issue 163 - September 1986
Is the peace movement dying of boredom, and if so how can it be revived? Chris Brazier reports.
Photo: David Robie
It was a wet morning in Adelaide when I heard that the US had bombed Libya. We trooped over to the US Consulate, a curiously ordinary house in a leafy suburban street, and stood there in the torrential rain - all 12 of us. We must have cut pretty impressive figures on that night's local TV news - sodden, bedraggled creatures, the epitome of the rag, tag and bobtail peace movement for which the media reserve such scorn.
But it was a strange experience for me that day, because I felt personally threatened by nuclear war for perhaps the very first time. Thousands of miles away my friends and family slept on, still blissfully unaware that bombers had taken off not 20 miles from the NI's UK office, inviting who knew-what retaliation and escalation. I saw myself stranded in Australia while all the people who mean most to me were consumed in an atomic fire raging over Europe.
Two weeks later I was in New Zealand or, as we must now learn to call it, Aotearoa, when I heard about the Chernobyl disaster. Waves of radiation were sweeping westward towards Britain and, again, somehow my distance from the actual event brought home how perilously fragile is our safety.
The conjunction of Libya and Chernobyl may well have the effect of rekindling people's sense of urgency about the nuclear threat. It may recharge our will to carry on. But it is significant that we need recharging, need that booster injection of fear. Because I sense that the Western peace movement has been losing the momentum that it had in the early 1980s, the heyday of Greenham Common in the UK, the nuclear freeze in North America and the Palm Sunday rallies in Australia.
Why should this be? The threat to world peace is no less severe, and in fact becomes greater almost by the moment. The main problem is boredom. You might think it's ridiculous that anyone could be bored by the idea of nuclear devastation, the possible end of human life on this planet, but it is a very real problem. After all, you can only be moved and terrified by the idea of the holocaust for so long - after a certain time the fear and paralysis will ease and life will go on. It is actually healthy that this should happen - human beings have a determined and beautiful capacity to move on, to leave old things and old worries behind.
A friend of mine recalls his experience in the early 1960s when the Bomb was new and he genuinely believed that it was about to drop - he gravitated towards London in the knowledge that he would then be sure of being killed cleanly instead of having to face the half-life beyond. And now? He hasn't been active in the peace movement for years. He thought the threat was imminent and, when it didn't materialize, he found it hard to believe it was ever going to. Life went on.
For millions of other people, myself included, the Bomb didn't become real until the beginning of this decade. The issue hadn't gone away, of course - just lain dormant, to be reawakened by a generation just discovering the awful facts about the arms race. Perhaps President Reagan was the greater spur of all to this resurgence, since he was the first US leader who did not even pay lip-service to the ideal of disarmament - and it will redound to his eternal shame that he is the first President since Eisenhower not to have concluded a single arms-control treaty with the Soviet Union (even Nixon concluded nine).
For those fervent years of the early 1980s the mushroom cloud remained a potent image. We drank in the terrible facts about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, worked out what effect a bomb would have if it exploded in an airburst over our nearest big city. We learned about the effects that radiation has on the human body, joined peace camps and peace marches in impassioned efforts to protect the lives and futures of our children.
But what happened afterwards? The children carried on growing, by whatever miracle the cowboy in the White House didn't call down The Big Sleep - life went on. After a few years of living at a high pitch of worry and activism about the holocaust, you can't help but wonder deep down whether it will ever happen. I think we are becoming victims of our own hyperbole. The nuclear threat has always been so imminent, the situation so precarious, that it's difficult to carry on believing it with the same fervour as one year succeeds another.
One of the first things we have to do is to find a new language - the old one of holocaust and mushroom cloud, radiation and deformity won't work any more. People are either so bored with it that they don't listen or else they're so frightened that they lock it away deep inside themselves and won't think about it.
When the holocaust appears routinely in pop videos and TV soap operas, how can it help but become commonplace and unalarming? - a low drone of background noise to our everyday life. Most of the world's population, after all, has lived its every waking moment in the nuclear age - we went through childhood and adolescence into adulthood and still nothing happened. Why, says our instinct, should we not carry on into old age, too?
I say this not to undermine the work of the peace movement but to reinforce it. We have to be aware that people think like this and modify our tactics accordingly - instead of just assuming that is we hammer away long enough they'll understand in the end.
This is a problem which afflicts peace activists as well as the general public. How can you keep getting fired up when you know the arguments and the only new thing is dry scientific information about the latest missile. I much admire the activists who can keep pace with such technical details but don't ask me to do so - the first mention of SS-NX-23s and I just switch off as I did in school physics lessons. And it's no use saying it's for my own good - so were the physics lessons.
So how do we keep up the anti-nuclear momentum? When women have spent four years in a peace camp outside Greenham Common, pulled public opinion behind them and taken the peace debate into a whole new area redolent with meaning - that of the link between male power and militarism - when they've done all this and still seen Cruise missiles deployed in front of their eyes, how on earth do they carry on without loosing heart? Faced with the secretive monoliths of the Pentagon and the Kremlin, how do any of us stop ourselves feeling powerless?
The answer - or the start of the answer - is that we need to be aware of our own success stories, to realize that if we look at things on a global scale things are moving. You don't have to look far. In Australia Senator Jo Vallentine is the world's first member of parliament to have been elected on a single-issue anti-nuclear ticket. She has helped put peace politics on the agenda in Canberra as never before. And even the Australian Government, despite reneging on it pledge to stop uranium mining, does at least take peace seriously enough to have appointed the world's only full-time Ambassador for Disarmament.
The next British General Election could well bring in a Labour Government committed to scrapping the UK's nuclear weapons. And in the South Pacific a Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty has been concluded - true, it has all kinds of holes in it, but it is still the first step of its kind since the Treaty of Tlatelolco declared Latin America nuclear free in 1967.
Meanwhile, if we have the most bellicose and alarming US President in recent history, we also have the most disarmament-conscious Soviet leader ever - Mikhail Gorbachev continues to stick his neck out beneath the axe wielded by the Soviet military machine. His stream of arms control initiatives desperately needs the encouragement of a response.
In so many ways one arms-racing superpower is as bad as the other, and the NI naturally tries to be as clear-eyed about Russian deficiencies as about American ones. But it is worth emphasizing that the Soviet Union has undertaken not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, has unilaterally stopped nuclear testing while the US, UK and France all continue, and in 1985 froze its deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe. It is still waiting for responses in kind from the US and its allies.
But the biggest success story of all is Aotearoa. That tiny country's ban on nuclear warship visits to its ports caught the world's imagination - one in the eye at last for the Pentagon. But this was not achieved simply through the idealism of a courageous government - it was the result of years of hard work by ordinary peace campaigners who had educated public opinion to the point where Lange and his ministers were more or less forced to comply.
One woman from near Christchurch told me why she could feel genuinely responsible for the Government's stand.
'My local council refused to declare itself a nuclear-free zone, so l and the rest of the peace group visited every house in the district, talking to people about the nuclear issue. And when it comes down to it, who would want nuclear weapons parked at the end of their own street? We gathered signatures on a petition which eventually proved we had over 70 per cent support and forced the council to reverse its decision. Within months the council next door had done the same thing, citing our example as a precedent. And within a couple of years we had a Government responding to this public feeling by resisting the US. It was almost as if I'd sent a message to the White House myself.'
The nuclear-free-zone effort is only one aspect of the peace movement in Aotearoa but it is very important. It empowers us. It shows that action by people like you and me can make a difference. And that is where seeing things internationally helps. Not just in the sense that we can learn from Aotearoa's experience the value of a certain tactic but also because we all contributed to it in our way. The New Zealand peace movement did not exist in isolation - it was inspired in the first place by Britain's Aldermaston marchers and America's anti-Vietnam War campaigners. More recently the peace camp at Greenham Common became a worldwide inspiration, sparking off people (especially women) in Auckland and Dunedin, Wellington and Nelson to go out and take action. We badly need to trade off each other's successes - in a very real sense, internationalism is strength.
But this is not only true of Western countries. It is high time the peace movement took more account of what is happening in the Third World. In this UN-declared International Year of Peace there are 15 wars currently raging, and all of them are in the Third World1. They make a nonsense of the idea that the nuclear deterrent has kept the peace since World War Two.
The Western idea of a 'peace movement' established to oppose nuclear weapons must seem slightly ridiculous and rather obscene to most people in the developing world. Conventional, not nuclear, arms are the ones which affect the everyday life of the poor in the Third World as their governments pour money into tanks and planes instead of development Weapons imports give the army yet more power, and encourage them to impose ever more heavily the rigid authoritarianism of military thinking.
It is significant that the Western peace movement has received no echo in the Third World - unlike just about every other social or political movement of note, from Marxism to feminism2. The reason is not that the Third World is exempt from threat - the nuclear winter will see to that (see 'The weapons of winter'). It is rather that our concern with our own survival seems a little like navel-gazing to people who have enough trouble surviving in times of 'peace'.
We are still obsessed by the threat to our own peace and comfort of a nuclear holocaust, while people in the Third World are denied peace every day by hunger or repression, disease or the diseased global economic system. Any peace movement worthy of the name cannot be blind to these injustices - not least because the Third World War may well be just that, one that starts in the Third World, in a Nicaragua or an Afghanistan.
Nowhere is it clearer that the peace issue is inseparable from the causes of justice and independence than in the Pacific. There, islanders have been subjected to over 30 years of nuclear tests - people have been uprooted from their homes, seen their friends and relatives suffer the aftermath of radiation poisoning, seen their babies born dead or deformed. And all this has been visited on people by the US and France as part of the normal process of governing their territories. Without control over their own destiny, islanders in the Pacific have been powerless.
That is why what was once a campaign just for a Nuclear Free Pacific has now taken the islanders' concerns on board, become the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement and added immeasurably to its own strength and understanding as a result. It is also why Maori campaigners in Aotearoa now look askance at their Government's international reputation as a peacemaker as say 'hey, what about our peace?'
Extending our definition of peace in this way might make the problem seem even larger and more daunting. But it need not - after all, it gives us new allies and our fund of shared success stories becomes even greater. It can claim the deposing of dictators in Haiti and the Philippines as well as the end of military rule in every South American country except Chile and Paraguay. And it can include the world's belated discovery of a conscience over South Africa.
My point is not that the peace movement has been wrong to concentrate its opposition on nuclear weapons - clearly there is a place for such single-mindedness, for the dedication which makes older friends of mine spend their retirement demonstrating outside US bases and being arrested for their pains.
But we need to broaden our vision. The jigsaw of war and peace does not just depict two bullies squaring up to each other across the North Atlantic playground. The world becomes smaller every day and this gives us the chance to feel part of a global network - part of people's battle for justice in El Salvador and South Africa as well as of the nuclear-free movement in Aotearoa. To gather strength from each other's successes and learn from each other's failures. To construct a movement for peace and justice that is genuinely internationalist.
1 According to Ruth Leger Sivard in World Military and Social Expenditures 1985 there were ongoing wars (defined as annual deaths of 1,000 or more) in: Afghanistan, Angola. Cambodia, Ethiopia-Eritrea-Tigray-Somalia. El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran-Iraq, Lebanon, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, Philippines, Sri Lanka. Uganda and Western Sahara. Uganda may well be removed from this list since last year's revolution, but I have kept the same number on the supposition that this year's deaths in South Africa will exceed 1,000.
2 I am indebted for this thought to Eqbal Ahmed, END Journal, April/May 1985.
This special report appeared in the pacific force - building peace and justice issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.