It’s a Matter of Scale and Imagination: COVID, Nuclear Devastation, & Climate Catastrophe

Introduction

This letter from Helen Young is a response to “Plowshares and Pandemics,” an earlier article in our Corona Connections series that highlighted Helen’s film, “The Nuns the Priests and the Bombs” (film available for purchase and online viewing). This letter offers some additions to the Learning Inquiry posted with that Connection (we encourage you to read the two articles together). She also emphasizes significant distinctions between a nuclear attack and COVID-19, as Úrsula Oswald Spring similarly examined the distinctions between the virus and climate change in her Connection, “Learning from Distinctions.” Both instruct us in the great difference in scale of the consequent damage and the long-term effects inherent in the existential threats of nuclear weapons and climate change, in comparison to even such great human devastation as that being wrought by this pandemic.

In Helen’s letter, some peace educators will see cause for deeper inquiry into the nature of nuclear weapons and nuclear policy. Others may also see the need for more extensive study of alternatives to the present militarized security system such as the “HUGE” proposal made by Ursula. It might also inspire us to envision the climate nightmare of “nuclear winter” so vividly described by Jonathan Schell in “The Fate of the Earth.”

The letter leads me to suggest that, perhaps, in light of the lack of actual experience with nuclear attacks (Few Hibakusha are still with us), such as we have now with this pandemic, we need somehow to “envision,” if you will “wrap our heads around,” the actual horrors of a nuclear attack, as the Plowshares activists actually did. A nuclear attack was, to them, an internalized, apocalyptic image of the detonation of a nuclear weapon that morally obliged them to take personal risks to reduce the greatest of risks to this planet. If not to be motivated to undertake risks, but at least, to undertake public action toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, perhaps we should all seek such images.

Probably the most effective way to do this is the way Helen Young chose, through film. While there is no documentary comparable to hers in substantive content and depiction of human reflection and action, there are numerous films peace educators could use toward provoking motivating images. Information about many films and visual mappings of nuclear attacks is available on the web. However, I did not see a listing of the most authentic and powerful of all, the documentary made of US army film records of the aftermath of the first nuclear attack, launched in the closing days of WWII, “Hiroshima-Nagasaki, 1945.” Hidden from the public for over two decades, this film “shows it like it was.” In my own case, I went to see the film as an advocate of disarmament and a stronger UN, but emerged as an ardent abolitionist. I recommend tracking it down. [Editor’s note: we’ve tracked down the film – you can watch it below.]

Betty A. Reardon, 4/23/2020

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By Helen Young*
Producer, The Nuns, The Priests, and The Bombs

There are indeed many similarities between the consequences of a nuclear strike and a pandemic. However, a nuclear attack would be far more devastating to a larger swath of the public. Thus far the pandemic data has shown the vast majority of affected people, whether young or old, are individuals with some kind of underlying health condition.

That is one of the reasons why the African American and Latino communities have been more severely affected. Their overall socioeconomic status has made them more vulnerable to disease. A nuclear attack would be an indiscriminate, equal opportunity killer.

A suggested added question to the learning inquiry of the original article would be: Do you see any similarities between the government’s preparation (or lack of it) for a pandemic vs. a nuclear attack?

Although the government’s preparedness for the pandemic was sorely lacking, we do have the NIH, WHO, and some semblance of a mechanism for dealing with a worldwide disease. SARS, Ebola, MERS, H1N1, have provided a modicum of experience. The public does not have even a paltry level of preparedness for a nuclear attack. Civil defense drills and bomb shelters are vestiges of a bygone era. And while the federal government does periodically conduct mock drills and simulation scenarios, this information is not communicated to the public.

Many Americans would be shocked to learn our nuclear weapons posture remains exactly the same as during the Cold War. At any moment we are at most 15 minutes away from a nuclear attack. If President Trump got word that Russian missiles were heading our way, security experts say he would have about 15 minutes to decide whether to launch America’s ICBMs to prevent them from being destroyed by the Russians. If Trump launched those missiles, a counterattack would likely follow and we would be in the throes of a full scale nuclear war. The tragic truth is a computer hacking, miscommunication, or sabotage could trigger this scenario resulting in tens of millions of people being killed. And a nuclear war would be far more devastating than a pandemic because it would also cause global famine.

“Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945,” by Erik Barnouw (1969).

In 1946, the U.S. War Department produced a twelve-minute film about the atomic bomb as part of the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, called “A Tale of Two Cities”. The two cities were, of course, the devastated Japanese municipalities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film begins with the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, noting that on that day, “the atomic age was born.” It then takes viewers on a tour of the ruins of the two devastated cities. Twenty years later in 1968, famed American filmmaker Eric Barnouw learned that a great deal of the footage in the movie was shot by Japanese filmmaker, Akira Iwasaki, who visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki to film the immediate aftermath of the bombings. The U.S military at first forced Iwasaki to halt filming but then ordered him to continue. The footage was suppressed for decades before Barnouw received a letter from an environmentalist named Lucy Lemann alerting him to the existence of the material. Barnouw obtained the footage from the National Archives and then the footage down to this short film. It remains one of the most chilling documents from the atomic bombings.

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Another suggested question: Compare the lasting effects of COVID-19 and the use of nuclear weapons on future generations.

Hopefully, scientists will come up with a vaccine for the virus. As we know the radiation absorbed in a nuclear attack continues for generations. After the U.S. tested some one thousand nuclear bombs in the Mashall Islands area, the women there gave birth to so-called “jellyfish babies”. The Hiroshima and Nagasaski victims had children and grandchildren born with birth defects.

In the original article’s section on contemplating and assessing risks, another suggested question to ask: Why is it important for women to have a role in the assessment of risk?

At the U.N. while the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was being negotiated in 2017, the delegation from Ireland (whose leadership was comprised largely of women) made a compelling case for why women and girls are disproportionately affected by nuclear weapons. They cited medical studies showing the radiation harm to women’s reproductive capabilities and to the unborn. Also women have, by and large, been denied a seat at the table in our security policy discussions.

Women place a higher value on consensus building and finding common ground. Currently, America’s notion of security is military might. Other aspects of security including having enough food, adequate education and access to health care are often cited by women as being the most important prerequisites for avoiding war and a possible nuclear confrontation. In the U.S. a nuclear security “priesthood” comprised of white men has formulated our security policy since the Cold War without taking into consideration how the world has changed. Most security experts say America’s biggest vulnerability on nuclear weapons is that we have a policy and war plans that have not changed for decades.

In the original article’s section on courage to accept the personal costs, some additional questions worth asking are:

Do you as a citizen believe you have the power to effect change on policies governing pandemics and nuclear weapons? Why or why not?

 What do you think is the best way to effect change in government policy? Is it at the ballot box? Through protest?

 What, if any, role do social media have in effecting change? What are your thoughts on the changes our COVID-19 experience will trigger in American society and in our government?  What changes would you like to see?


About the Author*

Helen Young is an Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist who has forged a career as a filmmaker and writer by blending a passion for investigative reporting with a commitment to illuminating critical issues of the day. Over the course of a career spanning some 30 years, Helen has directed and produced documentary films on subjects ranging from the childhood obesity crisis in America, illegal gun trafficking, and the U.S. space program. She was a staff writer and producer for CBS News and NBC News for twenty years and has also produced for MSNBC and Al Roker Productions. Helen has won one National Emmy news award and three New York Emmys for her work, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, United Press International, the National Commission on Working Women, and the Red Cross. She is a contributor to Huff Post.

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