CND Campaigns Officer Sara Medi Jones interviews author and academic Dr Becky Alexis-Martin in this guest blog.
Over the past few days we have been marking the 75th anniversary of the nuclear bombings of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US. These moments in history have been much-debated and it is right that we continue to do so as the risk to the world of nuclear weapons has never been greater. For this article, CND has interviewed academic and author Dr Becky Alexis-Martin for a new perspective on the debate.
Becky’s background is in the natural and environmental sciences. For her doctorate, she created a new modelling framework for radiation emergency preparedness – “sort of like ‘the Sims’ but for a nuclear accident” – and providing a general estimate for exposure likelihood over time. Becky explains how this project evolved into interest in the nuclear weapon debate: “It felt worthwhile, but while I was studying I became more and more interested in the real-life communities who had been impacted by nuclear issues. My academic research has taken me across the world to learn about the neglected communities who are still affected by historic nuclear weapon tests. It is important to me that I wanted to amplify their voices and speak with them, rather than about them, and their experiences.”
Eventually Becky had enough material for a book and Disarming Doomsday was published in May 2019. What is the book about? “Disarming Doomsday considers our age of nuclear warfare through a radical and critical lens,” Becky explains. “It takes the reader on a journey across secret cities and the Manhattan Project, to the depths of nuclear bunkers. It considers the nuclear from the perspective of elegant peace gardens, to islands in the midst of the Pacific Ocean. It explores a multiplicity of issues; from war games and the philosophical fallacy of nuclear deterrence, to the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis; and why people play apocalyptic video games.”
Much of Becky’s work has been visiting places and people affected by nuclear testing. To rightfully remember these, Becky believes we need a change in our education system. As she comments: “We need to decolonise our curriculum and present a more inclusive and global understanding of nuclear weapon testing. Progressive teaching and reflection (covering issues including) the lives of the nuclear test veterans (and) the experiences of Marshallese people displaced and harmed by US tests, is needed – so that the far-reaching consequences of nuclear warfare are remembered. To rightfully remember, you must include the voices of those who have been affected, and give space for them to share their lived experiences and their own understanding, in their own words.
And of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are places synonymous with nuclear suffering. Becky believes “there has been a tremendous impact in terms of cultural adaptation and change. It is no surprise that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become cities of peace, and that they have education programmes, museums, exhibitions, and ceremonies to memorialise the violence of the atomic bomb. There is a ‘never again’ attitude. While Hiroshima grows and evolves, the memory remains of it as the first place on earth where nuclear weapons were used in warfare.”
But 75 years on from the bombings, those with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in their living memories become fewer every year. Becky is concerned. “This means that the true violence and harm of nuclear weapons could be forgotten. When Fat Man and Little Boy exploded in the skies over Nagasaki and Hiroshima 75 years ago, the immediate consequences of the bombings were very dramatic. Survivors of these attacks are still physically, culturally and psychologically affected by their experiences to this day.
“The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left us with a universal and global understanding that nuclear warfare is the ultimate unthinkable harm.
“(But) populist leaders who have never personally experienced any type of warfare, let alone nuclear warfare, are now in charge. They do not understand the moral and ethical significance of threatening to ‘press the nuclear button’. It’s a harmful narrative – that neglects to heed the dignity and strength of the survivors and their testimonies.”
We should have some cause for optimism however, with Becky highlighting the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a positive development, with only 10 ratifications from states needed before it enters into force. Becky believe this will “create fresh impetus for action to be taken”.
“I am hopeful for a future where nuclear warfare is outlawed,” she concludes, “where it finally takes its rightful place in the history books.”