December 11, 1985 by Bernard Lown, Professor of Cardiology, co-president IPPNW.
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A Prescription for Hope
When Alfred Nobel drafted his ﬁnal will in late 1895, providing this enduring and monumental legacy, the world was charged with anticipation and optimism for the twentieth century. ‘Mind and hand’, the distinctive attributes of our species, were at last ﬁnding their intertwined fulﬁllment in science and technology. Science, at the “ﬁn de siècle” (end of the century), promised mastery of a hostile environment and an end to chaotic societal relations punctuated by war and brutality. Advancing technology augured unlimited potential for human power, inspiring a dream for an end to drudgery and enter an age of abundance.
The hope of a benevolent civilization was shattered in the blood-soaked trenches of the First World War. The “war to end all wars” claimed sixteen million lives, and left embers which kindled an even more catastrophic conﬂagration.
Over the sorry course of humanities 5,000 years of endless conﬂicts, some limits had been set on human savagery. Moral safeguards proscribed a refrain from killing unarmed civilians and health workers, poisoning drinking waters, spreading infection among children and the disabled, and burning defenseless cities.
But the Second World War introduced total war, unprincipled in method, unlimited in violence, and indiscriminate in victims. The ovens of Auschwitz and the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki inscribed a still darker chapter in the chronicle of human brutality. The prolonged agony which left 50 million dead did not provide an enduring basis for an armistice to barbarism.
On the contrary, arsenals soon burgeoned with genocidal weapons equivalent to many thousands of World War II’s. The advent of the nuclear age posed an unprecedented question: not whether war would exact yet more lives but whether war would preclude human existence altogether.
Every historic period has had its Cassandras. Our era is the ﬁrst in which prophecies of doom stem from objective scientiﬁc analyses. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, a study by American physicians concluded that medicine, which in past wars mitigated misery and saved lives, had nothing to offer following nuclear war. This conclusion was extrapolated from the destruction wrought by blast, ﬁre and radiation on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Astonishingly, nearly 40 years elapsed before scientists ﬁrst discovered additional ecologic consequences. Nuclear war, (nuclear winter) they found, could blanket the sky with smoke, dust, and soot, creating a pall of all-pervasive darkness and frigid cold. The impact on climate could last for several years, not sparing the Southern Hemisphere. But there is more. Since cities are enormous storehouses of combustible synthetics, raging ﬁre storms would release into the air a Pandora’s box of deadly toxins. When dust, poisons, and soot ﬁnally cleared, another plague would be visited on the unfortunate survivors; high levels of ultraviolet light caused by depletion of atmospheric ozone would take an additional toll.
Martin Buber suggested that evil prevailed because of the inability of man to imagine the real. Yet human beings do have that capacity. Lord Byron, (1788-1829) a poet favored by Alfred Nobel, captured the stark essence of a post-nuclear world in his poem “Darkness”:
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless; and the icy Earth Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day,… All earth was but one thought – and that was Death Immediate and inglorious; and the pang Of famine fed upon all entrails – men Died, and their bones were tomb-less as their ﬂesh. The world was void, The populous, and the powerful was a lump, Season-less, herbless, treeless, man-less, lifeless – A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay… And the clouds perished; Darkness had no need Of aid from them – She was the Universe!”
Byron composed this poem in 1816, known as the “year without a summer”. Mount Tambora in the East Indies had erupted the year before, spewing 100 cubic kilometers of earth and rock into the atmosphere. The United States witnessed snow and ice in August. Worldwide crop failures induced mass starvation. A typhus epidemic in England, ascribed to cold and hunger, resulted in 6,000 deaths. The volcanic eruption lowered the earth’s surface temperature by a mere 0.6 of a degree centigrade, A twenty-fold greater cooling of the Northern Hemisphere has been predicted for a nuclear winter.
This scenario may not constitute a complete appraisal of the dire biologic and ecologic aftermath. We know little or nothing of the synergistic effects on our fragile ecosystem of subfreezing temperatures, darkness, high levels of radiation, massive release of toxins, excessive ultraviolet emissions, and other events still unforeseen. It is sheer hubris to pretend that there would be human survival after such a man-made catastrophe.
We know, therefore, that a nuclear war must never occur. Is this merely a hope or a certainty?
As no national interest would justify inﬂicting genocide on the victim and suicide on the aggressor, a prevalent misconception is that nuclear war will never be fought. But the realities of our age compel an opposite assessment. In no previous epoch were adversaries so continuously and totally mobilized for instant war. It is a statistical certainly that hair-trigger readiness cannot endure as a permanent condition. Furthermore, the unrelenting growth in nuclear arsenals, the increasing accuracy of missiles, and the continuing computerization of response systems all promote instabilities which court nuclear war by technical malfunction; by miscalculation, human aberration or criminal act.
The ever decreasing time between missile launch and nuclear detonation relegates critical decision-making to computers programmed by fallible human beings.
The possession of these weapons has been justiﬁed by the theory of deterrence. Such a view of human affairs has held sway throughout the ages. But the Roman adage ‘si vis pacem, para bellum’ (if you want peace , prepare for war) has been consistently a prelude to war, not a guarantor of peace. No more untenable view of human affairs has ever gained such widespread public acceptance. In order to be effective, nuclear deterrence must operate perfectly and forever. No such expectations are permissible for any human activities. The pretension to inhibit aggression by threatening to inﬂict unacceptable damage is jarred with contradictions. How is one to account for an overkill capacity equivalent to more than one million Hiroshimas? Would annihilation of only a few major cities not inﬂict unacceptable damage?
A single modern submarine has approximately 8 times the total ﬁrepower of World War II, sufﬁcient to destroy every major city in the Northern Hemisphere.
Why then the stockpiling of 18,000 strategic weapons?
In this race the runners are no longer in control of their limbs.
This buildup is like a cancer, the cells of which multiply because they have been genetically programmed to do no other.
Pointing nuclear-tipped missiles at entire nations is an unprecedented act of moral depravity.
The horror is obscured by its magnitude, by the sophistication of the means of slaughter, and by the aseptic Orwellian language crafted to describe the attack – “delivery vehicles” promote an “exchange” in which the death of untold millions is called “collateral damage”.
Bertrand Russell called attention to the ethical bankruptcy that afﬂicts this era: “Our world has sprouted a weird concept of security and a warped sense of morality. Weapons are sheltered like treasures while children are exposed to incineration”.
How did we reach such a dangerous and tragic impasse? From the dawn of history, the tools humans forged have imposed their laws on behavior. As tools were transformed into ever more complex machines, technology shaped our consciousness while providing mastery over our environment. This was not to be some Faustian bargain. Technology was intended to serve human interests, to enlarge the domain of freedom against life’s compelling necessities. Increasingly, though, as Thoreau observed, “We are becoming the tools of our tools”. Worse still, our tools are beginning to operate against our will and threaten our existence.
An additional misperception propels the arms race. Throughout human history, when confronted with what was deemed a deadly enemy, the ﬁxed human response has been to gather more rocks, muskets, cannons, and now nuclear bombs. While nuclear weapons have no military utility – indeed they are not weapons but instruments of genocide-this essential truth is obscured by the notion of an “evil enemy”. The “myth of the other”, the stereotyping and demonizing of human beings beyond recognition, is still pervasive and now exacts inordinate economic, psychologic, and moral costs. The British physicist P.M.S. Blackett anticipated this state of paranoia: “Once a nation bases its security on an absolute weapon, such as the atom bomb, it becomes psychologically necessary to believe in an absolute enemy”. The imagined enemy is eventually banished from the human family and reduced to an inanimate object whose annihilation loses all moral dimension.”
The nuclear threat haunts our age. Among the ﬁrst to alert humanity to the peril were the physicists who let the atomic genie out of the bottle.
Interestingly, though, the public is beginning to listen not to the military experts but to the physicians who are the custodians of public health.
Physicians have taken a sacred and ancient oath to assuage human misery and preserve life and therefore must stand against nuclear war. Neither can the medical profession remain quiet in the face of the increasing diversion of scarce resources to the military compared to the meager efforts devoted to combating global poverty, malnutrition and disease.
In 1984 world military spending exceeded 800,000 million (eight hundred thousand million dollars). This occurs at a time when life expectancy at birth in Africa is 30 years less than in Europe, when more than 40,000 children die daily from malnutrition and infection, when annually more than 3.5 million children die and an equal number are permanently crippled because they are denied inexpensive immunization. Two billion people have no access to a dependable and sanitary water supply. The litany of grief is long and painful to recite. Yet a single day’s diversion of proﬂigate military spending would diminish and even resolve many of these miseries. We are already living in the rubble of World War III.
How has International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) addressed the grim realities of the nuclear age? Remarkable is the youth of our endeavor. This week we celebrate only the ﬁfth anniversary of our founding. In this brief time, we have helped penetrate the fog of denial. We have persuaded millions of people, for the ﬁrst time, to confront the unthinkable. We have exposed to public view the long list of horrors. We have convinced a large public that there can be no useful medical response. We have demonstrated the deception implicit in nuclear war civil defense preparations. We have provided persuasive data that nuclear war would constitute the ultimate human and ecologic disaster.
Combating the nuclear threat has been our exclusive preoccupation, since we are dedicated to the proposition that to insure the conditions of life, we must prevent the conditions of death. Ultimately, we believe people must come to terms with the fact that the struggle is not between different national destinies, between opposing ideologies, but rather between catastrophe and survival. All nations share a linked destiny; nuclear weapons are their shared enemy.
The physicians’ movement is contributing to a positive world outlook, optimism is a medical imperative. A patient’s hopeful attitude promotes well-being and frequently leads to recovery. Pessimism degrades the quality of life and jeopardizes the tomorrows yet to come. An afﬁrmative world view is essential if we are to shape a more promising future.
We must hold fast to the dream that reason will prevail. The world today is full of anguish and dread. As great as is the danger, still greater is the opportunity. If science and technology have catapulted us to the brink of extinction, the same ingenuity has brought humankind to the boundary of an age of abundance.
Never before was it possible to feed all the hungry. Never before was it possible to shelter all the homeless. Never before was it possible to teach all the illiterates. Never before were we able to heal so many afﬂictions. For the ﬁrst time science and medicine can diminish drudgery and pain.
Only those who see the invisible can do the impossible.
But in order to do the impossible, in the words of Jonathan Schell, we ask “not for our personal survival: we ask only that we be survived. We ask for assurance that when we die as individuals, as we know we must, mankind will live on”.
If we are to succeed, this vision must possess millions of people. We must convince each generation that they are but transient passengers on this planet earth. It does not belong to them. They are not free to doom generations yet unborn. They are not at liberty to erase humanity’s past nor dim its future. Only life itself can lay claim to sacred continuity. The magnitude of the danger and its imminence must bring the human family together in common pursuit of peace denied throughout the century.
On the threshold of a new millennium the achievement of world peace is no longer remote, for it is beckoned by the unleashing of the deepest spiritual forces embedded in humankind when threatened with extinction. The reason, the creativeness, and the courage that human beings possess foster an abiding faith that
what humanity creates, humanity can and will control.
by Bernard Lown, Professor of Cardiology, co-president IPPNW