Human beings and nuclear weapons cannot co-exist.
I am writing from downtown Nagasaki where I have been attending the 2018 World Conference Against Atom and Hydrogen Bombs. Three days ago, we commemorated the 73rd anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima. There, on a hot, clear August morning, near the end of a war Japan had clearly lost, that city was annihilated by a single US atomic bomb. The lives of 140,000 human beings – almost entirely civilians -- were extinguished in an unimaginable blast of destructive energy. The lucky ones became ashes in that dark mushroom cloud you’ve seen pictures of. The unlucky died agonizing deaths from fire and radiation that day or in the days soon to follow. Another 200,000 - the “Hibakusha” or Atom Bomb Survivors – would live out mostly abbreviated lives, plagued by “atom bomb disease,” grieving over lost loved ones and lost futures.
Three days later, in Nagasaki, it happened again: this time 80,000 people died.
The numbers are incomprehensible. The stories the Hibakusha tell bring the horror into human perspective.
Pressed by the flames, I ran to the mountain. [All of us…] were climbing the mountain, separated from family members, with our hair standing on end, with their skin hanging down, shouting and screaming and crying.
My father, mother and sisters were all gone. My house and everything else were burned to ashes. Standing on the ruins, which were still hot, I felt my heart was burning to ashes.
The station roof was gone and only the concrete walls remained. I looked out from the station to see many people moving around in confusion Some were carried on stretchers and others were holding the injured on their back. It was a hell indeed.
Going through the ruins of fire, I reached Sakae Bridge and saw a charred child lying on the ground. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.
The Hibakusha are not only telling their stories for the world to remember. They are determined there will never be another Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Since the 1950’s, they and many others in a broad coalition called the Japan Council Against A&H Bombs (“Gensuikyo”) have worked tirelessly to eliminate nuclear weapons. The World Conferences Against A&H Bombs is one example of that effort. Along with peace activists from around the world, the Gensuikyo and the Hibakusha have formed currents in a broad stream of “civil society” pushing governments to give up these monstrous weapons. Last year, this stream coalesced under the International Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and succeeded in passing the UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Approved by 122 countries and ratified by 14 thus far, the treaty will take effect when ratification reaches 50. That could happen within two years.
The Hibakusha are not taking chances. They have launched a world-wide campaign to collect 10 million signatures in support of the ban, part of their strategy to eliminate nuclear weapons by the year 2020.
If you are an American, you have probably heard very little about any of this. That’s because the United States and its “nuclear umbrella allies” have done everything they could to resist, undermine, and defeat this treaty, despite their legal obligation under the earlier Non-Proliferation Treaty to do exactly what it requires. Still, the TPNW became a reality when most states grew to recognize the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. These devices are simply too horrible in their effects on human beings, too indiscriminate in their capacity to kill, and too persistent in their impact on people and environments, to permit their use under any circumstances.
Today, many Americans seem to think nuclear weapons went away with the end of the cold war, or they are just not anything we need to worry about. They didn’t, and we do.
In fact, there are still about 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, many recklessly still on “high alert.” The absolute myth of “deterrence” still seems believed by the majority of Americans, despite ample proof nuclear weapons deter nothing (Korea, Viet Nam, 911, Afghanistan?). As is the illusion that nuclear weapons are safely under control (over 50 acknowledged missing US nukes). Or the lack of understanding that any use of nuclear weapons would likely cause as much damage to ourselves as to the enemy (see “nuclear winter”). And now leaders in Washington and Moscow seem determined to reignite a nuclear arms race, unlearning the lessons of the past, squandering our national treasure and placing all of us at incalculable risk.
Let us listen to the Hibakusha. They tell us why it is that all nuclear weapons, everywhere, must be eliminated, forever. Let us join them in their quest.
Give back my father, give back my mother;
Give grandpa back, grandma back;
Give me my sons and daughters back.
Give back the human race.
(From Hibakusha Sankichi Toge, 1951)