60 Years of Disaster

by Jim Haber, Coordinator of Nevada Desert Experience

January 27 marks 60 years since the first atomic bomb test in Nevada. Codenamed “Able” it was tiny for a nuclear weapon: the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT, about 1/15 the size of the bomb that killed upwards of 130,000 people in Hiroshima. Anniversaries are times to reflect, so what is the legacy of the Nevada Test Site (NTS), now called the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS)? What is the current state of the NNSS and what is going on there? Are the nation and world safer for all the Cold War and post-Cold War efforts? As the NNSS re-purposes itself to focus more on detecting and containing national security threats, it still stands as a world-wide symbol of the making of weapons of mass destruction. The name change is intended to reassert its relevance in the absence of exploding nuclear devices, but the inherent problem of the NTS remains. The NNSS is always able to resume testing nuclear weapons within two years should the president order it.

Testing of nuclear weapons didn’t only happen at the Nevada Test Site. Historians even argue that using the bombs on Japan rather than demonstrating them on an unpopulated location constitute human experimentation. Treating victims as research subjects rather than patients was widely reported in Japan, as well as from victims of atmospheric testing in the 1950s. Targeting civilians was and remains a crime against humanity, as does threatening nuclear attack on non-nuclear states, no matter how repressive their leaders.

We, as a people, caused much worldwide grief for our part in the Cold War, which used small countries as battlegrounds with no concern for local populations or environments. Official tours of the NNSS and the displays at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas exhibit great pride in the NTS’ Cold War role. There is little mention in their history about efforts to stop testing and other parts of the nuclear weapons complex. Efforts to shut down the Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan or French test sites in Africa and the South Pacific garner barely a word. Only a limited view is presented.

At the NNSS which is run by the Department of Energy (blurring the lines between civilian and military in this country), military nuclear waste is buried even as remediation efforts elsewhere are undertaken. The detection and first responder trainings are only defensive in nature if we concurrently support the leadership of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its mission to monitor nuclear programs around the world. Unilateral or bilateral agreements that ignore the mandate of the IAEA actually encourage other states to seek nuclear weapons to be seen as worthy players on the international stage.

The United States military budget is on par with military spending of all other countries combined. When the US attacks countries that don’t have nuclear weapons, it makes the possession of nuclear weapons seem like a necessary deterrent. But if more countries have deterrent forces, then we’ve lost the disarmament fight.

Taking the land of the Western Shoshone and other native peoples to use it for nuclear testing is not just. Forcing the people of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands to live on tiny Ebeye Island, creating one of the most densely populated places on Earth is not just. Stealing and contaminating native hunting and fishing grounds is not just.

Thank God so few countries have tested or possess nuclear weapons. The global consensus is clearly to eliminate all nuclear weapons. “Stockpile Stewardship” tests at the NNSS, along with missile tests in the Pacific are undermining the credibility of the U.S.’s agreement to seriously reduce nuclear stockpiles. Sharing nuclear technology with violators and abstainers of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while threatening countries not in egregious, well-documented breaches of the NPT is not just and promotes horizontal proliferation. Hence, continued testing whether they’re full-scale tests or not, signals to the world that the US will keep its finger on the button and will brook no new players in the nuclear game.

When we devise ways for nuclear weapons to be more precise and kill fewer civilians, to be more militarily useful, we undermine the international consensus against all weapons of mass destruction. And how many design upgrades and revisions can be implemented and still not require a real test? At some point, unless we in the United States get serious about pressuring our government to cut its nuclear weapons arsenal, the Nevada Desert will again quake with detonations…and be filled with peacemakers crashing the gates like in the 1980s to shut it down once and for all. This anniversary should serve as a time to work for peace and disarmament.

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Jim Haber is the Coordinator of Nevada Desert Experience (NDE) which organizes interfaith resistance to nuclear weapons and war. Jim is on the War Resisters League National Committee, and he edited the 2008 WRL Peace Calendar. Jim is also very active with Jewish Voice for Peace, the G.I. Rights Hotline and the Catholic Worker movement. He can be reached at: jim[at]nevadadesertexperience.org.

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The Bomb

Howard Zinn’s last testament to the immorality of war
The Guardian
Ben Dandelion
Thursday 23 September 2010 11.00 BST

Howard Zinn’s book, The Bomb, recounts how the bombings of Hiroshima and the French city of Royan changed his view of war. Photograph: Dima Gavrysh/AP

Howard Zinn died this year. He is perhaps best known for his People’s History of the United States, a book that has featured in The Simpsons and was recommended by Matt Damon’s character in the film Good Will Hunting. This book, which offered a view of US history in terms of 500 years of imperialism, colonisation and racism, was less well received academically, with critics calling it polemical and revisionist. Zinn ultimately was an activist and it shone through his academic work as well as his more political essays.

Delivered to the publisher one month before his death, The Bomb falls into the latter category. In it, Zinn puts two essays side by side, one entitled “Hiroshima, breaking the silence”, the other “The bombing of Royan”. As a young man eager to be demobbed, Zinn recalls celebrating the dropping of the atomic bomb; it meant the end of a war he did not wish to return to. He had taken part in the bombing of the French town of Royan just three months earlier. The essays revisit that unthinking celebration and desire to follow orders of those months in 1945. Using historical evidence, it also argues that neither mission was necessary and asks what prompted military action that would transcended military logic and moral sensibilities.

Like Zinn, I have changed my mind over the need and glory of war. Leaving Quaker school at 17, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. But travelling the world on my bicycle, I came to the same realisation as Zinn – that there is no “them”, but only a global “us”. I will gladly say that changing one’s mind is not and should not be seen as a sign of weakness, as it so often is for politicians, but of creative reflection. Of course, now that I am a committed pacifist, I hope the changes people make follow the same direction as Zinn and me rather than the other way round – from pacifist to militarist.

However, Zinn is also involved in arguments more complex than a simple pacifist one. He is critical of portrayals of any portion of humanity as “lesser” and rightly points out that only by dehumanising the enemy could strategies such as blanket bombing or the dropping of atomic bombs be perceived as possible by people who also saw themselves as moral. I remember an analysis of the media by the sociologist Christie Davies which explained how humanity could at any point be counted as identified humans, nameless members of a group or statistics, and that their moral status shifted within press coverage depending on the degree of humanity ascribed to them. “Eighteen die in bus crash” constructs the dead as a statistic. So it is with war, where “the enemy” is dehumanised or even demonised to the point where killing them is not perceived as murder, and where there are no longer “innocent” victims, just “dead enemies”.

This is a conscious process of state and media which can be seen in the censorship of films documenting the effects of the atomic bombs in the years following the war. Zinn implicitly argues that if we place ourselves into that “enemy” situation and cannot justify the military action proposed, then we are morally at fault. This may end up as a kind of pacifism, but it is one which takes critics on in different ways and asks more pointedly for each proposed action to be examined in a globalising moral light.

In these particular cases – especially the destruction of Royan, which was actually inhabited by allies rather than enemies, Zinn argues that motives of military pride, experimentation of new technology (napalm was used for the first time at Royan) and the desire for revenge outweighed the facts that none of it was strategically necessary – the port was a sideshow which posed no threat to the rapid advance of the allies towards Berlin in June 1945.

That said, the very “evils” that the war was meant to defeat was implicit in the actions of the allies. All of the allied powers had records of colonisation and all had previously invaded other countries for their own good, as they then complained of Germany or Japan doing. All defended their empires against independence movements in the years following 1945. All ultimately carried out military action that killed thousands and thousands of civilians. Blanket bombing in Dresden was described by Churchill as a “heavy raid”. At the time, racism in the US underpinned the social system as much as it fuelled the rhetoric to go to war against Japan and Germany. In this sense too, less happily, “they” were actually just like “us”. Yet, the rhetoric of war relies on “them” being seen as lesser.

The Bomb is not an easy book to read in places, given the accounts of the suffering inflicted by the bombings. It is one that will infuriate many. Some will resist its historical analysis, some its collage of arguments in its favour, and some will say Zinn just didn’t understand the true nature of the decisions that had to be (and still are) made. What he shows however, is the divide between those in the corridors of power, and those of us who do not really know what is going on and only have their polemic of the necessity of war to go on.

Unfortunately, Zinn’s book remains timely and crucial. As a last testimony to a life of scholarship and activism, it serves us well to take his writing seriously.

Go for the links in the article to: The Guardian