Uncommon at Greenham
In August 1981 a group of women, children and men left Cardiff to march over a hundred miles to Greenham Common to protest against the planned siting of American Cruise missiles there. Some women decided to stay on and set up a peace camp from which men were excluded but which attracted the support of many other women from all over the country as well as abroad. The mere existence of the camp was not enough to wake people up to the horrific reality of nuclear weapons and a number of demonstrations were organised to get attention from the media and the public. In one of these the base was blockaded and completely encircled by hundreds of women linking arms; in another, women climbed over the barbed wire fencing, got inside the base and climbed on top of a missile silo where they remained singing and dancing until the police dragged them away. They also decorated the fence with pictures of children and loved ones and went to London where they lay down in the streets to symbolise the fate of those who would die in a nuclear attack.
Although these actions were undertaken in the name of “peace and life”, and more particularly in the name of children’s lives, it is difficult to accept that the women involved had fully thought through the implications of such words. If so, why demonstrate just at Greenham Common and not in front of the Israeli embassy, or the Lebanese one, or indeed almost any other to draw attention to all the people being killed in wars waged or supported by governments; why not decorate Asian and African embassies with pictures of the little children starving to death in those countries at the rate of about 30 every minute of every day? Indeed, if peace and life are the prime concern, why oppose just nuclear weapons and not all weapons? In fact, the word “peace” has been used by the Greenham women in a vague, undefined manner which has enabled thousands of people to identify with the movement while making purely personal interpretations of the word, ranging from the withdrawal of Cruise missiles from Britain to an unconditional rejection of all wars. The unifying principle that has spurred these women into action and kept them going in the face of all kinds of difficulties has not therefore been identity of aim. but rather identity of emotion. What we have here is strong emotion — shared, controlled and organised.
Nuclear weapons release strong emotions in people, and particularly in women, partly because the possibility of total annihilation is an entirely new concept. Schools and history books have taught us that wars and massacres are a normal, acceptable part of “civilised” life and children are kept too busy learning by heart the dates of the great battles to have time to ask questions. But the idea of a nuclear holocaust is new and has shock value.
In the book ‘Greenham Women Everywhere’, by Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, a whole chapter is devoted to letters and personal statements by women describing how they are haunted by nightmares and frightening visions of destruction. desolation and loss. Fear, as well as a discovery that many others shared their fears, was the spur that led woman after woman to join a group, to go on a march, to support the peace camp at Greenham. Once together they found they shared feelings of anger and confusion and that none of them was ashamed to weep or express emotion. They were put off by the local CND meetings, with the dry, impersonal atmosphere of the committees and the formal, unemotional approach which, to them, was typical of the way men organise things. The women found that when they got together, when they marched, sang or danced, held hands or linked arms, something quite different happened. Their negative feelings of anxiety, fear and helplessness were magically turned into “feelings of strength”, “feelings of calm and centredness”. On one occasion, standing together in silence after a demonstration, they were “ecstatic, overtaken by the brilliant feeling that we’d actually done it”.
Emotion is also the key factor when the Greenham women attempt to communicate with the rest of the world, as they try to get others not so much to understand their ideas but to share their feelings. This is particularly hard work with the people with whom they have most contact, the police, but it is also hard work with most of the rest of us who have been brought up to resist and suppress our emotions or at least to regard them as the weakest, most unreliable part of ourselves.
This applies particularly to men and is indeed the reason why they were excluded from Greenham. It was not, as some people believe, because the majority of women there felt that men were biologically violent and aggressive and therefore incapable of wanting peace. They did not think this. They did, however, think that men. because of their social conditioning, would find it difficult to join in the kind of activity they had chosen for themselves and to really accept non-violence as a strategy even in the face of police brutality. And from the women’s point of view the exclusion of men worked. From acting on their own and in their own way, the women there have derived tremendous feelings of strength as well as a new sense of identity as women. From the point of view of getting practical results, the emotional approach has not been more successful than the more formal one of organisations dominated by men: the first Cruise missiles were flown in just over a month ago, right on schedule. Men have achieved a form of personal satisfaction in fighting for lost causes, a sense of solidarity with other men. feelings of importance and possibly careers in politics. Now women have created their own version of solidarity, their own feelings of strength, their own niche in the continuing social struggle.
If feelings of strength are to be of any use, however, they must surely have some real impact on the world or else they are little more than self-indulgence. So the Greenham women may feel strong, but the nature of their actions shows that they are not. They protest and they demand their “rights”, but in doing so they are recognising the power of a superior authority to whom their protests and demands are addressed. Indeed they are saying to this authority that it need have no fears, that it is not in any way being threatened, only pleaded with. The Greenham women do not have the sort of strength that says “I have had enough of the way things have been run, I shall now take matters into my own hands”. No. They are still not much different from the beggar who relies on the rich, powerful person to treat him with pity. Beggars have never been choosers, nor will they ever be. As long as workers beg, as they do when they protest or make demands, nothing will change. Only when we take things into our own hands will they go the way we want.
Is this to say that emotion is to be rejected as futile and irrational? Not in the least. Emotion is an essential part of human experience: it is thanks to our emotions that we can empathise with others and support one another when we unite to achieve a common goal. The experiences of the Greenham Common women clearly testify to this, it would be foolish, however, to imagine that a simple venting of our emotions will achieve any more than does a more impersonal approach. The reason formal organisations never seem to get anywhere is not because they lack emotion. but because they lack understanding. If your car does not start in the morning, you do not beg it tearfully to understand your plight, nor do you present it with a formal letter giving all the logical reasons why it should work. Both approaches, in this case, would appear equally irrational as a car is obviously not capable of taking an interest in you, your motives or your feelings. It has its own laws and unless you understand them, you will not get it to start. A social system, although made up of human beings, is in fact more like a car, or any other machine, than it is like a human being. Many of the human beings caught up in this machine become themselves, at times, mere automatons: “The police, the armies and the courts are all ‘only obeying orders’”, writes Gwyn Kirk. They cannot respond to individual people or specific situations, and nor can the system itself. It is a huge, complex machine with its own laws and unless you understand them neither emotional action nor activity through formal organisations will make it do what you want.
“What we want to change is immense. It’s not just getting rid of nuclear weapons, it’s getting rid of the whole structure that created the possibility of nuclear weapons in the first place. If we don’t use imagination nothing will change. Without change we will destroy the planet. It’s as simple as that.” (Lesley Boulton, June 1982)
“The way things are organised is neither natural nor inevitable, but created by people. People have a wealth of skill, intelligence. creativity and wisdom. We could be devising ways of using and distributing the earth’s vast resources so that no one starves or lives in abject poverty, making socially useful things that people need — a society which is life-affirming in all its aspects.”
With these words Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk conclude their book on the Greenham women. What they say here they want is also what socialists want; and when enough of us want it we will be able to combine those two remarkable human capacities, the emotional and the rational, in order to take things into our own hands and run our own society, our own world, in the interest of all mankind. Only then will “peace and life” be possible.