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

Nothing to celebrate on this anniversary

(August 6, 2020)

Seventy-fifth anniversaries are normally a time of celebration, because we tend to remember significant events that are important in our lives as individuals and as a society. Birthdays are generally something to celebrate, but not necessarily events in world history.

So far this year, we have celebrated V-E Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe, and the signing of the United Nations Charter. Later this month, we will mark V-J Day, the end of the war in the Pacific, and then in October we will celebrate the founding of the United Nations.

But before these, we must today mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and on Aug. 9, the bombing of Nagasaki. There is nothing to celebrate on either of these days, as we think of the horrors inflicted on the people of those two cities, and the premature deaths from radiation poisoning of hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of people since that fateful month in 1945 when Pandora’s box of nuclear nightmares was opened.

The world certainly changed in 1945. People hoped that change was for the better, and so history was rewritten to make it seem that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, to turn the global page toward post-war peace and prosperity.

Since then, the evidence has only grown more compelling that neither atomic attack was warranted. The war was in its final days. American intelligence had known all along that the Japanese empire had never possessed any nuclear capability — in fact, we have since learned that the few Japanese physicists who might have had the ability to create an atomic bomb ensured the sabotage of any such attempt.

So imagine the Allied conversation behind the scenes, especially after the death of U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the elevation of Harry S. Truman, who supposedly was unaware of the Manhattan Project until FDR died. Of course, they wanted the war to end — but not too soon. What was the point of spending a lot of money to build a bomb you didn’t use? Besides, it was going to be used against the Japanese — and not against people “like us.”

Historians have long concluded that there was never an Allied intention to use atomic weapons against Nazi Germany, which at least attempted to establish a nuclear program, and certainly felt free to use V-1 and V-2 rockets against civilians in Great Britain. It is therefore very hard not to also conclude that racism was inherent in the decision to use atomic weapons on Japan — and chilling to realize that only two bombs were dropped before the war’s end because that was all they had.

If there had been 20 bombs, perhaps 20 Japanese cities would have lain shattered under the mushroom clouds that became horrifyingly familiar to the world after 1945.

Racism, xenophobia, colonialism and power were the Four Horsemen of the nuclear apocalypse from the start.

We think 2020 will be seen as a pivotal year in the 21st century, because of how much the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live together in a global society. But while the pandemic looms large in our field of vision, there are other events unfolding that might be more crucial for the future we hope our children will enjoy.

The United States is leading the way in dismantling the treaties that were efforts to make nuclear annihilation less likely. The year 2019 saw the U.S. withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty. This year, the Trump administration has announced it intends to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which allows reconnaissance overflights to monitor military buildup on any side. The next Trumpian target is the New START pact that limits nuclear weapons platforms between Russia and the United States.

Ending these agreements makes the world a much more dangerous place than it was — or than it needs to be.

Seventy-five years after the mushroom clouds rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we need to remember that nuclear weapons today are larger and far deadlier than those first two small bombs. There are more than enough, on all sides, to mean the end of life on Earth, whether by radioactivity or by triggering a nuclear winter and dropping temperatures to levels too cold for vegetation and most animals — and people — to survive.

Even a small-scale, regional nuclear conflict could be enough to trigger catastrophic global climate changes, given that we are already close to tipping points because of how we continue to live against the planet by not cutting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

In a nuclear age, facing climate crisis as well as a global pandemic, there is no place for “them” and “us.” We are all in this together.

Read More

Calculate the global fallout from nuclear weapons

(September 23, 2017)

The Korean War is still not over. People need to remember this if they are planning a trip to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

No doubt to undermine the success of those 2018 Games, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems intent on focusing international attention on his half of the peninsula, divided by the Korean Demilitarized Zone and relying on a shaky 64-year-old armistice to keep the peace.

But tantrums that are amusing in a child and irritating in an adolescent are frightening in a leader of a country whose national virility is measured by long-range missiles and nuclear weapons tests.
Match him with a U.S. president who seems cavalier about “nuclear footballs” and is prone to launch barrages of tweets at 5 a.m. — or cruise missiles during dessert at state dinners — and there is even more reason to worry. When U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to “rain fire and fury” on North Korea, it makes the North Korean missile program seem prudent, rather than paranoid.

All these antics push the nuclear doomsday clock even closer to midnight. We have lived with that clock for 70 years, however, so dire warnings have little or no effect on the situation. Both nuclear technologies and nuclear weapons seem immune to common sense; instead, they are promoted by nearsighted enthusiasts or applauded by irresponsible leaders.

In a heartbeat, nuclear technologies and nuclear weapons could cause more devastation worldwide than all of our other efforts to destroy ourselves combined. As we are pummelled by hurricanes, shrivelled by drought or scorched by forest fires, as we poison the air and contaminate the oceans and the water we drink, we need to remember this nuclear reality as a clear and present danger.

Read More