Sometimes it’s more than just a matter of opinion

(August 22, 2020)

IT’S hard for an academic to write an op-ed. No footnotes or bibliography are allowed. Nor does anyone want a C.V. that details your qualifications.

On the other hand, many more people will read whatever you write!

I have been thinking and writing about nuclear weapons for a long time. My first effort, with my friend Bruce in Grade 5, won a prize in the St. James-Assiniboia school division Science Fair for an enthusiastic presentation of what Winnipeg would be like after a nuclear blast, with Portage and Main as Ground Zero. (Note to the curious: it would be gone.)

So the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an obvious topic for an op-ed — and yet from the letters published in response, my “opinion” was not appreciated.

Fair enough — it’s a free country — but the academic in me took umbrage at the comments.

There are experts on the history of what happened, who researched the original sources, talked to the people and wrote the academic articles and books, especially as new materials became available. Then, in the next wave, are the scholars who have studied what the first scholars discovered.

I count myself in that second wave — as adjunct associate professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada, where I have been a subject-matter expert in technology and warfare since 2003, teaching undergraduate and graduate students. (Most of them were members of the Canadian Armed Forces, some studying while on deployment.)

To say that nuclear weapons have embedded racism and xenophobia since their inception is therefore not merely my opinion, but the result of decades of scholarship — including my own. To say the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people — either directly by blast or horribly later on from radiation poisoning — were not needed “to win the war” is also a product of such research.

For anyone to claim that my criticism of the inhumane and unnecessary decision to drop those bombs somehow disrespects the Canadian veterans who suffered (and died) at the hands of their Japanese captors is therefore offensive to me. It also reflects an implied racism that unfortunately is still widespread, 75 years later.

Conclusions such as “the Japanese deserved it because of what they did to us” was not what I remember hearing, growing up, from one of my neighbours, who had been captured in Hong Kong and barely survived the POW camps that broke his health. He would have been horrified to find his suffering used today to justify such inhumanity — after all, what kept him (and others) alive was the fact that, despite their treatment, they refused to abandon their own humanity.

This is why we need to confront the systemic racism that underlies the “master narratives” of our culture, including this one about Hiroshima and Nagasaki — narratives that claim sometimes there are good reasons for nuclear attacks, especially against someone “worse” than us. As long as nuclear warfare is considered an option, as long as someone, somewhere, believes there are some conditions when the missiles and bombs can justifiably be used against “them” — whoever “they” are — none of us will ever be safe.

Years ago, when I taught my first university course, which included this version of the atomic narrative, I had an old man in my class. He came to see me, and told me he, too, was a scholar — I was chagrined to learn I had given a C-plus on an essay to someone who held a PhD from an Austrian university in the 1920s.

He laughed, and said he deserved it, but then told me he and his wife had been held in a Japanese prison camp since the fall of Singapore. He had a different perspective, because dropping the bombs saved their lives, so he was grateful it had happened.

But now that he had children, and grandchildren, he was also troubled — because their lives were saved in that way, their own family and all the people whom they cherished, the world they loved, was now at risk from an even greater evil than the one they so narrowly survived. He wished someone could have found another way to end the war, and grieved the inhumanity of a decision for which he now felt somehow responsible.

“It was wartime,” he said. “No one could safely challenge the government.” Shaking his head, sadly, he concluded, “People do terrible things in war” — before meeting my eyes, gripping my hand and thanking me for the course.

The racist, xenophobic idea that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki deserved what happened to them has had more poisonous and long-lasting fallout than the bombs themselves. It needs to be fiercely challenged wherever it is found — and that is definitely not just my opinion.

Read More