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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 73, October - November 2003


Treaties Are Not Enough: A Departing Editor's Reflections

By Sean Howard

Between 1945 and 1947, the New Yorker magazine published a series of essays by Daniel Lang, based on interviews with scientists working in different cells of the prodigiously industrious, ever-expanding nuclear weapons hive of 'post-war' America. The essays were published in 1948 as 'Early Tales of the Atomic Age'. In his introduction, the historian Carl Van Doren wrote that Lang's "stories", told "without abstractions or distractions", were "what has been needed to make the public take a sympathetic, co-operative interest in the development of a discovery that marks the beginning of a fateful age. Treatises are not enough; there must also be stories." Praising the collection, Albert Einstein commented: "If one wants to convince people that they should make an effort to abolish international anarchy, it is not enough to advance abstract arguments. One must get people to use their imaginations to visualize graphically the terrible things whose prevention forms the central political problem of our time." It was in this spirit that the New Yorker devoted its August 31, 1946 edition to "an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city" - John Hersey's still-shattering essay, 'Hiroshima'.

As the 1955 Einstein-Russell Manifesto argues, the point of providing such 'human graphics' is not to nauseate or repel, much less to instil panic or despair. In the words of their great plea: "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest." Story and myth have always served this purpose, re-calling us to our deepest selves, our truest voices. Only in a state of profound spiritual forgetfulness, or imaginative amnesia, are crimes such as Hiroshima or Nagasaki possible - or 9/11, or the attack on the UN in Baghdad, or any of the other countless, daily crimes against humanity, the enormous violence generated by the false split of 'self' and 'other'.

As Lang and Hersey showed, personal accounts, on all sides of the nuclear divide, are often far stranger, more surreal and extraordinary, than fiction. Likewise, one of the major novels of Hiroshima, Masuji Ibuse's Black Rain, is based on the accounts of survivors, while classic studies such as Robert Jungk's Brighter than a Thousand Suns and Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb have been described as 'epic novels', possessing the haunting quality of 'great literature'. Is there, perhaps, a link between this 'strangeness' and the estrangement of humanity from the world - and from itself, its past and future - in the Age of the Cloud? And does the collapsing distinction between real and unreal suggest the redundancy of artistic expression, or rather the unavoidable task of picturing, imaginatively recalling, our true situation?

In Dante's 'Inferno', despite the range of crimes and punishments depicted, the damned are linked by a fixation on themselves, an irreparable severance - "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here" - from the rest of humanity and creation. The damned are dead to the world, locked in their own cells; and if they ever broke out, wrested control of the basic, creative, godlike forces of nature, what would become of them? Might they not - as Robert Oppenheimer guessed, watching suns escape from atoms in the New Mexico desert - "become death, the shatterer of worlds"? In 1948, Oppenheimer wrote: "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin." For all their brilliant curiosity, that 'sin' was the very opposite of knowledge: forgetting the world, forgetting to imagine their humanity. "After the first death, there is no other", Dylan Thomas wrote in memory of a young girl killed in the Blitz. But the nuclear threat to the planet was - and, imagine, is! - only made possible by the moral, creative death of countless individuals. As Othello said, led into sin by false knowledge, "put out the light - and then put out the Light."

Surveying the horror of the holocaust, Theodor Adorno despaired: "after Auschwitz, poetry is impossible". But what if a lack of poetry - bureaucratic prose, language without story - helped make Auschwitz possible? Adorno, in fact, came with many others to believe that the 'aesthetic dimension' of experience - the creativeness of existence itself - still offered a terrain of resistance to the futility of life in the mechanised, military-industrial hive: where there's life, there's art, the liberatory potential of creative remembrance.

I realise what a strange editorial this is for the pages of Disarmament Diplomacy. For the last seven-plus years, I have tried to maintain a balance between editing the journal and exploring themes of war and peace creatively. Due to pressures of workload - caused principally by the need to cover the proliferating 'self-verses-other' conflicts of the post-9/11 era - this balance no longer feels sustainable. I will continue, I hope, to write and research on disarmament issues, and to support efforts to strengthen the arms control regime. Disarmament diplomacy will always be necessary, always important, always worth fighting for - and never sufficient. To paraphrase Van Doren, treaties are not enough: there must also be stories.

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