Awareness of the horrors of nuclear weapons needs to be revived given public apathy and political complacency

‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 at 0815 hours. This was followed three days later by the dropping of ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki, at 1101 hours. The two nuclear bombs vaporised around 150,000 people who were going about their morning business; 130,000 others succumbed to burns, radiation sickness, and other ailments that the collapsed health system could not treat. Few, then, understood why their skin erupted wounds that would not heal, hair fell off in clumps, and stomach churned with pain and nausea. Several hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bombings, have recounted how an ordinary day turned into one where they wished they too had died in that instant flash.

Buried under

The purpose of recalling these horrors from 75 years ago is to ensure that nuclear armed states do not forget the real nature of nuclear weapons. Human memory is short and often preoccupied with the immediate. Currently, the socio-economic-health emergency posed by COVID-19 and the growing geopolitical tensions between major powers owing to their abrasive behaviour seem to be consuming us all. But nuclear risks are lurking just below the surface, and they are growing.

Dangers of unintended use

Among the risks of nuclear use, the highest likelihood is that of inadvertent escalation due to miscalculation or misperceptions. It is less likely that adversaries will launch pre-meditated, deliberate nuclear attacks because each understands that a splendid first strike is impossible and that nuclear retaliation cannot be escaped. Of course, the severity of the damage would depend on the number and yield of weapons used. But studies indicate that use of even a fraction of the weapons held in medium-sized arsenals would cause a massive human tragedy and have long-term repercussions for food and water availability, agricultural output, climate change, migration, etc.

Possibilities of unintended use are exacerbated by many factors: stressed inter-state relations, unchecked strategic modernisation as arms control arrangements wither and nations hedge against each other; adoption of nuclear postures that peddle the benefits of ‘limited’ nuclear war; and emergent technologies creating new anxieties. Advancing capabilities of cyberattacks on nuclear command and control, blurring lines between conventional and nuclear delivery, induction of hypersonic missiles capable of high speed and manoeuvrability, incorporation of artificial intelligence in nuclear decision making are new developments that threaten to create unknown risks. As capabilities grow and inter-state trust diminishes, chances of stumbling into nuclear war are not insignificant.

The Cold War and after

However, these risks are not part of our collective popular imagination today. During the Cold War, citizens of affected nations were made to undergo regular nuclear drills. As sirens blared, everyone had to rush to bunkers created in homes, schools, hospitals, etc. There were guidelines on what to equip these nuclear shelters with so as to be able to sustain lives in case mushroom clouds went up. Several works such as novels, movies and TV documentaries depicted life “the day after”. These graphic depictions kept nuclear weapons and their highly destructive nature alive in the consciousness of the people. Public pressure translated into civil society movements that demanded action from political leaders to engage with the subject of risk reduction through unilateral, bilateral or multilateral measures.

The end of the Cold War pretty much brought down the curtains on nuclear weapons for the common man. The perceived sense of danger of nuclear war receded and nuclear strategies went back to being dictated and driven primarily by security conclaves. Over the years, technological advancements and growing hyper-nationalist tendencies have shaped strategic discourse in a manner that is largely devoid of popular participation. But, this connect is important to temper national choices and create the much needed checks and balances.

General awareness of the horrors accompanying nuclear weapons, therefore, needs to be revived since a high level of public apathy and political complacency have brought us to the threshold where the risks remain high but the desire to address them is low. In fact, one does not see a shared desire for nuclear risk reduction among nuclear armed states. Drunk on their faith in deterrence, there is a tendency to use strategies of nuclear brinkmanship and ambiguity that actually add to the risks. There is also a display of confidence in being able to manage and control risks. However, umpteen war games have shown that it is impossible to calculatedly climb the escalation ladder. Any nuclear use between nuclear adversaries would cause a humanitarian disaster.

A media campaign

In order to get nations to understand this, it is necessary to expose leaders and societies to the full range of physical, economic, social, political, health, environmental, and psychological effects of nuclear weapons. This could be most effectively done through use of popular media. Just as the fight against COVID-19 is being won through global high intensity information dissemination about various facets of this highly contagious disease, a similar information campaign about the destructive potential of nuclear weapons is needed. This will help on three counts: compel leaders to rationalise their weapon requirements; force nations to find ways of reducing nuclear risks; and gradually pave the path towards elimination of nuclear weapons.

Recalling the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through events all year round on its 75th anniversary is an opportunity to bring nuclear risks back into popular imagination and into the political agenda. Creative media can help by tapping available modern means of mass communication to create stories with identifiable characters and situations that tug at the heart and instil a larger respect for humanity.

Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi

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