Symbolic or Direct Disarmament?

The Trident Ploughshares 2000 project is an imaginative, responsible, and well-organised project which I am reluctant to criticise. However, I do have questions and reservations about it which it may be useful to set out.

My principal worry is about the plans for surprise raids on Trident and related facilities in various parts of the country which are due to take place randomly after the opening public demonstration at Paslane and Coulport in August. (However, even in the case of the open demonstrations, I am uneasy about the symbolism of having large numbers of people approaching bases carrying wire-cutters and hammers, and about the dangers of scuffles, or apparent scuffles, when the police or security guards attempt to remove these.)

Defining sucess

The key question about the project is how the organisers envisage it succeeding, or making its mark. Is the main aim "direct disarmament" - in the sense that success or failure will be judged by the number of Trident missiles and facilities that are put out of action? Or is the actual or attempted direct disarmament essentially a means of confronting the authorities with a moral and political challenge and of generally rallying opposition to Trident? The answer to this is crucial since it could determine the strategy and tactics of the project. If the aim is to achieve maximum direct disarmament, the most obvious targets are communication facilities since disabling them could possibly cripple the whole Trident system for days or weeks at a time. Unannounced raids, too, would tend to be preferred to open public demonstrations.

The Tri-Denting it Handbook - in most respects a model of its kind - does not, I think, make clear where the centre of gravity lies with regards to the project's aims. In general it does strongly emphasise communication; indeed, that is the logic of the insistence on "accountability" - people staying on site after an action to explain why they have acted as they did, and being prepared to face arrest and imprisonment. Similarly the "Invitation to Join Ploughshares 2000", states (p3):The whole moral and political strength of this action is to show just how many ordinary people are willing to make this personal sacrifice in order to disarm nuclear weapons. And a few lines further on: Even if we are arrested before we get near the bases or whilst we are attempting to cut through the fences, we will not have failed because this project is also about disarming the public mind and persuading the Government to respond to popular opinion - it is the attempt and the intent that matters.

But is it the "attempt and intent that matters" or success in disarming the system? Elsewhere the stress is more on the latter. "Trident Ploughshares 2000", the handbook states in another paragraph of the Aims section, "is a practical way of peacefully disarming some of the horrific nuclear threats to life one earth". And the "Pledge to Prevent Nuclear Crime" states: I believe that the damageTrident Ploughshare 2000 activists intend to cause the UK Trident system will stop the ongoing crime of threatening to use nuclear weapons contrary to humanitarian law.

But of course the damage, as such, that protesters have any realistic chance of inflicting can't possibly achieve that result. It is unlikely, indeed, even to dent the capacity of the UK government to wage nuclear war except possibly for a very limited period of time.

Dilemmas for the authorities

I sympathise with the desire to see the immediate declared objectives of a direct action achieved, if only to a limited degree. However, the important thing is that there should be a genuine intention to carry out the stated objectives, and concrete preparations for doing so, so that the authorities are forced to take action. It is this which presents them with a dilemma. If they are too heavy-handed against peaceful demonstrators, they risk losing public support. If they take no action, or don't act forcibly enough, the disruption continues. And even where the ability of the state to wage war, or nuclear war, is only marginally affected by the direct action - and, let's face it, this is generally the case - the authority of the government in a key area of its assumed responsibility is challenged in a way it cannot afford to ignore. The confrontation between the authorities and the demonstrators is also a piece of living theatre which can be a powerful means of communicating to a wider public and a way of challenging people to take a position on the issue in question.

Symbollic or concrete?

The disruption, then, is important chiefly to the extent that it contributes to the moral, political and imaginative impact of the action. Moreover, there is no simple, one-for-one relationship between the degree of disruption and the pressure exerted. During the Committee of 100 period in the early 1960s there was a suggestion at one point that rather than staging sit-downs at bases we should drive lorries loaded with wet cement to the entrances and let down the tyres. That would no doubt have caused greater disruption but it would not have created the same dilemma for the authorities. It can be difficult for them to decide how much physical force to use against nonviolent demonstrators. There is no such dilemma about bringing in the necessary equipment to remove cement-laden lorries. I think, too, that actions of this kind would tend to detract from public sympathy for the demonstrators.

Call for clarity

It is true that in some circumstances achieving the immediate aims of a direct action can assume prime importance - as, for example, in a crisis situation if one was trying to prevent the authorities from carrying out a particular act like dispatching planes on a bombing mission. But in most anti-war demonstrations, the immediate aims have an essentially symbolic significance. It is therefore crucial that the symbolism should be as clear and unambiguous as possible. I fear it is not so here, and that many potentially sympathetic people will be put off, and will regard the attacks on government property, particularly the surprise attacks, as a form of violence.

Temptation of sabotage

A related danger is that other direct actionists may be encouraged to make

similar surprise attacks on Trident or other military facilities but to dispense with the element of accountability. Clearly, one should not be deterred from carrying out actions that are valid in themselves on the grounds that they may put ideas into the heads of others acting on different assumptions. But the risk of this happening underlines the importance of making clear exactly what one's own assumptions and objectives are. In this instance, the more the emphasis is on direct disarmament, the more likely it is that others - including, perhaps, some who share the commitment to nonviolence - will conclude that this objective could be achieved more effectively if the key activists did not stay around to be picked up by the authorities after a single action.

Two final worries. The first is the risk of people on surprise raids being shot by guards as a result of panic, rather than deliberate intent. The second is that people will quickly be deterred from volunteering in significant numbers if the authotities start imposing punitive sentences. They may or may not do this in the case of the open public demonstrations; they will almost certainly do so where surprise raids result in substantial damage to equipment. The upshot could be that a small band of admirable, dedicated people could find themselves serving many years ofimprisonment - as some of the Ploughshares activists in the US have done. I fear that such an outcome, far from mobilising people to act against Trident, could have a deeply demoralising effect on the whole anti-nuclear movement.

Michael Randle

From Peace News No.2423, Mar. 1998