Shouting across the gulf

Mary Midgley

  • Greenham Common: Women at the Wire edited by Barbara Harford and Sarah Hopkins
    Women’s Press, 171 pp, £3.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 7043 3926 9
  • Weapons and Hope by Freeman Dyson
    Harper and Row, 347 pp, £10.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 06 337037 9

Is there anyone who can keep in focus both sides of the debate about armaments, who can see fully what is meant by both armers and disarmers? To the armers, who occupy most of the positions of power, British arms, and Western arms generally, appear as the natural and only possible response to a pressing danger. They look like a roof over our heads. To the disarmers, they appear as the main source of that danger. They look like a pile of explosives in the loft just over that rickety, explosive old stove, our foreign policy. Neither side is much surprised at this discrepancy, since each has a tribal category ready for its opponents. Armers know that disarmers are well-meaning, ignorant amateurs and probably women. Disarmers know that armers are narrow-minded, ignorant bureaucrats obsessed with out-of-date fantasies of military glory. It is terribly hard for them to communicate at all.

To some extent, polarisations like this are common in politics, often indicating a clash of half-truths which can be resolved by time and hard thinking. When a clash is extreme, however, it is hard even to start on this. Strong feelings on both sides makes it unbearable even to think about the opposite position, let alone to consider any compromise. Yet since all change has to take place through a series of compromises, in an age of incessant change everybody needs to try to understand the feelings as well as the official thoughts of their opponents. Freeman Dyson puts this point well, saying that we are sharply divided into those who feel like Warriors and those who feel like Victims. Each set has its own language and speaks mainly to its own members. Dyson, an American physicist and professional weapons expert who works for the Peace Movement, says that he lives in both worlds and wants to make them listen to each other. About half his book argues, from a strictly military and businesslike angle, that nuclear weapons no longer make strategic or tactical sense, are a fearful danger, and need to be got rid of, by careful degrees, as quickly as possible. This part, unavoidably, is written in Warrior, but in that dialect of it which may be called Humane and Intelligent Warrior. The rest is an attempt to study the psychological gap itself, which is surely the crucial issue. Strategic thinking, after all, would presumably take care of itself if tribal and emotional habits did not determine its track before it started.

Dyson, though interestingly divided in mind, shouts mostly from the Warriors’ bank. From the other, the women encamped at Greenham have for some three years now been attempting a kind of communication whose successes and failures concern us all deeply. This book briefly tells their story, mainly in a series of extracts from their diaries and letters, strung together with a clear connecting narrative by the editors. Since a good deal of recent propaganda has tried to write them off as a handful of lesbian maniacs from the North London suburbs, it is useful to have an account which makes so undeniably clear how various are their backgrounds and how large, over the whole time, have been their numbers. The strength of the feeling which has been able to unite this great range of diverse but mostly ordinary and representative women sticks out at once. Nobody, of course, is quite ordinary who is prepared to camp in the rain with strangers in huge discomfort for a political cause, but it is plain that many present had never thought of doing such a thing before – and would not now for any other reason. The writers are desperate: that does not mean that they are cranks. In serious emergencies, inaction is not a specially reasonable response, though it is a very natural one. The question remains: what sort of action will make a difference? What can actually be communicated through this sort of demonstration?

What they are trying to do is to point out to the Warriors that we are all Victims. Instead of playing down the Victim’s role, they want to bring it into the open and show that it includes everybody. Instead of apologising for being women, they dramatise their femininity and use it to query the wilder masculine pretensions. By getting into the base, as they have done repeatedly, and wandering around for hours unnoticed, they make rather more than a symbolic point about the supposed impressive security conferred by the weapons. On one of many such occasions, in July 1983, when an Air Tattoo was in progress and the ‘exhibition pieces’ were supposed to be under strict surveillance, seven women were able to go in and paint them. ‘One of us had to point out to them that we had actually painted the planes ... In the end we heard from an MOD source that it took them about two and a half million pounds to get the planes back in working order.’ No charges, however, were brought against these women. They believe, and on the face of it with some reason, that this shows embarrassment about the insecurity of the base and about the uncertain relations between the British and American troops who are supposed to be guarding it. This is one of many points at which the gap in Warrior mentality between the symbolic importance of the missiles and their practical situation becomes clear. To non-warriors, noticing such things along with the bad performance of Cruise and Pershing in recent tests, the evidence of false missile alarms steadily increasing in numbers with computerisation, and the figures for drink and drug addiction and other mental instabilities among those guarding weapons, it seems strange that anyone thinks them reliable or expects them never to go off by mistake. Moreover, since strategists agree that nuclear interchange, once started, could not fail to escalate, the evidence now coming in from scientists about the probable effect on the climate seems relevant. Only a few such explosions could, they believe, be tolerated. Beyond that rather uncertain number, dust and other disturbances would be likely to produce a ‘nuclear night’ of intense, prolonged cold, darkness and storm, so grave as to wreck not just civilisation but organised human life. The extent of the danger is now, of course, being disputed, but how much do we want to gamble on the estimate of any particular scientific expert? If anyone thinks there simply cannot be any such danger, because it would have been noticed earlier, the explanation is simple: nobody bothered to ask about it. Imaginative inquiry is not typical of Warriors, and indeed it is not asked of them. When they consider the ‘worst possible case’ they normally expect to look at only one kind of badness, the kind familiar to strategists and allowed for in previous wars. That, notoriously, is why the people who launched both the First and the Second World Wars were so far out in their predictions, and therefore in their understanding of what they were doing.

If such considerations really do come on the carpet, even the soberest and most traditional of Warriors may feel that it is time to alter the rules of the game. Before this particular point came up, a number of very senior military and political people such as Field-Marshal Lord Carver and ex-Ambassador Kennan had already come out in favour of cutting down nuclear weapons: Dyson is not alone. The point about nuclear night, however, might be expected to suggest to rather more of them that the option of fighting this kind of war and winning it must be wiped off the board. This means that diplomacy must be pursued in a quite new way, with a view to actually making it work, rather than to proving that it is the other side’s fault when it doesn’t. The Russians, after all, probably do not want to die either. There are a number of obvious moves which might make it easier to deal with them: notably some attention to the psychology of threat and provocation, to the way in which moves seen by their originators as ‘deterrence’ tend not to deter, but to alarm and stiffen resistance. The Russian word standardly used to translate ‘deter’ in formal documents is, Dyson says, one which actually means ‘intimidate’. Behind this verbal difficulty there lies an important psychological one. And this is surely true all over this knotty and upsetting field. Unless we can bring our two points of view together, acknowledging both and combining them, we cannot make progress.

If so, what contribution can demonstrations like the Greenham camp make to the process? They make a vital one merely by bringing the issue forward and insisting on the need for action. The habit of leaving ‘defence’ matters to the military is enormously strong, far too strong in many of us to be reached by the arguments which show that defence by military means is now impossible and that there is no alternative to securing peace by negotiations. The emotional solidarity produced by the sense of uniting against a common enemy makes thought seem unnecessary, and the discomfort produced by any disturbance of it is very great. On the other hand, many people do worry deeply about modern weapons, fear their escalation and want them scaled down. A recent poll on the proposal for a nuclear freeze showed 81 per cent in favour in this country, and this aim now has a good deal of support in America. In this situation, many people are in a state of conflict. Demonstrators help them to articulate their uneasy thoughts and stir them from their dogmatic slumbers. A fairly extreme and dramatic focus of protest is needed here, and the Greenham camp, maintained for three years in the face of fearful difficulties, has steadily furnished it.

Its difficulties are, as many writers in this book realise, closely associated with its strengths: they are also due to the strong polarisation of the issue. Where conventional thinking is so narrow and hostile to new suggestions, dissenters have little choice but to appear unconventional, and are easily seen as cranks. Though cranks have often produced movements which were in the end universally accepted, this always has its dangers in narrowing the possible audience. How much harm has it done? The tendency of nuts to come forward for interview, while more normal people avoid the press after one or two bad experiences, is obvious, and several writers discuss these difficulties. Altogether, the determined non-hierarchical and non-official atmosphere has caused a bit of confusion in the public mind, yet on the whole it seems to have worked well and deservedly commanded respect. The non-violent methods pursued have also surely paid off: without them the moral impression made would have been much less and it would probably have been possible by now for the authorities simply to remove them from the site.

What about the issue, which is linked with this, of being solely female? This is by no means as simple. The book records a good deal of argument and heart-searching, but decidedly approves the policy on the whole, though it honestly records that a number of women left because of it. The position seems to be that there are overwhelmingly strong tactical reasons for being all-female as a means to remaining unquestionably non-violent. The campers, from their hard experience, consider these reasons to have proved solid. It was deemed necessary to abandon the principle of doing everything by consent and to tell the men to go. This seems to have been thought all right because some women saw the whole issue as one of sex warfare anyway, and could not deal with the already crushing difficulties of camp life while this complication remained. An event which occurred just after the decision was made may do something to explain this: ‘There was one bloke here for a couple of days who had come specifically to give us a workshop on self-control. Well he just couldn’t take it – he bashed into this cauldron of boiling water, almost spilling it over one of the women, and then he just stormed off.’ There does, however, seem still to be a real difficulty, compounded by the fact that the book contains no contribution from these men. Another worry in the book is an account of a visit to Northern Ireland when no attempt was made to talk to more than one side. By contrast, a visit to Russia seems to have been highly realistic and the chapter on it discusses admirably the difficulties of dealing with both official and dissident peace movements. Can nothing be done about the bad relations between the camp and the local inhabitants? This is not just a question about thuggish vigilantes, but about honest misunderstanders. Lynne Jones has a very impressive piece about the distress of encountering, at a demonstration, a woman jubilant about her son’s performance in the Falklands War, and finding it impossible in any way to explain the protest to her.

All this does not mean so much that there is something wrong with Greenham as that its message needs to be put in the context of a much wider dialogue to which those of us who are not at all prepared to go and get our arms broken demonstrating can contribute. Most of the more puzzling paradoxes make sense if they are seen as disparities between immediate and long-term goals. An all-woman demonstration does not have to be a declaration to men that they are incapable of peace-making and had better leave it alone: it is much better understood as a way of showing everybody the deep importance of the issue without getting written off as just one more warring political faction. The terms ‘unilateral’ and ‘multilateral’ themselves are thoroughly misleading unless the same point is made. Everybody aims in the long run at a general rundown of weapons, but ‘unilateralist’ is the name given to those who think that, as a means to this distant goal and in the course of negotiations, concessions from their own side are a necessary stage. Since the alternative is to wait for a sudden act of God to inspire both lots simultaneously, this is not a specially eccentric position. Connected with this confusion is the deep psychological ambivalence which attends the division of roles into Warriors and Victims. The misleading sense of activity, of being in command of one’s own destiny, which attends firm identification with the Warrior role is immensely reassuring: it gives a support which is thoroughly addictive. However absurd it may be to feel that you are the one who acts, not the one to whom things happen, we are all tempted to think like this, and to build the idea into our approach to personal death and disaster. The alarms and responsibilities of public life make it even more seductive. The suggestion that, in order to produce real security, we might have to admit that we lie open to appalling dangers brought about by our own systematic confusion and fantasy-building is not an attractive one. Although virtually all serious writers on the subject now admit that the original build-up of nuclear arms was indeed confused and misguided to the point of idiocy, there is still a very great difficulty in detecting the remains of that idiocy which still underlie official policies and finding a way to change them. Warriorspeak still seems to lack a long-term future tense. Granted that we survive, how, in the end, is the Cold War to peter out, and is there any reason why the process should not be immediately started?