Friday, July 06, 2007

A Man at Greenham Common

In the dying days of the Cold War, RAF Greenham Common, a US Air Force base in Southern England, was being used as a base for nuclear-armed Cruise missiles aimed at the Warsaw Pact nations. A group of anti-war protesters set up a permanent camp outside the perimeter fence of the air base to register their opposition. Richard Ford was involved with this camp for a long time. I recently spoke to him about his experiences there in the 1980s.

Heretic: How did you first become involved with the anti-war movement?

Richard: I grew up in a very conservative town on the south coast, and I remember it as a sort of intellectual black hole. If you were under twenty, there was nothing to do but get drunk and fight, and I wanted to do neither of these things. Naturally I rebelled against the deadness of it all and sought the wider world.

This was the time of the cruise missile. The stated purpose of the weapon was to destroy the SS20 missiles that had recently been deployed by the USSR to counter the Pershing.... which were introduced to counter....well, you get the drift. The trouble with this logic is that the weapons would only be of use if they were fired first; there would be no point in destroying missile launchers that had already been fired.

In other words- whichever side pressed the button first would win, and whichever side waited would lose! The most horribly destabilising weapon ever introduced! For this reason it was me who sought out the peace movement and not the other way around.

Heretic: What made you decide to move to Greenham Common Peace Camp?

Richard: I never lived permanently on any of the camps, but I was a regular visitor there for quite a long time. I suppose I was seeking adventure and escape from my immediate environment.

We need to remember that there never was a women-only peace camp. True, there was a women-led camp (the Women's Camp) but there were also two mixed camps: the Rainbow Camp, and the Green Camp. The Green Camp was sometimes there and sometimes not.

Heretic: Most people think that Greenham Common peace camp was female only. Is that not the case?

Richard: The Women’s Camp (as opposed to the other two) was overwhelmingly female. The original march to Greenham Common was also mixed, even though it was organised by a group called Women for Peace and Life on Earth. This fact was not even originally a secret- photographs exist showing a mixed group with women placed to the front holding a banner in suffragette colours. The men followed in a supporting role - meaning they carried all the camp supplies.

The population of the Rainbow Camp was about twice or three times that of the Women’s Camp because it was so much more fun! Nevertheless there was a strong ethic that we were there only to support the Women’s Camp and never publicly admit our own existence.

The important thing was not the sex of the participants, but a war between two of the women: Fran D'ath, who was a normal human being despite believing the feminist codswallop, verses Helen Johns (a bit like Dworkin but minus the charm). Fran led one faction of the camp. She was rather like a latter-day Suffragette; very 'jolly hockey sticks', like a character from the film 'Thoroughly Modern Millie'. She was heterosexual, and lived with a man in her caravan. This made her somehow unclean in the eyes of the RadFem faction, who would not use cutlery that she had used. Fran continued to live in her caravan with her boyfriend until the end of the camp.

Helen Johns was the leader of the other faction. She was the better politician and controlled all communications between the camp and the outside world. The myth of the women's peace movement was almost entirely created by her. This is the version that has passed into history.

Heretic: What was daily life like at the camp?

Richard: I can only speak of the Rainbow Camp. It largely consisted of sitting in a circle and smoking weed while discussing things in a rather nebulous way.

Heretic: Do you think the camp was effective as an anti-nuclear protest?

Richard: The camp generated publicity- much of it unhelpful. Nevertheless even most of the participants were unaware of the debate surrounding the weapons. Knowledge of military hardware was considered suspect, as was any understanding of the political process. Both of these indicated a worryingly 'male' and analytical way of looking at things. The Women's Camp in particular was anti-logic, and would only deal with generalisations such as 'Take the Toys from the Boys' - under a female Prime Minister! (Margaret Thatcher) - and talking about the supposed similarities between missiles and penises. There was also a doctrine of 'vagina envy' by which men were assumed to be pro- war because we secretly wished to be castrated, and to bleed. This was probably some sort of projection of their own castrating fantasies.

Heretic: Yes, I came across that notion at the time too. ‘War is menstruation envy’. Bizarre.

Richard: There was what was known as 'women's magic', which aimed to deny objective reality by levitating the military base off the earth and placing it on the moon. The failure of these actions was always blamed on the negative influence of men. The magic was justified on the basis that it frightened men. It did in fact frighten me a great deal, because it was so irrational, and because the women openly claimed that rationality was a male invention that must be destroyed. To hear this was to confront pure insanity, and have no arguments against it (because they would only be 'rational male' arguments).

With muddled thinking such as this it is not surprising that the camps did not inform public debate in any meaningful way.

Some of the most imaginative actions came from the Rainbow Camp - such as declaring themselves an independent nation and growing food on military land as a protest against the misuse of resources. I would estimate that there were three people living at the Rainbow Camp for every one living at the Women’s Camp during the time I was there. Even the so called 'Women's Camp’ was in fact mixed- but the men would hide when the media came to visit.

Heretic: How did this come about? How did women come to have all the authority in the camp?

Richard: You have already noted how powerful 'consensus' is within closed societies. It is hard for anyone who has not been subjected to consensus as a means of control to really grasp this. It may be helpful to remember the Jonestown mass suicide where many thousands of people were pressured into suicide simply by the power of consensus- everybody else was doing it.

An initially very small group of Welsh women succeeded in creating the myth of the women's peace movement simply by deciding that it existed. They formed a mixed group and marched to Greenham Common behind feminist banners. Once the feminist character of the march had been established, men and non-feminist women could be made to feel like splitters if they did not go along with it.

The original march was a footnote to a footnote to history and attracted no attention whatever from the media. Journalists, however, like things to be simple and so the (mixed sex) peace camp became known as the Women's peace camp.

Once this had been done the camp could then become a nucleus of a nationwide movement. Feminism is very good at the snowball effect- it takes a few court decisions that are unfavourable to fathers and builds them into an unstoppable tsunami. Just as Parliament never intended to exclude fathers from their children, there was no women-only peace camp.

We must remember that this was before the invention of the Internet. Men such as myself felt uncomfortable with feminism but lacked any language with which to oppose it. All we could do was bleat weakly that we knew that men had done all sorts of bad things in the past but not all men were the same. This leads to a constant state of self justification, apology and trying to prove that one is not a rapist- an impossible position. It is simply impossible to assert oneself in these conditions.

Heretic: How were you treated by the radical feminists at the camp?

Richard: I was generally ignored. Many of the women at the Women’s Camp were 'revolutionary feminists' who considered the radical feminists to be too lenient towards men. These women would refuse to talk to men in any circumstances, and would either ignore any man who spoke to them, or reply by spitting. It would be interesting to know how they dealt with the men who worked in the DSS office and processed their unemployment benefits.

Heretic: (laugh) Yes. I bet the people they bought their weed from were men too. I wonder how often they spat on their drug-dealers. Not very often I suspect.

Richard: There was an ethic within the Women’s Camp that no man should ever speak to a woman unless first spoken to- anything else was a form of rape. I must stress that the Women’s Camp was a fringe group that was largely irrelevant to the main camp. The Rainbow and Green camps were much more relaxed.

Heretic: It almost seems like an absurd question, but what made you decide to leave in the end?

Richard: The Rainbow Camp disbanded when two of the men living there were accused of rape- which the police were more than happy to play along with. Other men were continually accused of rape either verbally or to third parties, so gradually the camp wound down- leaving the Women's Camp which was also mixed sex most of the time.

Once the Rainbow and Green camps were broken up, there was nowhere I felt comfortable staying.

Heretic: That's quite disturbing. Do you think that false rape accusations were being used as a political weapon? Was the intention to drive the men out?

Richard: I was not there when these events took place. All I know was that the Rainbow and Green camps were disbanded voluntarily by the participants- none of which would talk about the decision except to say that it was done on the request of the (much smaller) Women's peace camp. This left the Women’s camp free to put about their own version.

It is significant that they were only arrested for rape- and were not prosecuted as far as I am aware. This would indicate that the whole thing was trumped up and the camps dispersed to avoid bad publicity from further conflict.

The feminists were never really concerned with the success or failure of the peace movement. They saw it only as a recruiting ground, and as a result they were always more willing to create a damaging split than non-feminists. This gave them great negotiating power.

Heretic: How did the British public get this idea that Greenham Common was a women-only peace camp?

Richard: People prefer simple myths to a muddled reality. The Women's peace camp simply makes better copy that the more complicated reality. Any man who refused to along with this would also become interesting to the media- but this would be damaging to the movement, so the men censored themselves for the benefit of the wider movement.

Richard, thank you very much for talking to me.

My own experiences of the peace camp movement can be found here.

Richard Ford is the blogger behind Carnival Of Reaction