06 August 2010

‘Get ready for the future: it is murder’

The Trident nuclear submarine Vengeance at Faslane (Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian)

Patrick Comerford

Last Saturday night – like a lot of people of my generation, and (I imagine) like a lot of CND supporters – I was at Leonard Cohen’s concert in Lissadell House. And the words of one of his songs, The Future, shape a poetic but awesome and frightening vision of the apocalyptic future we face in the nuclear age:
Get ready for the future:
it is murder

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul.

The future is murder because we have failed to deal with mass murder in the past. Today, we are marking the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and remembering the 200,000 innocent people slain on 6 August 1945, and the 100,000 people slain three days later in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

Now, 65 years later, we are still building more and more terrifying weapons of mass destruction. And Britain is planning to replace its present ones.

Four Trident submarines based in Faslane – Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance – ply the oceans of the world. Each submarine carries 16 Trident ballistic missiles. Each missile can travel 4,000 miles. Each missile carries three nuclear warheads, capable of hitting three separate targets. And each missile represents the equivalent of 38 Hiroshima bombs.

Britain is one of the smallest nuclear powers in the world today – but its Trident force alone has the capacity to destroy Hiroshima 7,296 times over. Those Trident submarines pass along the northern coast of Ireland or down through the Irish Sea into the Atlantic to ply that awesome, terrifying, destructive payload.

President Barack Obama appears determined to cut the US nuclear arsenal, and says he is reluctant to invest in new nuclear weapons. But his anti-nuclear stance may have been over-stated, for the United States still has 14 Trident submarines that can kill more than 14 billion people – more than twice the population of the earth.

Some say a new consensus is emerging among many military and political figures. Although they cannot face up to the immorality of nuclear weapons, they are critical of the cost of these weapons.

For this reason alone, they appear determined to reduce their proliferation. In Britain, it is believed, some senior figures in the armed forces are in open revolt over Trident.

Lord Guthrie, a former chief of the defence staff, says a cheaper option to Trident is needed and he has become a voice for nuclear disarmament; General Sir Richard Dannatt, who retired last year, shares his views.

Yet it looks like Britain is determined to go ahead with breathing new life into this deadly, dangerous dinosaur.

The coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats says Trident should be scrutinised to “ensure value for money.” But at a recent Chatham House event, Liam Fox made it clear he intends to push ahead with replacing Trident, even if senior figures inside the Treasury and within the Ministry of Defence and the British army are sceptical about Trident giving value for money.

But David Cameron and Nick Clegg are engaging in a debate that is as ghastly as it is immoral. When it comes to nuclear overkill, how can you ensure value for money? How many deaths to the pound? I don’t care. I don’t care if it were to only cost a fiver. Trident is immoral. Trident is a price too high to pay, whatever price it comes at.

Trident is a grave and immoral waste of money. It has a running cost of £2 billion a year. How can anyone make a rational case for something that costs so much yet delivers so little that is measurable?

Has Trident protected the young men sent to Iraq and Afghanistan but who come back in coffins week-by-week? Has it reassured their families and friends and colleagues as they line the streets of Wootton Bassett, weeping as those young bodies are taken to a mortuary?

Nuclear weapons create a moral climate that allows wars to continue. Because we live with the awesome prospect of the world being wiped out many times over, we have become less sensitive to the wars around us, and the way modern weapons detach us from the realities of war.

In the past two weeks, we have been reminded of the reality of modern warfare with WikiLeak’s Afghanistan war logs. These files describe in detail the horror of civilian casualties and so-called “friendly-fire” incidents.

Yet, instead of responding to the chilling disclosures that hundreds of civilians have been killed, instead of opening inquiries into potential war crimes, instead of seeking answers from those who have blood on their hands, it is Julian Assange of WikiLeaks who has come under fire. It is he – and not the generals and the politicians – who has been accused by the chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, of having blood on his hands.

The Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Eoghan Murphy, Ambassador Toshinao Urabe of Japan and Patrick Comerford at Irish CND’s Hiroshima Day commemoration in Merrion Square

Mark Vernon of Birkbeck College, London, a former Anglican priest who is now an agnostic but a very thoughtful writer on philosophy and morality, said in The Guardian last Saturday [31 July 2010] that the reaction to these leaks shows how easy it is for us to lose sight of the moral questions, to refuse to provide the moral answers demanded, by modern war.

Whatever those of us who are pacifists think about the “just war” theory, justifying war for itself, without any questions, must be challenged in itself. Professor Michael Walzer of Princeton, a leading just war theorist, notes that simply not to intend the death of civilians in war is not enough. That’s “too easy,” he argues. There must be a positive commitment to saving civilian lives, rather than just killing no more than is militarily necessary. “Civilians have a right to something more,” he concludes.

It has become difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between war and mass murder because any respect for the rights of civilians has been discarded, and the accepted principles of the just war theory have been ignored.

If we ignore the just war principles, enshrined in international law, we run the real danger that the conflicts of the 21st century turn into perpetual war.

Accepting the morality of nuclear weapons numbs us in a way that makes it increasingly difficult to ask these questions. And it makes it increasingly likely, as Mark Vernon warns, that our present conflicts are turning into perpetual war. It is a future that frightens me. The words of Leonard Cohen in The Future ring so true:

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
but love’s the only engine of survival.
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
It’s over, it ain’t going
any further.
And now the wheels of heaven stop
you feel the devil’s riding crop
Get ready for the future:
it is murder.

It doesn’t have to be so. Personally, I know there is no choice when Leonard Cohen cries out in that poem: “Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima.” The 200,000 dead of Hiroshima, the 100,000 dead of Nagasaki, cry out for us to make sure that the future is not mass murder.

Canon Patrick Comerford is President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND). This address was delivered at the 65th Hiroshima Day commemoration at the Hiroshima Cherry Tree in Merrion Square, Dublin, on Friday, 6 August 2010.

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