The Platform

Public confidence in government was shaken by the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. (Associated Press)

Do our defense ministries really defend us? Absolutely not! Their very titles are a lie. The military-industrial complex sells itself by claiming to defend civilians. It justifies vast and crippling budgets by this claim, but it is a fraud. For the military-industrial complex, the only goal is money and power. Civilians like ourselves are just hostages. We are expendable. We are pawns in the power game, the money game.

Nations possessing nuclear weapons threaten each other with “mutually assured destruction,” which has the very appropriate acronym MAD. What does this mean? Does it mean that civilians are being protected? Not at all. Instead, they are threatened with complete destruction. Civilians here play the role of hostages in the power games of their leaders.

A thermonuclear war today would be not only genocidal but also omnicidal. It would kill people across all demographics, without any regard whatsoever for guilt or innocence. Such a war would be the ultimate ecological catastrophe, destroying not only human civilization but also much of the biosphere.

There is much worry today about climate change, but an ecological catastrophe of equal or greater magnitude could be produced by a nuclear war. One can gain a small idea of what this would be like by thinking of the radioactive contamination that has made an area half the size of Italy near Chernobyl permanently uninhabitable. The Fukushima disaster also reminds us of the dangerous long-term effects of radioactivity. Children are still being born with birth defects in Kazakhstan as a result of Soviet nuclear testing.

The testing of hydrogen bombs in the Pacific half a century ago continues to cause cancer and birth defects in the Marshall Islands. This too can give us a small idea of the environmental effects of a nuclear war. But the radioactivity produced by a nuclear war would be enormously greater.

In 1954, the United States tested a hydrogen bomb at Bikini. The bomb was 1,300 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fallout from the bomb contaminated the island of Rongelap, one of the Marshall Islands 120 kilometres from Bikini. The islanders experienced radiation illness, and many died from cancer. Even today, more than half a century later, both people and animals on Rongelap and other nearby islands suffer from birth defects. The most common defects have been “jellyfish babies,” born with no bones and with transparent skin. Their brains and beating hearts can be seen. The babies usually live a day or two before they die.

The environmental effects of a nuclear war would be catastrophic. A war fought with hydrogen bombs would produce radioactive contamination of the kind that we have already experienced in the areas around Chernobyl, Kazakhstan, Fukushima and in the Marshall Islands, but on an enormously increased scale. We have to remember that the total explosive power of nuclear weapons in the world today is many times as great as the power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What is threatened by a nuclear war today is the complete breakdown of human civilization.

Besides spreading deadly radioactivity throughout the world, a nuclear war would inflict catastrophic damage on global agriculture. Firestorms in burning cities would produce many millions of tons of black, thick, radioactive smoke. The smoke would rise to the stratosphere where it would spread around the earth and remain for a decade. Prolonged cold, decreased sunlight and rainfall, and massive increases in harmful ultraviolet light would shorten or eliminate growing seasons, producing a nuclear famine. Even a small nuclear war could endanger the lives of the billion people who today are chronically undernourished. A full-scale war fought with hydrogen bombs would mean that most humans would die from hunger. Many animal and plant species would also be threatened with extinction.

Incidents in which global disaster is avoided by a hair’s breadth are constantly occurring. For example, on the night of September 26, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, a young software engineer, was on duty at a surveillance center near Moscow. Suddenly, the screen in front of him turned bright red. An alarm went off. Its enormous piercing sound filled the room. A second alarm followed, and then a third, fourth and fifth, until the noise was deafening. The computer showed that the Americans had launched a strike against Russia. Petrov’s orders were to pass the information up the chain of command to Secretary-General Yuri Andropov.

Within minutes, a nuclear counterattack would be launched. However, because of certain inconsistent features of the alarm, Petrov disobeyed orders and reported it as a computer error, which indeed it was. Most of us probably owe our lives to this cool-headed decision and his knowledge of software systems. The narrowness of this escape is compounded by the fact that Petrov was on duty only because of the illness of another officer with less knowledge of software, who would have accepted the alarm as real.

Narrow escapes such as this show us clearly that in the long run, the combination of space-age science and stone-age politics will destroy us. We urgently need new political structures and new ethics to match our advanced technology.

Recently, the United States has made provocative moves that seriously risk starting a war with Russia that might develop into a nuclear war. These include sending armaments and military advisers to Ukraine, and NATO exercises on the Russian border.

At the same time, the United States is making aggressive moves in an attempt to “contain China.”

Thus Washington’s power-holders are threatening war with both Russia and China. The effect of these colossally misguided U.S. actions has been to firmly unite China and Russia. In fact, the BRICS countries, with their vast resources, are now moving away from using the dollar as a reserve currency for international trade.

What can be the reason for these actions, which seem to border on insanity? One reason can be found in the power-drunk thinking of the “Project for a New American Century,” one of whose members was the U.S. Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, Paul Wolfowitz.

The Wolfowitz Doctrine states “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”

In other words, the Wolfowitz Doctrine is a declaration that the United States intends to control the entire world through military power. No thought is given to the protection of civilian populations, either in the United States or elsewhere. Civilians are mere hostages in the power game.

The money game is important too. A great driving force behind militarism is the almost unimaginably enormous river of money that buys the votes of politicians and the propaganda of the mainstream media. Numbed by the propaganda, citizens allow politicians to vote for obscenely bloated military budgets, which further enrich the corporate oligarchs, and the circular flow continues.

The giant, immensely wealthy, and politically powerful arms manufacturers of the military-industrial complex do not really want war. What they want is the threat of war. As long as tensions are maintained; as long as there is a threat of war, the military-industrial complex gets the money for which it lusts, and the politicians and journalists get their blood money. The safety of civilians plays no role in the money game. We are just hostages.

There is a danger that our world, with all the beauty and value that it contains, will be destroyed by this cynical game for power and money, in which civilians are militarism’s hostages. Will we let this happen?

John Scales Avery was born in 1933 in Lebanon, where his father was Professor of Anatomy at the American University of Beirut. He received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles, both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. In 1969 he founded the Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes, and he served as its Managing Editor until 1980. He also served as Technical Advisor to the World Health Organization between 1988 and 1997, and as Chairman of the Danish National Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs between 1990 and the present.