Ploughshares with a spanner

Rowan Tilly, Autumn 1998

An introduction to the Swords into Ploughshares tradition and an exploration of Ploughshares methods used to protect the biosphere. Rowan Tilly was a support member of Seeds of Hope Ploughshares and is currently an organiser of genetiX snowball, a campaign of civil responsibility, inspired by the Ploughshares tradition.

Reference to the Swords into Ploughshares tradition - what can we learn?

The Swords into Ploughshares tradition began in the US in 1980 by eight people who used hammers to disarm nuclear warheads. They were inspired by an Old Testament prophecy:

To date there have been over 60 ploughshare actions, characterised by nonviolence, careful preparation, disarmament, taking responsibility for the action and accepting the consequences - hence arrest and (usually) long terms of imprisonment. So far only Seeds of Hope Ploughshares have been found "not guilty" in a court of law. The actions usually arise out of community and also aspire to openness, democracy, accountability and to overcoming fear and challenging obedience. Many ploughshares activists take action as a witness - an expression of their spirituality - some are Christian, others have been buddhist, jewish, pantheistic, etc.

Most actions have been in the USA but they have also taken place in Australia, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. Ploughshares in these countries all have different styles; the Netherlands actions have happened with very little preparation; the American movement is generally more secretive because of conspiracy laws; the Swedish movement is very open; the British movement was formerly rather secretive but is steadily becoming more open and is strongly influenced by the Swedish movement.

British Ploughshares Actions

.... with a spanner

So how does this movement, this prophecy, relate to the environmental movement? Ploughshares is about literally disarming weapons, although there is, inherent in the literalness, a symbol of wider disarmament. The symbolism of transforming swords into ploughshares doesn't quite work for the environmental movement, especially as these days the plough could just as well be a symbol of genetically engineered monocultural deserts dusted with agri-chemicals.

The technology used against the Earth is not really so different from weapons used against humans. The target of the technology is not so different either, humans are suffering along with all the other species, especially from the effects of pollution. Environmental destruction is less dramatic than warfare; creeping so slowly it is more noticeable from generation to generation than year to year. The effects appear less dramatic too - not much blood; yet the death toll is probably greater than any war, not to mention illness from pollution.

For some environmentalists, humans are just another species, no greater or lesser than any other. Others put "social ecology" and social change high on their agenda in recognition that it is humans that are doing the damage and their way of life which needs to be challenged. The philosophy and practice of the Ploughshares tradition seems to be the best participative way of evolving social justice at the same time as getting rid of life threatening technology in the long term.

Criteria for a Ploughshares action


Ploughshares actions begin with community; the action arises out of a community effort to disarm and create peace.

The Ploughshares act of disarmament is an active expression of heart-felt conviction and of courage to be true to this conviction through one's action. It is often said that the most that anyone can do is to be true to oneself. But this raises a contentious question. What if I have a heart-felt conviction to burn my neighbour's house down? Perhaps General Suharto's conviction was heart-felt? This is why it is important that actions arise out of, or make reference to, a community which can let us know whether our heart-felt convictions are a good enough reason for taking serious action; community is the best kind of democracy check. Community may include our family, friends, other activists, campaigning groups; what is their reaction to the problem you are addressing? If even your most radical friends think you are mad, it doesn't necessary mean you are, but it may mean that many people will not be able to understand a full-on ploughshares-type action or accept it as valid. It makes sense to keep the most drastic actions for challenging only the most drastic of problems.

The action itself happens in a community; a group is formed to do the work of disarmament and the members of the group take up various roles in order to get the work done. The group is divided into two essential main tasks; the hands-on disarmament work and the organising and support work. Members need not decide what their role will be until they are well into the preparation. The supporters have various tasks such as press liaison, carrying out tasks which the imprisoned disarmers need help with, preparing the legal defence, organising prison visits, ensuring the disarmers are o.k. emotionally and physically (as far as possible!), organising for the trial, campaigning and communicating the action to the outside making use of existing networks and alternative media. Some groups, especially in the USA, do not begin a support group until after the action due to conspiracy laws. Some support members from Seeds of Hope were involved with planning and preparing the action from the beginning and some other European groups have also operated in this way. The advantage is that it creates a group with a strong identity making it easier for the support members to represent the action accurately; it also creates more equality between support members and disarmers.

As the action is communicated to the rest of the world, other people begin to organise, support, campaign and take action; so the community around the action expands continuously, hopefully for years after the action.


Ploughshares actions involve considerable preparation practically, emotionally and, for many people, spiritually. The practical work involves preparing the action, how it will be done, who will do what, symbols which will be used. The group has to establish communication methods and decision making process and this helps the group members to develop trust and respect for each other.

Establishing everybody's commitment is critical to the whole preparation process. For this it is important for each member to be honest and realistic about how much they can give; rather than making unrealistic promises and then letting the group down at a critical time later. Commitment should be established for the entire period of preparation, action, prison, trial and post-prison; the follow-up work may continue for a long time after the activists are released. Seeds of Hope work was still substantial up to a year after acquittal. It is important to keep reviewing and checking on commitment throughout the action.

There is usually additional material taken in to communicate the message of the action which has to be prepared. For example, Seeds of Hope left several items which included an indictment of British Aerospace and the British Government, an East Timorese Peace Plan, a report and video giving information about why the action was taken, the statements of the four disarmers, banners, photographs of people killed or wounded in East Timor, the hammers, and the "Seeds of Hope" which were created out of ashes and seeds in a ritual/ceremony before the action. These materials can become "evidence" at the scene of the crime.

The group has to do a lot of emotional work to help members to build up their courage to overcome fear and resist obedience; this involves discussion, role play and expressing fear, anger, despair. This is also an opportunity to change roles (support or disarmer) in either direction. It is amazing how simply talking through fear with others can be so effective at building courage. Seriously contemplate a sentence of a year and you find that a sentence of a week loses its power over you.

After all this practical and emotional preparation most activists find they are till not fully prepared and that in fact they can't prepare for everything. Many activists spend more time preparing spiritually for what cannot be prepared for in any other way, through meditation, prayer or gaining inspiration from learning about the actions of others; this being the sustenance that gets them through it all.


The Ploughshares definition of nonviolence goes beyond the relatively passive stance of not hurting anyone, even in self-defence (being a pacifist). Nonviolence can be active when we take steps to prevent violence from other people by deliberately obstructing them or challenging them, yet without hurting them in any way. Disarmament is done in a controlled manner so that there is no risk of harming any living being. Most ploughshares activists practice nonviolence as a life-style rather than as a tactic.

Seeds of Hope acted to prevent ongoing genocide. Any weapons system or machinery which terminally damages the Earth or robs the future is inherently violent and should not exist as "property". Can we say that causing the extinction of species is ecocide? And if we rob our children of future resources for their survival will that result in genocide? The careful disarmament of weapons or machines is a step towards preventing potential acts of violence and is an expression of active nonviolence. It is usually done with hammers, or other hand tools (such as a spanner !). The hammer is a tool that most unskilled people could use and it has a symbolic association with justice.

Witness or Strategy

The spiritual grounding in the movement means that the actions often carry a message which moves people more deeply in their hearts and spirits. Some activists see their action as a "witness", an active and totally uncompromised demonstration of their spirituality. Others prefer to use a more strategic approach. There are very interesting pros and cons for both approaches.


Only a few ploughshares actions have been open. The Swedish Ploughshares movement pioneered this method. The first time they tried this, they informed the arms company and the Swedish police and still succeeded in hammering on weapons. Later attempts have prevented hammering but the Swedes regard the intention to carry out disarmament as a good enough challenge to the status quo. They have their very own ploughshares liaison police officer.

Seeds of Hope experimented with openness: Angie Zelter did not disarm the Hawk with the other three, but openly declared her intention to continue the disarmament. She was arrested on her way to Wharton at a public meeting. Interestingly, her statement in the Report and on the video left on the pilot seat of the Hawk would not have been sufficient evidence to convict her; the prosecution had to give further evidence such as her statements to the press.

Recently there have been further open actions such as the first open British ploughshares to disarm the Trident submarine: Trident Ploughshares 2000. genetiX snowball, inspired by the Ploughshares tradition, is experimenting with the tension between openness and still managing to carry out the action on the premise that activists should try to be as open as circumstances allow.

Accountability - See also "Advantages of accountability"

Ploughshares actions are accountable and thus challenge everyone, including governments, to be accountable. This is consistent with a truly participatory democratic society. We cannot ask the opponent to be accountable if we are not prepared to be accountable ourselves. Any individual can only account for herself since accounting for others can never completely represent their version of the truth. This means explaining one's reasons and being public about the outcome. Acting out of community is the first democracy check, being accountable is the final democracy check.

It is said that silence equals consent: Ploughshares actions are dramatic and confrontational, far from silent. Such an action from the heart, that is open, public and accountable invites and encourages public response, a counter-challenge. The trial - usually by jury - of the disarmers is one of society's chosen methods of testing the validity of such accountable acts. The Truth as an absolute may not exist, or ever be found, but the public dialogue resulting from such accountable actions may come close to, or even arrive at a truth that we can all live with.

Being fully accountable for the disarmament work means explaining the action fully by presenting all the information and background. Seeds of Hope used the video and report as "evidence" at the scene of the crime to ensure that all these facts - including those which the legal system usually discounts as "political" - could be taken into consideration.

Challenging Obedience

Ploughshares actions challenge the sheep-like habit of doing as others do, not stepping out of line, otherwise known as obedience. As long as individuals unthinkingly do as others do, our society will never grow out of making war and destroying the Earth. To carry out an act of disarmament and then to take responsibility for it contravenes all society's norms. To openly state one's intention to carry out an act of disarmament is also profoundly challenging to the status quo. Both are against all the rules, especially the unwritten rules. People are supposed to wrap their acts of resistance in a veil of secrecy, to run away, remain in hiding - all a form of obedience in as much as it is what our society expects. The activists dare to push against the closed minds of a society which is helpless only because it believes itself to be powerless to act.

Accepting the consequences of the action

Please note that I am not writing from experience - I have never been to prison.
This follows on from being accountable and is also consistent with participative democracy or anarchy. The activist stays with the action to the very end and indeed, the prison sentence is seen as part of the action and part of resistance. By being vulnerable the activists are challenging the opponent on a very deep level. Those of us who are not physically in prison are not necessarily free. Being prepared to go to prison shows that it is possible to remove the prison from inside our own heads and expose it as a constant inhibiting threat in our society. Disarming fear of prison can be very liberating, considering what then becomes possible.

Activists have different strategies for surviving prison; some do prison resistance and incite other prisoners to nonviolent resistance, some do campaigning work, others keep their heads down. Some find prison quite tolerable; others find it enormously debilitating; those who have done more than one prison sentence say that each experience is different. What seems certain is that preparation and support can make the difference between better or worse. It is useful to find out as much as possible about other peoples' experiences of prison.

The extent to which anyone can stand up for their beliefs, without having to meet daunting challenges, is determined by the degree of oppression/freedom in our society. Obviously the people of East Timor would face worse consequences - torture followed by death - if they were to disarm the Hawks in Indonesia. This increases the need to take responsibility for preventing the manufacture and sale of the destructive machines in our own country where we have relatively greater freedom. Not everyone can take the risks of accountability; but everyone can afford to be as accountable as their circumstances will allow.


The Ploughshares tradition invites others to disarm and seeks to empower people with belief in themselves and faith in others, to realise that "ordinary people" can disarm. We do not have to give our power away - each and every person is responsible and if we are to achieve radical change, everyone will have to be prepared to take some risks.

Ploughshares actions are big actions and they illicit big responses, they touch people deeply. Sometimes the feelings evoked are unhelpful - jelousy or projections of heroism and martyrdom which make people feel "less than they could be" and devalue their own valuable actions. The support group can be very important in helping to demystify the role of disarmer and encouraging others to take action.

In practice we may wait a long time for ploughshares to become a mass movement, certainly inspiration alone is not enough to get people taking even low risk actions. However, direct face to face contact with those who are inspired from hearing or reading about ploughshares can transform inspiration into practice. Yet more people are inspired by every action and sometimes they do take up the hammer themselves. Every heart-felt conviction acted upon accountably, however small, feeds the faith that eventually humanity will overcome its fears and disarm in every sense of the word.