In a world that is becoming dangerously unstable for a whole range of reasons, it was inevitable that the rhetoric between nations would become increasingly antagonistic and dangerous. We tend to see the period since the two world wars as a time of relative peace but the tragic truth is that for the past half century dozens of wars have been raging somewhere at any point in time, some of them small but many significant enough to threaten world peace.
Putin’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine, which kicked on 24th February, started the biggest war in Europe since World War Two, and already many thousands have died and more than 13 million people have been displaced, with no sign of this conflict coming to an early or straightforward resolution.
This terrible war has also put the rhetoric of conflict and militarism back into the global conversation, and the immediacy of social media has sucked everyone into the language of drone strikes, digital warfare and high technology weaponry. For many it has become a vivid and captivating digital wargame experience, except that the victims are real people, and the obliterated landscapes are real places.
In recent weeks the desperation of the Russian administration has seen various statements released about escalation, and it wasn’t entirely suprising that the dreaded word ‘nuclear’ would creep into the conversation somewhere. Shadowy Russian military figures have been increasingly hinting at the threat of triggering the ultimate destruction, leading even Vladimir Putin himself to try and reassure the UN last week that such a scenario would never happen. Of no-one knows who is ultimately in charge of such decisions in Russia, and everyone knows that should a nuclear escalation happen, it will far more likely be a response to an error rather than a measured decision. Such is the insane pinhead on which nuclear war is balanced.
As if one slumbering threat of annihilation isn’t enough, the inflammatory visit of US House Speaker Nancy Polosi to Taiwan has now awakened the ire of China, adding yet another global stress point to our primitive instinct to war. For Russia, which blundered its way through the Cold War and the decisive moment of the Bay of Pigs, lessons have been learnt that pressing the nuclear button benefits no-one, and threatens the survival of the entire planet. China, on the other hand, has had little experience of such moments, and seems to have an entirely different view of how a nuclear scenario might play out.
This week marked the annual commemorations of the terrible bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When an American B-29 bomber dropped its five ton ‘Little Boy’ bomb on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945, more than 40,000 people were evapourated instantly and three days later a “Fat Man’ bomb dropped on Nagasaki , obliterating some 70,00 of its citizens. Over the coming days and months many thousands more continued to die from the effects of burns, radiation sickness, and injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. In all it is estimated that the two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians.
History records that the Japanese Prime Minister Baron Kantarō Suzuki told his country to fight on after the first bomb, and was only forced to declare a surrender after the second. As it happened, between the two bombings the Soviet Union officially declared war on Japan on 8th August, and poured more than one million Soviet soldiers into Japanese-occupied Manchuria, northeastern China, to take on the 700,000-strong Japanese army. So other factors may have been at play in the Japanese decision to surrender. It’s also a largely forgotten fact of history that, under the Quebec Agreement, signed consent from the UK was required and given to the atomic bombings, and two further Japanese cities – Kokura and Niigata were also being lined up for annihilation.
Hindsight is a blessing, and there is hope that however awful the realisation, historians may one day conclude that all of this could have been avoided if the decision-making had been in the hands of others with a more conciliatory and imaginative and caring view of human nature.
Several generations and global disarmament promises later it’s tempting to believe that the threat of nuclear war has receded, but those of us old enough to have been around and campaigning in the tense years of the 1960s-80s will be able to tell you that whilst we may have reduced our nuclear arsenals, the protagonists still hold enough nuclear firepower to obliterate the planet. And alarmingly things seem to be looking increasing again like those dark days of desperate protest.
Most of my childhood was spent in the small Hampshire village of Tadley, which even today is still dominated its Aldermaston nuclear plant. In my youth there was no greater adventure than slipping through a faulty fence and cycling around the roadways and over the mounds that – unknown to us – contained enough destructive power to obliterate a country. In my teen years we drifted towards nearby Greenham Common, and terrifying nights spent in darkened lanes confronting huge Cruise missile transporters is a memory that will stay with me forever.
Eerily similar images have appeared the press this week of trucks heading in convoy from Aldermaston on a two day journey up to the Coulport nuclear submarine in Scotland. It was reported that these were just ‘routine’ movements of nuclear warheads that have to be sent to Aldermaston along the public road network every month for servicing, and there was ‘no risk’ of a detonation. Whatever the circumstances, it serves as a sharp and timely reminder that nuclear weaponry, and the spectre of nuclear war, remains an intrinsic threat to life today.
This was clearly on the mind of Pope Francis back in March when he made a very specific reference to the increasing threat of nuclear war. Speaking to pilgrims in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall at his regular Wednesday audience on 16th March, the Pope cited the sixth chapter of the book of Genesis and warned that the image of Noah’s flood is “gaining ground in our subconscious” as the world considers the possibility of a nuclear war “that will extinguish us.”
Last Saturday, speaking at the Annual Hiroshima Day commemoration event in the City’s Peace Memorial Park, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres echoed the fears of Pope Francis, saying “ … Crises with grave nuclear undertones are spreading fast — from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine… Humanity is playing with a loaded gun.”
The UN Secretary-General warned that a new arms race is picking up speed and world leaders have been quietly restocking their nuclear stockpiles, with some 13,000 nuclear weapons are now held in arsenals around the world.
“We must keep the horrors of Hiroshima in view at all times, recognising there is only one solution to the nuclear threat: not to have nuclear weapons at all”, the UN chief stated.
In a Message for the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in June, Pope Francis affirmed that “the use of nuclear weapons, as well as their mere possession, is immoral.”
Defending the idea of mutual deterrence, he said, “inevitably ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any possible form of real dialogue.”
For all its geographical insignificance, and its diminution on the world stage, the UK has retained a disproportionate influence over global affairs, good and bad. It’s close partnership with the USA, and its place at the NATO and UN tables means it retains considerable power to influence global politics, and therefore global peace and security.
In a few weeks time we will have a new Prime Minister, and ministers and civil servants will be frantically ironing the emperor’s new clothes in a bid to present fresh policies and a fresh vision of optimism for our citizens, and to the wider world.
Defence spending, and which regimes we do and don’t support will be centre stage, and our demeanour and responses to conflict will set our path for many generations to come.
It’s sadly highly unlikely that any current political party will divest us of our nuclear burden, but as Catholics we must continue to make our case as forcefully as possible that there is no future for anyone in maintaining a nuclear arsenal, and the billions of pounds currently being poured into this evil is needed elsewhere very urgently.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and publisher, and is founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk