers. Like so many other Hobart residents I know people who work at the ship builder, Incat, who after all mostly make hi speed catamarans for civilian use, and who nearly went broke just a few years ago before being saved, in part, by contracts with the Australian and American defence forces.

Two things have happened to me since that made up my mind on this issue. First a good mate’s son died, a beautiful, courageous and much loved young man who was taken from us way before his time. Like us all when we are touched by the death of a child or young person, the question, what it must be like for his parents, and even what it would be like for me should my own boy or girl prematurely die, penetrated my heart.

We live with the horrifying senselessness of death all the time, but for most of our life, inevitably, even appropriately, it is pushed to one side. But somehow, Dear’s talk, and my mates terrible loss, made it different for me this time. What the prophets of non-violence were saying moved from my head to my heart, and, at last, I understood. It is wrong to kill.

The second event was more recent. Just a few days ago I was crossing the Bowen Bridge over the Derwent, from where there is a view of Prince of Wales Bay and the inside of Incat’s construction halls where the giant cats are built. It looked to me from this distance, and I may be wrong, that the signature grey paint indicated that there is another machine of war now being constructed. And I thought it is time, surely time, when I honestly faced the truth about this particular Tasmanian ‘success story’.

Incat built its first high speed vehicle passenger ferry in 1990, and since has built over fifty more, about forty per cent of all those constructed in the world. But it was not until the Australian navy leased one of the ferries, HMAS Jervis Bay, a decade later that the military potential of the ships was realized. Since 2001, via a strategic alliance with an American ship builder, Bollinger, three more vessels have been delivered to the US military. The first contract was part of the American military build up in late 2001, with Joint Venture heading straight from Hobart to the Persian Gulf. In the words of the proud builders, “Joint Venture served as a command, control, and staging platform for Special Operations Forces operating around Umm Qasr in Iraqi waters”, and, in what was a “first” for SOF, “they were able to operate a significant complement of men and equipment for seven days at a time unsupplied by the big Navy ships. It improved their efficiency and thus their effectiveness.”

In November 2002 another US military order was delivered, this time to the Army, a “theatre support vessel, known as TSV-IX Spearhead. This ship was part of a research program of the Ministry of Defence known as the “Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator.” It too served in the Persian Gulf, in an operation now called (given that “Operation Iraqi freedom” had been completed), Operation “Enduring Freedom”. In August 2003, a third vessel HSV 2 Swift was delivered to the US Navy. Incat is clearly excited by the “meteoric rise in interest”, with the company determined “to see that the military potential of such craft is realized.”

However this new industry is regarded, Tasmanians must now face the fact that the state has become a significant exporter of military hardware to the US (and potentially other nations around the world), and this meant, in Incat’s words, an increase in the “efficiency and effectiveness” of US military operations during the invasion of Iraq. We also need to be honest about what efficiency and effectiveness means in this context, and acknowledge that it is real human beings, especially young people, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, who risk their lives on them, and other people, including children, who die as a result.

I do not think that these vessels should be built anywhere on earth. America already possesses, by a considerable factor, a larger military capacity than the rest of the world combined, and has more military power than has ever been seen before in world history. It should be giving up arms, and hopefully using the extra money to give its own poor some opportunities in life beyond military service, not buying more in a massive buildup that has done nothing for peace, but so much to foster and create conflict in the post cold war world.

Many Tasmanians I know would agree with me on this. The question for us all is whether, somehow, the fact this weaponry is being constructed by Tasmanians, and is giving our friends, family and neighbours much needed work, makes a difference. I do not think it does.

Indeed, as with the forests debate, I suspect that as international awareness of Tasmania’s part in American rapid deployment forces grows, it will damage the much vaunted clean and green’ image that is now considered so important to many emerging export industries. It is surely even possible that Incat’s own civilian markets in Europe, South America, North Africa and elsewhere will be affected as awareness about the company’s new business grows.

But ultimately, as with the old growth forests debate, surely such economic arguments are secondary. They are the ones that must be emphasized in a highly charged political debate, but this is not an issue that is near ready for politicians to raise. Not even the Greens, who so actively opposed the Iraq war, have been prepared to question Tasmania’s part in supplying the hardware for it. No secular or church leader has expressed any concern about the activities down at Prince of Wales Bay, and the ferocious reaction (how ‘unTasmanian’, ‘un Australian’ can you get?) to any protest is completely predictable. This question must be, at least for now, a matter of individual conscience. But let us at least face the fact that the problem of the militarization of the planet is no longer just one being played out ‘over there’, but one that has moved into our own backyard.

James Boyce, 25 June 2007.

James Boyce is a Hobart based writer and historian.