Like most parents, we’re helping our 10-year-old, Sheila, prepare for the future. French immersion classes by day, ballet and piano lessons each week, and a fair share of parental love and concern. Is anything missing? Just one—a decent chance for her to live beyond her teens. We’re not providing that. Through no fault of hers the dice are being loaded against her and millions of similar kids. The process began 35 years ago and has been generously nurtured with public funds. Now we watch it proliferate with increasing anxiety.
If present trends continue, millions of tons of nuclear explosives will obliterate the cities of the world, including Ottawa where we live. What is not being faced are the consequences of such a disaster. How many parents care to imagine a war that will destroy our cities, kill several million Canadians and leave many others blinded, burned and weakened from radiation sickness? Nuclear war will be like no previous war, but a convulsive and final rending of human flesh and spirit, an act of global suicide. And the storm signals are flying high. Canada’s former ministers of defence and external affairs have warned that the Afghanistan crisis could bring on the Third WorldWar, one that could quickly turn nuclear.
The January, 1980, issue of the respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the doomsday clock on its cover forward to seven minutes before midnight, and since going to press editor Bernard Feld has said he should have nudged it two minutes closer.
The Bulletin clock acts as a symbolic conscience of the scientific community. The minute hand, never far from midnight, has moved nine times since the founding of the magazine at the end of the Second World War. In 1953, because of the development of the hydrogen bomb by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., it stood at two minutes to midnight.
Who’s to blame? The superpowers? Of course. Soviet troops, tanks and helicopter gunships have no business being in Afghanistan, just as American troops, tanks and helicopter gunships had no business being in Vietnam. The superpowers must be held responsible for continually escalating both the numbers and accuracy of their nuclear missiles. They are behaving, as the Bulletin’s editor puts it, as “nucleoholics”—and drunks always manage to find a reason for one more round.
But Canada and other countries also contribute to this deadly process. It’s not simply that our uranium is used for making weapons. Or that we are partners in a military alliance that relies on nuclear deterrence (in plainer English, our willingness to participate, if necessary, in the idiocy of nuclear war). It is also that there are those on both sides of every international conflict who seem to welcome an increase in tensions. The Montreal Gazette recently quoted a market analyst as saying: “Some people were exu-
berant about the possibility of war and the boost it would give to the flagging economy.”
And what, exactly, are we talking about when we speak of war in the ’80s? Sir John Hackett, author of a current best seller (The Third World War, August 1985), describes what one nuclear warhead could do to Birmingham, England: “Within a fraction of a second the resulting fireball, with temperatures approaching those of the sun, was over
2,000 metres in diameter____The roar of the explosion was
stupendous, lasting from 10 to 15 seconds . . The enor-
mous mushroom cloud above the totally devastated centre of Birmingham ... cast its shadow over a scene of extraordinary destruction .... Within a radius of five kilometres everything seemed to be on fire ....
The human casualties were horrific____
Of this population (of two million) approximately 300,000 were killed within minutes by the heat and blast effects. A further 250,000 received blast or burn injuries of a very serious nature, in need of urgent hospital treatment... Half the hospitals in the area were either destroyed or rendered totally
unusable by the explosion____”
Sheila and her generation, however, will not thank us for simply pointing out the lunacy of the drift to annihilation; war must be prevented. “If we don’t solve this world problem, the rest don’t matter,” says the January editorial of the United Church Observer. And nuclear war can be prevented if enough people give it the attention it deserves. The task is enormous and full of peril. No magic formulas exist. As a start, we should encourage our government to keep its political cool and not overreact to current crises. The government should also persist with the Canadian proposals put forward to the 1978 United Nations Special Session on Disarmament. This “Strategy of Suffocation” calls for a cutoff of weapons-grade fissionable materials, a world ban on testing nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles, and a progressive reduction of funding for new nuclear weapons. The Canadian government should also act on the United Nations secretary-general’s request to all countries to spend .1 per cent of their national defence budgets for disarmament efforts.
Canadians need to question the ancient belief that “if you want peace, prepare for war.” It did not prevent the fall of Rome, where it originated. The modern world invests 2,500 times more in the machinery of war than in the machinery of peace-keeping. Governments spend four times more for weapons research than on energy. In pounds per person, the world has more explosive power than food. Today, as in earlier times, we get what we pay for. The central issue now, and throughout this decade, is not the price of energy, or national unity, or unemployment. The issue is annihilation.
A former director of CUSO and recent special adviser to Canadian UN delegations, Murray Thomson works for disarmament with Project Ploughshares.
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