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Kill or Be Killed (or Both)

By John Scales Avery

07 November, 2012

“Beyond the Fringe” was a satyrical review that performed in London's West End in the early 1960's. In one of the sketches, the Prime Minister of England was being interviewed by a journalist, and the following exchange took place:

Journalist: “Sir, could you say somthing about our nation's foreign policy?”
Prime Minister: “Our foreign policy is very simple: Kill or be killed.”
Voice at the back of the hall: “Or both! Or both!”

During the 60 years that separate us from that sharp observation, it has lost none of its relevance. The doctrines of nuclear deterrence and massive retaliation are still based on the stone age maxim: “Kill or be killed”, and the voice at the back of the hall is still right in adding “Or both!”

A full-scale thermonuclear war would be the difinitive ecological catastrophe. It would destroy human civilization and much of the biosphere. No one can win a nuclear war, just as no one can win a tsunami or an earthquake. In such an event, everyone would suffer equally, also neutral nations.

Recent research has shown that thick clouds of smoke from firestorms in burning cities would rise to the stratisphere where they would spread globally and remain for a decade, blocking sunlight, blocking the hydrological cycle, and destroying the ozone layer. A decade of greatly lowered temperatures would also follow. Global agriculture would be destroyed. Human, plant and animal populations would perish.

We must also consider the very long-lasting effects of radioactive contamination. One can gain a small idea of what this would be like by thinking of the radioactive contamination that has made large areas near to Chernobyl and Fukushima uninhabitable, or the testing of hydrogen bombs in the Pacific, which continues to cause leukemia and birth defects in the Marshall Islands more than half a century later.

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 “jellyfish 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.

A girl from Rongelap describes the situation in the following words: “I cannot have children. I have had miscarriages on seven occasions... Our culture and religion teach us that reproductive abnormalities are a sign that women have been unfaithful. For this reason, many of my friends keep quiet about the strange births that they have had. In privacy they give birth, not to children as we like to think of them, but to things we could only describe as ‘octopuses’, ‘apples’, ‘turtles’, and other things in our experience. We do not have Marshallese words for these kinds of babies, because they were never born before the radiation came.”

A nuclear war 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 time 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.

The common human culture that we all share is a treasure to be carefully protected and handed on to our children and grandchildren. The beautiful earth, with its with its enormous richness of plant and animal life, is also a treasure almost beyond our power to measure or express. What enormous arrogance and blasphemy it is for our leaders to think or risking these in a thermonuclear war!

Suggestions for further reading

1 O. Toon , A. Robock, and R. Turco, “The Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War”, Physics Today, vol. 61, No. 12, 2008, p. 37-42).

2 Climatic Consequences of Regional Nuclear Conflicts. A. Robock, L. Oman, G. L. Stenchikov, O. B. Toon, C. Bardeen and R. P. Turco in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 7, No. 8, pages 2003¨C2012; April 2007.

3 Conard RA, Knudsen KD, Dobyns BM et al. A twenty year review of medical findings in a Marshallese population accidentally exposed to radioactive fallout, BNL 50424. Upton, NY: Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1974.

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




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