‘All I can do is pray – earnestly, relentlessly – for world peace.’ Fujio Torikoshi was eating breakfast with his mother when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Feeling a rumble underneath his feet, Fujio stepped outside into the front garden and saw a black dot in the sky. That’s when it burst outwards, filling the sky with blinding white light.
The last thing he remembers was being lifted off the ground by a hot gust of wind. More than two kilometres away from the hypocentre, Fujio woke up to a burning sensation on his face and arms, and to the sound of his mother crying out his name. Drifting in and out of consciousness as he was transported between hospitals, Fujio was told he wouldn’t live beyond 20. He is now in his nineties, still making his plea for a more peaceful world.
Testimonies from people like Fujio are often lost in the statistical horror of the bomb’s death toll which, together with the attack on Nagasaki, was more than 200,000 people. On Hiroshima Day, we remember every single person who was killed by an indefensible act of inhumanity. We also commemorate the hundreds of thousands of survivors – known as the hibakusha – who endured the horror of what was left behind: nuclear radiation, mass destruction and unimaginable grief.
‘We have reassured our will to save humanity from its crisis through the lessons learned from our experiences, while at the same time saving ourselves.’ This remains the mantra of Nihon Hidankyo, a group of elderly hibakusha – formed in 1965 – who have dedicated their lives to nuclear disarmament. ‘Nuclear weapons are an absolute evil that cannot coexist with humans,’ a survivor named Taniguchi Sumiteru said in 2010. ‘There is no choice but to abolish them.’
Some may be suspicious of a statement so pristine, naked and simple. But the truth so often is. Nuclear weapons have one purpose, and one purpose only: to cause death and destruction on a colossal scale. I will never understand the pride and excitement with which so many politicians proclaim they would be prepared to launch a nuclear attack. In what circumstances is it necessary to annihilate humanity? Do they know what a global nuclear war would actually look like?
Many of us may remember a pamphlet, published by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1980, called Protect and Survive. Advising people what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, the 32-page handbook was roundly mocked for its rather optimistic attitude toward complete and utter annihilation. People were instructed to hide under a pile of their heaviest possessions, place dead bodies of relatives in another room or, if outside, lie flat in a ditch and ‘cover the exposed skin of the head and hands.’
But there is no survival kit for a global nuclear war. You might even find yourself wishing you were killed by the initial explosion when nuclear firestorms release sun-blocking soot and smoke into the sky, causing temperatures to plummet and oceans to freeze. If you survive the resultant mass crop failure and global famine, your celebration may be premature if the radioactive fallout has already penetrated your skin.
Many hide their entertainment of mass extinction behind the myth of nuclear deterrence. I could list several examples of when the threat of nuclear retaliation has failed to deter an invasion. Or posit various other factors to explain why nuclear weaponry is one of countless possible reasons when war is averted. Ultimately, though, why debate the failures of deterrence theory when the survivors of hibakusha have lived it?
At worst, nuclear deterrence theory encourages nations to strengthen their arsenal, putting the globe at even greater risk of total destruction. At best, we’re left with the following comfort: those with the power to destroy us all have not yet done so. ‘This is the closest the clock has ever stood to humanity’s darkest hour,’ UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the General Assembly earlier this year. He was referencing the infamous Doomsday clock, invented in 1947 to measure humanity’s proximity to self-destruction. Announcing that the clock had moved to 90 seconds to midnight, Guterres declared that humanity was perilously close to catastrophe.
It’s been eighteen months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, and the threat of nuclear escalation continues to be downplayed by nation states across the globe. In February this year, Russia announced its plans to halt participation in New Start, the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the U.S. Indeed, the global stockpile of nuclear weapons is accelerating as international relations are deteriorating. After a period of gradual decline that followed the end of the cold war, the number of operational nuclear weapons has risen again; there are now said to be more than 12,500 warheads around the world. 90% are owned by Russia and the United States alone.
The world is gearing itself up for mutually assured destruction – and the UK is an active participant. In 2021, the UK government announced that it was increasing its nuclear stockpile by more than 40%. Last month, and at a time when every other department remains gravely underfunded, the UK government announced that the military budget would grow to £50 billion. When Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, said that the UK would descend into war by the end of this decade, one would hope our media had the foresight to ask him some simple questions: what are you doing to prevent the descent into a protracted, all-out-war with Russia? What are you doing to bring about lasting peace?
As the threat of nuclear war looms large, I echo the calls made by the UN Secretary-General, Pope Francis, and global leaders such as President Lula: for de-escalation, diplomatic intervention and an end to this brutal war. The longer the fighting goes on, the more lives will be lost, the greater the destruction to our perilously fragile climate, and the greater risk of total annihilation for us all. Those who fuel the conflict must know that, in the event of a nuclear war, nobody wins.
If the UK government wanted to be a global leader, it would advance the cause for nuclear disarmament by signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans the development, production, possession, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. Instead, it cannot even honour the treaties it has already signed; our government claims it is still committed to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (signed by Harold Wilson in 1968), but its stockpiles speak louder than words.
Security is not the ability to threaten and destroy your neighbour. Security is getting on with your neighbour. It’s when our children can be confident of a habitable future. It’s when human beings are not displaced by poverty, destitution and war. And it’s when everybody has enough resources to live a happy and healthy life. The government spends £8,300 every minute on nuclear weapons – imagine if we spent that money on renewable energy, social housing, public healthcare, schools and lifting children out of poverty instead?
Some may say that war is a bad time to talk about nuclear disarmament. In reality, there is no better time to do so. Many of us grew up with the real and terrifying threat of nuclear destruction during the Cold War. I don’t want our children learning how to duck and cover in preparation for its return. Today, let’s listen to the hibakusha when they say: ‘humans must survive – in peace and prosperity.’ We will only honour their words – as well as the memory of those who perished on August 6th, 1945 – when we rid this planet of nuclear weapons once and for all.