Friday 23 January 2009

Harry Browne Interview: Hammered by the Irish

An Interview with Harry Browne, author of Hammered by the Irish: How the Pitstop Ploughshares Disabled a US Warplane - With Ireland's Blessing

For you, what is the definitive moment in the story of the Pitstop ploughshares?

Well, there are all sorts of moments that to all or each of them might be remembered as definitive. For me, from the outside, I can only go with a moment that I was actually present for, and the moment that most clearly connects their case with Irish society more broadly: the moment, in July 2006, when the Pitstop Ploughshares were acquitted by a jury in the Dublin Circuit Court. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't agree with me. Ciaron O'Reilly, anyway, seems to kind of like going to jail, to judge by his record. But if you're interested in resistance as something more than personal and symbolic, something that builds to wider social and political significance, then something like that endorsement by 12 ordinary Dublin people has got to count for something. For one thing, it clearly establishes that, despite the worries of the mainstream anti-war movement, direct action doesn't necessarily turn off 'ordinary people'.

That's not to say I would judge the Shannon action any differently myself if they had been acquitted: what the Five did was right by every ethical and political precept I hold, and I would still say that if they were now sitting in prison doing time for it. In some ways the fact that it also turned out to be legally okay is a bit of a happy coincidence rather than a fundamental element of their 'witness'. Nonetheless, it does make the story something rather different; it underlines the democratic institution that is the jury trial -- far more genuinely democratic than our political systems; and it makes it possible for me to call the book 'Hammered by the Irish' with some significance other than 'well, that was what was written on the green, white and orange inflatable hammer'.

What do you make of the US / UK differences on what makes a ploughshares action?

I go into some detail about that in the book, and I do find it interesting. I certainly don't pass any judgments and as someone whose only arrest was as part of a mass trespass in 1985 I'm in no position to do so. But I will say that of course in the end it's not about some almost-academic dispute over terminology. The important thing is that people on both sides of the Atlantic are prepared to take some action, and put themselves at risk, to make peace. If the US Catholic Worker version is more 'total' -- to use the Berrigan word -- and the likes of Trident Ploughshares arguably more 'tactical', they clearly both have a part to play. The main thing in both traditions is that something sustainable and, hopefully, signficant can be built.

Why are you the right person to write this book?

Who said I was? I'm the guy with his name on it so I'm right only in the 'de facto' sense. Plenty of people, including the defendants themselves, could have done something, something different and better, though of course it wouldn't have been 'this book'. I discussed doing a book with the defendants, who were mostly keen at the time. I'm a journalist, so though I'd never written a book I knew it wasn't beyond me. I had no ambivalence about the action or my view of it, and I'm sympathetically and reasonably knowledgable about the Catholic Worker tradition, at least in the US where my Dad sold the paper as a teenager in New York in the 1930s. There are plenty of reasons 'why not me', but I didn't dwell on them and instead hammered out the book. It was finished within a few months of the acquittal but got a bit hung up with the publisher in the US.

The other thing, I guess, that makes this book distinctly 'mine' is that as an American who has lived 20 years in Ireland I took it as an opportunity to 'explain' Ireland at this weird moment in its history to outside readers. So there are large swathes of the book which to Irish readers will seem like a rant about familiar history, but which I hope will inform and contextualise the Shannon action for those not so familiar with the recent story of Ireland.

What difference did the Pitstop ploughshares make to the peace effort?

Well, the peace effort failed. You could argue that it perhaps softened the blow against Iraq somewhat in the early stages, because the invaders had to be concerned about appearing to worry about civilians, but six years later that is grasping at straws. The Pitstop Ploughshares disrupted the war effort, of that there can be little doubt. And even a little disruption of war is a blow struck for peace. I think anyone reading the book might reasonably conclude that they possibly hastened the disintegration of the Irish anti-war effort, but it wasn't very well 'integrated' to begin with and the story, of disenchantment, demoralisation and collapsing numbers, was just as bad elsewhere in the world.

What is the future for those who would hope to see all swords hammered into plooughshares?


If you could write a book on anything what would it be?

'Hammered by the Irish'.

How would you describe your own faith and politics?

I'm the Atheist Slacker whom I have been assured is welcome in the Catholic Worker.
But I'm ethnically Catholic, and care a lot about what happens in the Church, even while it sickens me: my late father was a priest so it's the family business. I'm also something of an Atheist for Jesus: I think there's an awful lot to be said for what we know of the man and his teaching. But I have little reason to believe that he rose from the dead, and less reason to believe that his mother was a virgin.
I start to squirm in the presence of political labels. I'm not, quite, a pacifist. I'm an anarchist, I think. I'm an anti-capitalist, to be sure, and was one long before the bankers and politicians started raving like Trots.

Can we ever have peace when we have nation states that defend themselves?

Who knows? It's certainly possible that we could have moments of non-conflict between armed nation states. I wouldn't call that peace -- not given how deeply military and militarist logic permeates our societies even when we're not 'at war'. The nation-state is of course a huge part of the problem, but as someone living in a postcolonial society I am wary of 'global solutions', i.e. empire.

Where do you see the Catholic Worker in the UK over the next ten years?

I'm not qualified to answer that, either by affiliation or geography.

If you had a magic wand...?

It would cause me to reconsider everything I believe about the world, where magic only happens in the eyes of a child on Christmas morning.

What's one of the most inspiring things you've ever read or heard and quoted?

"There's no free trip, there's a toll gate along every highway. Stand somewhere, walk there, sit there, refuse there, sing there, get dragged away there. Pay up, or join the inhumans." That's Dan Berrigan, and I use it in the book.

Who should buy "Hammered by the Irish" and why?

I'd like to say 'anti-war people who need a little lift' -- but though this story has some semblance of a happy ending I've got to admit it won't give you a sustained high. Reality intrudes. I'd say, instead, and somewhat pedestrianly, it should be read by people who maybe have heard something of this story and have any of the following questions: Who were these people? How did they manage to hit a US Navy plane? What is the US military doing in 'neutral' Ireland anyway? What kind of support did they get in Ireland? How in God's name did they get off? I think this book will give you pretty straight answers.