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PEN Melbourne Writers for Peace Committee: Can Arts Stop a Bullet?

April 27, 2023 IN WIP
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Can Arts Stop a Bullet?


by Constantine Pakavakis


PEN Melbourne’s WfPC is collaborating with the peace activist movement and the campaign to free Julian Assange.


At a recent “Call for Peace, Truth Not War” rally, colourful signs, banners and the thumping beat of Richie Haven’s Freedom on the stepped forecourt of Melbourne’s State Library reminded me of how once we stopped a war. Music and art are powerful, they make us feel.

In Can Art Stop a Bullet? by Street and Cantwell, artist William Kelly articulates the thoughts of some of the world’s most influential thinkers and artists about how art can contribute to humanity’s desire for peace.


“The military has their tanks, bombs, battleships, and drones. They have their honour rolls of war, their medals, their ‘heroes’. They have their statues, monuments, and triumphal arches – dedicated to conflict – and they have their weapons. I have a pencil.”

  • William Kelly


As the new AUKUS military alliance of the UK, US and Australia prepares for a possible war with China, I believe the scope of Writers for Peace must be broad enough to include every form of writing and art that speaks up for our humanity.

In Melbourne, the home of Julian Assange, a recent collaboration involved a joint venture with Melbourne City Council. They provided us with a site for the exhibition of Anything To Say?, a bronze life size sculpture by artist Davide Dormino of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, each standing on a chair, with a fourth ‘Empty Chair’ for the public to ‘have a say’. At the public event, the father of Julian Assange, John Shipton, David McBride, a whistleblower who exposed Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, Councillor Dr. Olivia Ball, and Dean Yates, the former Reuters chief in Iraq at the time of the Collateral Murders, joined PEN Melbourne’s Chris McKenzie and Dr Jo Scicluna in forcefully calling for Julian’s release and the fundamental right of freedom of expression.

Peace education and children’s literature is another area of interest for our WfPC. We must counter the glorification of killing. In Homer’s Iliad, the sirens that lure sailors to their death are not seducing them with heavenly enchantments of peace and tranquility, no, their irresistable lures sing of the glory of war. Militarism is deeply set in a culture of anthems, military songs and music. Movies, books and art idolize militaristic bravery, heroism, and the willingness to kill.

As co-author of an anti-war novel Earthrunner and the War of Water, I have been giving talks in schools about the futility of war and urging students to claim their agency for a peaceful future. In Australia, conscription for a war with China has already been flagged in the media; taxes being used for exorbitantly priced nuclear submarines are depriving urgently needed affordable housing, medical care, and education; and the reality of becoming a nuclear target because of US bases in Australia, must all be known.


Combating climate disaster is an essential part of this work too. PEN Melbourne Writers for Peace has been working within the Independent Peaceful Australia Network to organise peace rallies and to include environmental organisations.  The urgency to reverse climate warming was highlighted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres with a final warning for “climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.” Yet global military conflicts are a real and present danger to climate action. The hidden carbon footprint of the world’s militaries was estimated at 6%, excluding emissions caused by war and the reconstruction required afterwards.


For teachers seeking to incorporate peace into their programs, the Peace Literacy Institute offers free curriculum resources and some online training programs which are worth investigating.


John Lennon’s words “Imagine all the people, livin’ life in peace” continue to challenge us all as writers.

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People say that (writers) are pretty powerless: we don’t have an army, we don’t have a bureaucracy. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested?... Because the spoken word is powerful.

— John Ralston Saul on the work of PEN International