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Marcus Coll submits PhD thesis on DSC history

November 23, 2023
Marcus Coll, former DSC staffer and current contributor, shares some of the insights he gained during his PhD which focussed on the story of DSC co-founders Dr Kate Dewes and Cdr Robert Green. This husband-and-wife pairing formed an unlikely team: a former British naval Commander who once operated nuclear weapons, and a long-time peace campaigner who was heavily involved in Aotearoa New Zealand’s nuclear free movement. Marcus’ thesis will be publicly available online from 2024 after completing his PhD defence. Watch a one-minute video overview of Marcus' thesis here.

The conceptualisation of my PhD began in 2018 when I was studying towards my Master’s of International Relations degree at the University of Canterbury. A classmate of mine told me that she was doing an internship archiving for a nuclear disarmament group. As I had recently returned home after seven years studying and working in Japan, I was intrigued to learn that this NGO had many papers relating to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a surprise to find that a group like the DSC existed here in Ōtautahi Christchurch and I wanted to know more. I contacted the co-director, Dr Kate Dewes, who invited me to her home office to discuss my interest in researching the Hiroshima Peace Museum for my Master’s dissertation. As I walked down the driveway, I saw Kate coming out of the garage which was lined wall-to-wall with paper file boxes. She introduced herself and her husband, Cdr Rob Green, and they proceeded to show me their vast collection of documents. I was captivated by the scope of their work - it was like discovering a goldmine. The following day I sent them an email saying: ‘I just want to thank you both for your time yesterday. It really opened my eyes and made me think I have so much more to learn!’.

The next time I met them, Kate offered me some part-time work helping catalogue and archive their collection of documents to be gifted to the Macmillan Brown Library at the University of Canterbury (see video here). I happily took up the offer and delved into boxes spanning over 45 years of their careers in peace and nuclear disarmament. It was a mind-boggling exercise to index and catalogue their work, but I acquired a great insight into the level of care taken in their pursuit of a nuclear free world (search the collection here). I was able to read and hear stories from Kate and Rob about their experiences and the people they had worked with. Through this, we formed a close and trusting relationship and I continued to catalogue the 50 banana boxes of documents and artefacts while finishing my Master’s dissertation. I wondered if I could study aspects of their work in the form of a PhD. Having gained a PhD herself, Kate was able to give me ample advice about the challenges and rewards of pursuing one. I sensed an opportunity sitting right in front of me. I could study an NGO in my own hometown, with people who trusted me, and with work I was gaining knowledge of. With the guidance of two supportive supervisors, I applied for the PhD programme at the University of Canterbury and started my studies in earnest in July 2019.

Kate’s and Rob’s home offices are full of stories. In Kate’s office there is an orange couch where I would often sit; in the same place former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange once sat when he was interviewed for Kate’s PhD. There are also two large bookshelves, her computer in the corner, and a large bay window which looks out at her garden and the native Riccarton Bush across the street. Among the books, DVDs, and CDs, sit many of Kate’s photographic memories: a 60th birthday dinner with another former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, in New York; a group photo with UN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon; receiving the ONZM award with her parents; her first anti-nuclear demonstration in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square in 1979; hibakusha Bun Hashizume; anti-nuclear whistle blower Patsy Dale; Pacific peace activists; Māori elder Pauline Tangiora; grandchildren and family members past and present. In the middle of the bookshelves is a piece of paper stuck on with Blu Tack, obtained by Rob from the entrance guardhouse to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Headquarters in Brussels. It reads:

"Diplomacy, The Ability To Tell A Person To ‘GO TO HELL’
In Such A Way That He Actually Looks Forward To The Trip."
Kate Dewes and Marcus Coll in Kate's home office, July 2021.

Across the hall is Rob’s study, his computer desk in a bay window enjoying a similar view. On his packed bookshelves and walls are more photographic and artistic memories: navigating a RN Lynx helicopter; a Buccaneer nuclear strike jet landing on the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal; Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten and his wife relaxing in New Zealand in 1956 when he was First Sea Lord running the RN; Rob’s anti-nuclear activist aunt Hilda Murrell (murdered in 1984); his parents and grandparents, two paintings by his mother; and a photo with Kate and her daughters on their wedding day. These rooms have served as the home of the DSC, but I wanted to know what Kate and Rob were like before this and what pivotal intersections and experiences led them to it.

For my PhD thesis, I used a narrative approach to delve into Kate and Rob’s work, providing a chronicle of the practical knowledge, insights, and multifaceted aspects of how these two civil society activists, within a grassroots NGO, impacted those they worked with, perceived their own agency, and remained resolute in their pursuit of a nuclear free world. The stories presented in it contain five main interwoven themes: Politics, Gender, Dissidence, Spirituality, and Cross-cultural engagement. Each chapter covers an eclectic amalgamation of the successes, hardships, and trauma experienced throughout the journeys of these two anti-nuclear activists. I was also lucky enough to interview Peace Squadron founder Rev. Dr George Armstrong, DSC Kuia Pauline Tangiora, and Hiroshima survivor Bun Hashizume, all of whom allowed me to film them for my research (videos to be made public in early 2024).

As with life, civil society is made up of many parts which form a larger story and collective experience. Investigation of civil society at the most granular level can therefore generate a deeper understanding of the complexities and dynamics of the ‘bigger picture’, and how we imagine ourselves within it. While conducting this research, and working as an advocate for nuclear disarmament myself, I have often pondered the question: Why would anyone want to make campaigning against nuclear weapons their life’s work? The road is hard, you are paid very little (if at all), you are ridiculed as idealistic and out of touch with reality, and as optimistic as you may be, you are constantly told that a nuclear free world is simply unattainable.

Marcus Coll and Rob Green in Rob’s home office, July 2021.

Since beginning my PhD, I have experienced many moments of doubt regarding the relevance, robustness, and importance of my study. In February 2022, however, something unexpected happened. While the world was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and put his country’s nuclear forces on high alert. He vowed that any interference from the West would be met with consequences ‘such as you have never seen in your entire history’. This event brought nuclear weapons back to the forefront of global attention, and the world to its closest point of nuclear conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Suddenly, my research into how citizens of my own country have attempted to eliminate this threat seemed more important than ever. I felt a renewed motivation to honour my participants and their stories. I was able to draw connections between my research and the historical significance of the events unfolding around the globe. My doubts about the worthiness of my thesis were dispelled and I realised that this research would contribute to a better understanding of nuclear weapons and their impact on our past, present and future. As recently as this month, an Israeli government minister stated that using a nuclear weapon on Gaza was an option on the table. This kind of talk is devoid of all morality and care for civilian life. It is my hope that the results of my thesis can in a small way counter such thinking by promoting disarmament through a story which is accessible to readers of different disciplines and backgrounds.

I was never under any illusions that this project would be an easy one. In fact, it was much more difficult than I initially expected. While research comes with many unforeseen challenges, it was the external factors outside of my control which posed some of the biggest hurdles, both academically and personally. I finished my thesis in a world that is very different to the one in which it began. In March 2020, eight months into my PhD, the world shut down due to COVID-19. My scheduled travel to attend the NPT Review Conference at the UN in New York as part of the New Zealand civil society delegation, and proposed fieldwork to Japan to interview hibakusha and other activists were all cancelled. Embarking on my PhD, I had envisioned travelling to conferences overseas to network and present my research, but with the world quickly changing, I had to change with it. Working through a PhD during a global pandemic was extremely challenging, but on reflection it was somehow meant to be and produced many interesting and fruitful experiences with Kate, Rob, and the other participants.

It was a privilege to immerse myself into the lives of Kate and Rob. The more I learnt about them, the more I was in awe at all of the things they have carried out, the challenges they faced, and people they met. At the heart of their story is an unbreakable bond between them and their shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons. I believe their narrative will make up a small part of the efforts for peace by honouring those who have strived to rid the world of the threat of nuclear weapons and the risk of ultimate global destruction. Thank you both Kate and Rob for all of your time and generosity, and everything you have done for Aotearoa New Zealand and the world. It was a true honour, ngā mihi nui kia korua.

I’d also like to thank the DSC Programme Manager Lucy Stewart, and the DSC Council, for your support throughout this journey. This research was also made possible by financial grants from the Peace and Disarmament Education Trust, the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and the Quaker Peace and Service Committee.

Marcus’ thesis will be publicly available online from early 2024.

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