Make Nuclear Weapons Visible

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Robin Collins

The Ploughshares Monitor September 2001 Volume 22 Issue 3

This presentation was given at the Hiroshima Commemoration in Ottawa on August 6, 2001.

Robin Collins is on the Steering Committee of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and he is a volunteer with the United Nations Association in Canada.

If you visit the Diefenbunker in Carp, Ontario, and have a look at the Atomic Photographer’s Guild exhibit which is installed there until September 15, you will come across two posters of text. They outline two prominent views held by two schools of historians. One view is that the Hiroshima bomb saved lives by stopping the war in its tracks. The second is that the bombing of Hiroshima was unnecessary.

Either argument may be true or false without contradicting the more important assessment – and that is that dropping the bomb was wrong, regardless of whether it played a role in stopping the war early. If anything is clear, it is that we are here today because we agree and are convinced that dropping a nuclear bomb was and continues to be necessarily wrong. We may agree but let’s face it: not everyone does. If everyone did, we would not have nuclear weapons in 2001. Our abolition premise is in the moral assumption (which is also a basic principle of international humanitarian law) that civilians and innocents should not be targeted or harmed – not as a preemptive measure, not as retaliation, and not in revenge. The rules of war say that civilians should be avoided in conflict to the degree possible. That principle is upheld beyond the context of nuclear weapons. But no feat of human engineering contradicts that principle more than the use of nuclear weapons.

Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were low priorities as military targets and (unlike Tokyo) were not bombed until August 1945, at war’s end. Hiroshima’s targeting was based largely on the city’s size and the decision that the first atomic bombing be convincing internationally for all sorts of reasons, and that it cause the greatest possible psychological effect on Japan. While the city’s military industrial plants were on the periphery of the city, it was the centre of the city that was targeted. This was not accidental.

Today strategic missiles are armed with thermonuclear devices rated with a blast of up to1.5 megatons –100 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Bombs of 50 megatons have been detonated in tests, and those of twice that again have been rumoured.

The horror of nuclear weapons is that their primary military utility is based upon their ability to slaughter hundreds of thousands or millions of people at once, with hardly any effort. Nuclear weapons are “militarily desirable,” not DESPITE their problem of proportionality and inability to discriminate between civilians and soldiers, but BECAUSE OF IT. The nuclear arsenals hold the awful capability – unique among weaponry – to destroy virtually all life: by accident, by intent, or through escalation.

But at our peril we forget that it was the good guys – those who opposed Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo – who did the worst thing possible and dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and then dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki.

In times of peace, therefore, we must use every opportunity to make changes, both because only by this effort will war and weapons be further restricted, but also because only then can we prevent war in the first place.

I visited the United Nations in New York for a couple of days last year as part of a Canadian UN observer program. Most of us who were in the delegation were somehow involved in the disarmament and peace movement. We went on a tour of the new disarmament hall that lies alongside the General Assembly where there were three main exhibits: one about disarmament treaties, one on the bombing of Hiroshima, and a third about the landmines treaty.

While we were there, a delegation of Japanese arrived, and at one point there were only the Canadians and the Japanese in the hall. I couldn’t help but notice that while the Japanese were reviewing the texts about the landmines campaign (an effort where Canada played a significant, if not the most important, role), we were looking over the artifacts that showed the effects of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima (also the result of Canadian involvement). There was a statue that had been scorched where it had faced the atomic blast, photographs of an eerily flattened city, what remained of children’s school uniforms (their owners having been incinerated).

What made the landmines treaty possible was partly the triumph of humanitarian values over military utility. This was possible because of efforts by a campaign of tens of thousands of people and hundreds of organizations, and a few key governments and their officials.

But unlike landmines, nuclear weapons are about core military doctrine, and all nuclear powers will have to be on-board for abolition. This still requires the effort of a range of diverse players, particularly us – pacifists, activists, and abolitionists driven by moral and legal imperatives – but also governments, including major powers; military and ex-military; and eventually a significant proportion of the voting public. Governments can be influenced by public opinion and will act on it when it is focussed, credible, fair-minded, and sustained.

There were only five known photographs taken immediately after the Hiroshima explosion at ground level. Fifty-six years after that event, it is harder than ever to focus public attention on the inherent threat of these weapons. As some have noted, they have become invisible. And yet there remain the countless horrors of loss held by Japanese survivors and other citizens of Japan, and there remain tens of thousands of weapons at launch-on-warning alert.

But we are here today and that is testament to our sticking power. We need to make the effects from long ago visible again. We need to seize the moral high ground and create our opportunities for change. Remember, and never forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is more difficult to forgive, but if it is possible, forgiveness most certainly will be linked arm in arm with the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Spread the Word