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Science Changes The Character Of War

By John Scales Avery

01 October, 2013

Casualties produced by modern weapons

The American Civil War was the first war in which breech-loading and repeating rifles were used on a large scale, and observers came from Europe to study their horrifying effectiveness. Together, the North and South had 3,867,000 men under arms - about 11 percent of America’s population at that time. By its end, the Civil War had killed or wounded almost a million people! No war before or since has resulted in as many American casualties, either absolutely or proportionately. Neither side had expected anything of the kind. They had entered lightheartedly a war that both North and South had expected to be romantic and brief, but a new technology of killing had changed the character of war

In the First World War, it became still clearer that the romantic ideal of war no longer existed. Ideals of heroism, patriotism and gallantry filled the minds of the millions of young men who went to war in 1914, but instead of the romantic adventures they expected, they experienced the horrors of trench warfare, gangrene, barbed wire, artillery bombardments, machine-gun slaughter, and poison gas. Sixty-five million soldiers were mobilized in the First World War. When it was over, 37.5 million of these were casualties: either killed, wounded or missing. For some countries, the percentage of casualties among the mobilized soldiers was astonishingly high: Austria-Hungary mobilized 7.8 million soldiers, and of these, 7.0 million were casualties, i.e., 90 percent!

In the Second World War, the number of soldiers killed was roughly the same as in World War I, but the numbers of civilian deaths was much larger. In the USSR alone, about 20 million people are thought to have been killed, directly or indirectly, by World War II, and of these only 7.5 million were battle deaths. Many of the USSR’s civilian deaths were caused by starvation, disease or exposure. Civilian populations also suffered greatly in the devastating bombings of cities such as London, Coventry, Rotterdam, Warsaw, Dresden, Cologne, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Estimates of the total number of soldiers and civilians killed in World War II range between 60 million and 85 million (Wikipedia).

Nuclear weapons threaten to destroy human civilization and much of the biosphere

There is much worry today about climate change, but an ecological catastrophe of equal or greater magnitude could be produced by a nuclear war. One can gain a small idea of what this would be like by thinking of the radioactive contamination that has made an area half the size of Italy near to Chernobyl permanently uninhabitable. It is too soon to know the full effects of the Fukushima disaster, but it appears that it will be comparable with Chernobyl or worse.

The testing of hydrogen bombs in the Pacific half a century ago continues to cause cancer and birth defects in the Marshall Islands today. This too can give us a small idea of the environmental effects of a nuclear war.

In 1954, the United States tested a hydrogen bomb at Bikini. The bomb was 1,300 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fallout from the bomb contaminated the island of Rongelap, one of the Marshall Islands 120 kilometers from Bikini. The islanders experienced radiation illness, and many died from cancer. Even today, half a century later, both people and animals on Rongelap and other nearby islands suffer from birth defects. The most common defects have been “jelly fish babies”, born with no bones and with transparent skin. Their brains and beating hearts can be seen. The babies usually live a day or two before they stop breathing.

The environmental effects of a nuclear war would be catastrophic. A war fought with hydrogen bombs would produce radioactive contamination of the kind that we have already experienced in the areas around Chernobyl and Fukushima and in the Marshall Islands, but on an enormously increased scale. We have to remember that the total explosive power of the nuclear weapons in the world today is 500,0000 times as great as the power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What is threatened by a nuclear war today is the complete breakdown of human civilization.

Besides spreading deadly radioactivity throughout the world, a nuclear war would inflict catastrophic damage on global agriculture. Firestorms in burning cities would produce many millions of tons of black, thick, radioactive smoke. The smoke would rise to the stratosphere where it would spread around the earth and remain for a decade. Prolonged cold, decreased sunlight and rainfall, and massive increases in harmful ultraviolet light would shorten or eliminate growing seasons, producing a nuclear famine. Even a small nuclear war could endanger the lives of the billion people who today are chronically undernourished. A full-scale war fought with hydrogen bombs would mean that most humans would die from hunger. Many animal and plant species would also be threatened with extinction.

But politicians still threaten the world with war!

Most of our politicians learned nothing at all from the million casualties of the American Civil War. They learned nothing whatever from the 37,5 million killed, wounded or missing in the slaughter of the First World War. They learned absolutely nothing from the 60-85 million soldiers and civilians who died miserably in World War II. They have resolved to learn nothing from the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are totally blind to the implications of Chernobyl, Fukushima and the Marshall Islands, blind to the threat that a nuclear war would damage global agriculture to such an extent that the resulting famine might kill, not millions of people, but billions. They act as though war were still a perfectly legitimate human institution, despite the fact that technological progress has turned war into a highly dangerous anachronism.

Our ideas and our political institutions adjust much too slowly to the realities of technology. A nuclear war today could destroy human civilization and much of the biosphere. But politicians continue to risk the future of the world by initiating potentially catastrophic wars.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com


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