Nuclear-free World? Possibly. Some Day

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Ploughshares Fund supporters – Americans committed to reducing nuclear stockpiles, preventing new nuclear states, and increasing global security – recently got some encouraging words from a few of those on the front lines. Not that the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world is near, but that it’s a lot closer than 35 years ago.

It was 35 years ago that Ploughshares founder Sally Lilienthal, a 62-year-old sculptor, human rights activist, mother and wife, gathered a few friends in her San Francisco living room to discuss what could be done to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons here and abroad. This was the year (1981) when Ronal Reagan unveiled a “strategic modernization program” which called for – among other things nuclear – thousands of additional warheads, a significant increase in bomber forces, including 100 B-lBs and the development of stealth bombers, a new land-based 10-warhead strategic missile (the MX), and new intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. In addition, he proposed deploying more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles on bombers.

There may not be a lot of peace on earth today, but there are far fewer nuclear threats to that eventual possibility and Ploughshares Fund is one key reason why.

A group of longtime Ploughshares supporters gathered recently in San Francisco to hear about ongoing work in South Asia, where India and Pakistan have a combined total of 250 nuclear weapons at the ready – enough to create a catastrophe in the area and long-term distress across the planet if that conflict were to escalate. America Abroad Media, a Ploughshares grantee, is working to prevent such a catastrophe.

Nuclear weapons test

Nuclear weapons test

AAM founder and president Aaron Lobel was interviewed by Ploughshares Executive Director and COO Philip Yun on how media fits into the complex efforts to reduce global conflict, specifically in South Asia. “You can go back to the origins of Pakistan as a Muslim state,” Lobel says, “and the question of whether India even recognizes Pakistan’s legitimacy” to get a picture of the enormity of the problem. But media in the area gets large audiences and builds human bonds. AAM works through public radio, international town halls, documentary and news programming and other avenues to build a civil society.

“We continue to believe that a civil society ultimately makes a difference,” Lobel says; “media is just one part of it.” And can such a society exist, and make a difference, in areas like South Asia today? “Absolutely yes,” says Lobel. “The lawyers’ movement in Pakistan did make a difference; and there are people in the civil society (there) involved in moving the ball forward.”

Lobel spoke at length of AAM’s work in Afghanistan, where its media following included the president of the country for at least one program. “If the president watched,” one questioner asked, “how many others actually saw the program?” “A lot,” says Lobel. “People gather around a satellite TV in the villages – this is not like having dozens of channels and TV sets in every home.”  world-peace

Ploughshares president Joseph Cirincione addressed the gathering on the broader issues, and the global outlook today. “In order for these guys (countries with smaller nuclear stockpiles) to give up nuclear weapons” Cirincione says, “they’re going to have to see the big guys doing it – and that’s not happening. We have to address the underlying issues (such as) water issues and religious issues. We also have to address the fundamental distrust. It’s important to recognize the power of media in addressing these issues to create a more peaceful world.” (“We fund the smartest people,” Yun adds, “with the best ideas.”)

Despite the discouraging prospects for global peace just now, Cirincione had a few nuggets of good news for the Ploughshares supporters:

“There were 70,000 nuclear weapons when we started,” he said; “there are 15,000 now. I believe the Iran nuclear deal has prevented war there for a generation. We can continue to work to make things better.”

Skipping towards Armageddon

Those people wandering around with giant signs proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS AT HAND!”? Sometimes you have to wonder if they’re onto something.

A recent Commonwealth Club program brought together two men proclaiming a similar message: the potential end of the world is at hand in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons — most of them in Russia or the U.S. — around the globe. They aren’t roaming the streets with hand-lettered signs, but they have written two informative, slightly scary new books. Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione opened his talk by saying, “If you buy one book about nuclear weapons, buy this book.” He held up co-presenter Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety.  Command and Control (full disclosure, I haven’t finished all 632 pages yet) is investigative journalist (Fast Food Nation) Schlosser‘s “ground-breaking account of accidents, near-misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs.” It covers the history of nuclear weapons accumulated by the U.S. since the days of the cold war, and it will make most other problems shrink to insignificance.

Cirincione’s own new book, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, covers the good news — only nine states now have nuclear weapons, down from 23, and “only” 17,000 such weapons still exist — and the bad: that’s enough to destroy the planet without much trouble. (Cirincione did later hold up his own fine, smaller work with the comment, “If you buy TWO books…”)

This not-so-comforting realization of what an edge of obliteration we live on was only one effect of the discussion. The other was sheer gratitude for the planet’s survival. Standing between you and me and the edge of oblivion are fallible human beings who have, so far, been able to avoid all the happenstances, large and small, that could trigger nuclear disaster. We can all hope they continue to guard the edge, but triggers for disaster are still everywhere: aging weaponry, international angst and mistrust, and the always possible lone crazy person.

Moderator David Holloway, Professor of International History at Stanford University, asked the elephant-in-the-room question: Would the author/experts agree with General Lee Butler, former head of the Strategic Air Command, who said the avoidance of nuclear disaster was thanks to a combination of skill, luck and divine intervention?

“I would not cite divine intervention,” Schlosser replied. “But we’ve been very lucky.” Like climate change, the threat of nuclear disaster is brought about by human actions, he said, and can be corrected by the same.  Both of the experts talked of the dangers existing around the globe from having 17,000 weapons stockpiled, from the tensions between many countries, and the possibility that terrorists could get their hands on a few weapons.

But the point was driven home to this audience member when Cirincione put it this way. It all started, he explained, because we wanted to deter the Soviet Union — now, presumably Russia — from annihilating us. So how many Russian cities would we need to obliterate, he asked, for an adequate deterrance? One? Two? Say, Moscow and St. Petersburg? Maybe three? He explained further that nuclear weapons make no attempt to pinpoint military targets and avoid collateral damage. They simply demolish everything and kill everybody. To accomplish this “deterrance”, wipe Russia’s three most significant cities off the map, would require eight nuclear weapons.

We have five thousand.

I’m still not counting out divine intervention.

Faces of hope for women’s rights

The universe may, after all, be unfolding as it should (apologies to Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata.)

This could be encouraging.

Within the past several days I’ve been to a number of events concerning our rapidly disappearing reproductive rights; I’ve discussed end-of-life options with a friend newly diagnosed with ALS; and — this one puts things into a new perspective — listened to the remarkable nuclear arms experts Eric Schlosser (Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety) and Joseph Cirincione (Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late) explain how easily we could obliterate one another.

StethoscopeMore on compassionate dying and nuclear weaponry later. I just finished talking with about 40 young medical students and healthcare professionals about reproductive rights. Many are students, and members of an excellent organization, Medical Students for Choice. They are committed to protecting women’s health, educating other healthcare providers and the general public about women’s health needs, and making sure that women everywhere have access to safe, legal abortion.

These young people can make believers of you. Belief, that is, that women’s rights will indeed be protected and that lack of access will not lead again to women dying from botched abortion. The articulate president of MSFC (who bought a copy of Perilous Times and said everyone should know these stories; no wonder I’d follow him anywhere) told me he was certain that each and every member of MSFC would continue to provide safe procedures even if abortion becomes illegal again; but he also said, “I don’t believe that will ever happen.”

I wish. But even though I am a hopeless optimist I’m not optimistic about Roe v Wade staying in place once it’s challenged at the Supreme Court level, which is likely to happen soon. Many of the young healthcare professionals were also upbeat with the belief that women don’t stand to be harmed as severely as pre-Roe “because medical abortion is so simple now, and misoprostol (the abortifacient pill) so readily available.” I wish again. Many, many women today are already facing harm because they take misoprostol without proper supervision, in improper dosages or too late. But these women are — as obvious in the statements of the young professionals at this seminar — essentially invisible. They are poor, disempowered and living in remote (even not so remote any more) areas where they have no access to safe abortions. They’re not dying in droves — one of the things that prompted passage of Roe v Wade — but they are often harming themselves… or having more unwanted babies.

I’m siding with the students. Their dedication and commitment are an inspiration and their hope for the future admirable. My hope is just that they are right… and the universe will continue unfolding, with justice, as it should.