Teachers, Ethical Imagination, and World Disarmament


by Peter Abbs - 1982

Teachers must respond to the threat of nuclear warfare with a deep and universal desire to secure life. Comprehensive concern for life as a whole must lie at the root of their work. Only a world-wide expression of the ethical imagination, which renders nuclear war wholly unacceptable, can save mankind. (Source: ERIC)

Wars are terrible things,

Blood is as frequent as water,

People are made homeless

Their houses ruined by bombs,

Hundreds of people are killed every day.

The world is a ball of fire,

I hate wars and wars seem to hate

me and everything of joy.


Poem by First-year girl,

Bristol Comprehensive School, United Kingdom


October 24 to October 31 is Disarmament Week. It might be thought that such a week has no special relevance for teachers. I believe this is a fallacy. I believe that, on the contrary, all teachers as teachers must now seriously attend to the threat of nuclear warfare. Indeed, it is difficult to see how teachers can stand to one side, remain merely neutral, when the government is increasing its expenditure on nuclear weapons designed to destroy millions of lives and, at the same time, savagely undermining all those educational institutions designed to enhance life and to secure a meaningful future. It is difficult to see how teachers cannot become involved when quite recently the BBC—that vital institution for the free dissemination of information and interpretation—has, once again, shown itself to be inadequate to its great task by repressing the national discussion of the nuclear issue. (Postponing the Richard Dimbleby Memorial Lecture resembles very much the earlier refusal to show The War Game.) It is also difficult to see how teachers can ignore the growing formation of peace groups in their own institutions. The moral problems raised by nuclear warfare will not go away and teachers, whose commitment is to meaning and value, have no choice but to engage in the controversy. It is not a matter of teachers’ becoming narrowly political and ideological. In my view that would represent a menace and a perversion of education. It is rather that teachers must now respond to a comprehensive theme based on a deep and universal desire to secure life, to achieve the conditions necessary for the protection and qualitative development of life—all life—on this planet. It is, first and foremost, an ethical and an ecological matter. As teachers, we are, perhaps unconsciously, committed to a concept of a positive future in which implicit meanings slowly unfold into existential patterns. Much of our labor today is for the truth that crystallizes tomorrow. We have an investment in the future. And it is, perhaps, in this capacity, as guardians of a creative future, that we must now enter the nuclear debate.


In this article I will attempt to define my own personal position on this matter. In a sense I wish to grasp my own view, to discover where I actually stand. My hope is that such reflection may create a similar movement of reflective thought in the reader. At the same time I must admit that I am a slow learner and that it may already be time for the profession as a whole to make clear to the nation where it stands. For as a teaching profession committed to the enhancement of life (and of all lives) through the process of time, can we possibly tolerate a society that has become committed to the death instinct, that limits the very sources of ethical and intellectual growth while it invests in the appalling machinery of mass destruction and global disaster?


However, I do not want to discuss organization in this article. I want to provoke thought among teachers. I want to speak personally. I want to speak out of my own conscience and my own perceptions. At the same time, the theme is more than a personal one. For nuclear war puts all of our lives in doubt. Nuclear war endangers our whole species and the whole of the living world. The very prospect of such a war seriously damages our sense of any future tense for creation. Thus, I would claim that even before any buttons are pressed, immeasurable psychic damage has already been done. For how can we live as whole men and women with such a menacing cloud perpetually hanging over our future? Some might claim that I am exaggerating the power of nuclear weapons. It is almost impossible to be guilty of such an offense. In our own time even the most conventional of figures—Establishment characters if you like—have warned us of the possibility of imminent catastrophe. Harold Macmillan declared:


If all this capacity for destruction is spread around the world in the hands of all kinds of different characters—dictators, reactionaries, revolutionaries, madmen—then sooner or later, and certainly I think by the end of this century, either by error or insanity, the great crime will be committed.1


As is well known, the late Lord Mountbatten has, likewise, written:


In the event of a nuclear war there will be no chances, and there will be no survivors—all will be obliterated. . . . I repeat in all sincerity as a military man I can see no use for any nuclear weapons which would not end in escalation with consequences no-one can conceive.2


Such an ultimate catastrophe is difficult to imagine partly because such an act of genocide is pathologically sick and inherently evil and partly because we cannot envisage easily a world without consciousness, devoid of feeling, value, and meaning. To think of our world moving like a spent cinder through the silence of space chills the spine and shocks the imagination. We would prefer not to consider it. And yet we must because that which we fear most deeply—the extinction of human life—is now possible, can, for the first time in history, actually be brought about. In the brutal language of contemporary military discourse, we have reached such a point of progress in technology that we can now “overkill” the world’s population forty times.


The perception that nuclear war constituted a different kind of warfare—involving cataclysmic destruction with devastating and largely unpredictable aftereffects—has accompanied nuclear research from the beginning. Yet, as we know, it did not prevent Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events to which I will return later. Henry Stimson, Roosevelt’s secretary of war, in April 1945 informed President Truman (who had known nothing of the experiment to discover the A-bomb and had to be hastily informed after he had become president of the United States) of an immense project, and I quote, “looking to the development of a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power”; James Byrnes, the director of war mobilization, in the same apocalyptic spirit, told Truman that his country was “perfecting an explosive great enough to destroy the whole world.” Oppenheimer, who was scientific director of the first atomic project, commented after the first test of the first atomic bomb in history:


We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multiarmed form and says “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.3


George Kistiakowsky, who was also present, remarked, “I am sure that at the end of the world—in the last millisecond of the earth’s existence—the last man will see what we have just seen.“4


Symbolically, the first explosion of the atom bomb took place in a remote desert of sand called by the Mexicans Jornada del Muerte—Journey of Death.


I quote these remarks—there are, of course, many more one could quote, like that of Oppenheimer to the effect that since Hiroshima, scientists had death on their hands—to show that the cosmic destructive potentialities of nuclear war have been clearly understood and articulated since 1945. Much as we would like to avoid thinking about the possibility of total annihilation, it is there in the technology and in the psyche of man. And, if we are to be responsible to human life, we must attempt to think the unthinkable and locate ways of preventing a human and biological holocaust. Surely educational institutions provide the right contexts for such fundamental reflection? We cannot leave it to our governments, not only because their record is absolutely deplorable but, more deeply, because what happens to our lives—what we want for ourselves and for our children, for our society and the whole human race—must be the outcome of our own thoughts, decisions, and actions. Such responsibility for human life cannot be delegated to specialists, to military technocrats, to governments or commercial enterprises.


Consider, for example, the kind of mindlessness that Hank Schumacher, a leading American designer of nuclear weapons, sees as representative of himself and his colleagues:


Once they’re in it [military research] very few people think much about it. My colleagues who work on nuclear devises don’t do it for a reason. They do it because they are nuclear physicists. And that’s where the funds are. Any of us in analytical work could make important contributions to other fields. I know we could, but the money isn’t there.5


The nuclear scientists—and 60 percent of all scientists in the United States of America are engaged in military research of some kind—do not think about the human consequences of their work. We cannot, therefore, delegate responsibility to them: As a professional body, they refuse to make the necessary connections. Even less can we trust politicians and commercial agents. Our century is full of deranged psychopaths who have achieved leadership of their countries. And commercial agents, as we all know, have powerful financial interests always vying with any disturbing moral perceptions. We have no choice but to become responsible ourselves. And what is now demanded of us as individuals is that we recognize the magnitude of the peril, the great crisis of our military-technological civilizations, East and West, whose experts and leaders might well choose to inflict nuclear war rather than consider more subtle and life-affirming alternatives, alternatives rooted not in any power complex but in a comprehensive concern for life as a whole, alternatives that lie at the very root of our work as teachers.


Albert Einstein, who was one of the first to urge research into nuclear fission, has said that nuclear energy represents a quantum leap in technology that changes everything in the world, except consciousness. One may want to question a little the “quantum leap” because the bomb can be seen also to represent the culmination of three hundred years of scientific advance divorced from ethical principles and philosophical meaning. As well as a quantum leap, perhaps, it should also be viewed as the final negative realization of Bacon’s dictum that science is concerned with the effecting of all things possible. Genocide is possible and technology can now effect it. Nuclear missiles, with their sleek phallic forms, are, I believe, the ultimate symbol of male intelligence divorced from religious impulse and feminine cherishing. Psychologically, missiles are the engines of rape. But this qualification registered, Einstein’s remark embodies a deep insight. The quantum leap in technology demands, on our part, a quantum leap in ethical imagination. The challenge to our undeveloped moral nature has never been greater. Have we the imagination to find a superior way forward before our bodies and our great civilizations and cultures are reduced to a desert of nuclear dust, before the journey of death has become the common, level plateau of extinction? And can schools help to engender such an imaginative act?


I have suggested that, at times, we must try to imagine the unimaginable, so that through the ethical imagination we may work to end any kind of nuclear war. I am afraid that at the moment there are many who are imagining implementing nuclear war; they are prepared to talk about “limited-theater wars, ” “strategic advantages,” even of seeing the whole of Europe as the convenient theater for the giant confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Cruise missiles—160 of which we are soon to receive into this country—are, indeed, a part of this death-centered imagining. As many have observed, there has been, in the last few years, a radical shift in ethical imagination. During the 1960s and 1970s most people thought nuclear war so morally obscene it could never happen. There was the practical sense that it could never happen, and a moral imperative that it must never happen. Thus civil defense programs seemed out of the question, for they granted the possibility that the ethical sense would not concede: that such wars might take place. Hence in the 1970s there was little conscious alarm, although the arms spiral continued to rise. Now, the feeling has changed. Survival has become a key word in the new practical mood. During the last two years civil defense programs have been widely disseminated; a highly complex system of interconnected bunkers has been erected; and ruthless programs concerning post-nuclear attack operations have been published. The arguments for neutron bombs and cruise missiles have often been based on the notion of what is called “limited-response strategy. ” Thus, as most industrial nations have entered a crippling period of recession, governments, like our own, have yet gone on expanding budgets for nuclear arms. Indeed, just as the first street riots began here in England, just as the underprivileged, unemployed, unengaged youths began to rampage through their ugly urban streets, so Mrs. Thatcher’s government decided to allocate £5,000,000,000 to Trident, and Mr. Reagan, for his part, decided to lift the ban on chemical weapons and to go ahead with the production of the neutron bomb and the huge MX system of missiles. Such demented juxtapositions are the very essence of our daily news! What had once struck people as unacceptable—as MAD (mutually assured destruction)—now seems to be innocuously integrated into public consciousness. We would seem to have a phantasy world in which the nuclear shelter is seen as a viable alternative and in which survivors of nuclear war quickly shake themselves free of contamination and catch the first commuter train to London to continue with their old jobs.


There are many elements in this dramatic shift of ethical sensibility, but I want to focus a little more carefully on the general unreality of the imagery in popular consciousness regarding nuclear attack. I recently did some petitioning for the World Disarmament Campaign and found that many people perceived nuclear war through the lens of the Second World War. A nuclear war would be like the blitz, it was contended. Even official publications concerning civil defense seemed wedded to a sandbag-under-the table-switching-on-the-radio mentality. Because we all have to structure anticipated experience in terms of previous experience, this is, for uninformed people, an understandable deduction. At the same time, it is a dangerous fallacy muffling the mind and blinding the eyes to the actualities. As the techniques of World War I had little relevance to World War II, so the techniques of World War II will have next to no meaning for any third world war. There is the illusion that civilization, as we know it, would continue. This is impossible. If there were to be an extensive nuclear war, the destruction, the suffering, the horror, would be on a scale unprecedented in history. As I have said, repeating thousands of eminent men and women, such a war could even bring about the end of history.


But how could we begin to understand it? The only legitimate way would be by contemplating the comparatively light, the comparatively “primitive,” bombs dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. For my description I will take Hiroshima.


As Jim Garrison put it, “The Hiroshima bomb pulverized an entire city in one single blast.” The explosion was 1,000 times stronger than the biggest blockbuster. Not only was the bomb “a city-buster,” it had, as we shall see, dire radiation effects that are still in evidence today, more than thirty-five years later.


The bomb was dropped on August 6 at 8:16 in the morning as children were playing in playgrounds before school, as men and women were going about their usual business. As soon as the bomb detonated there was a blinding flash of light and a savage fireball spreading half a mile in diameter. The heat at the center of the fireball was 50,000,000 degrees fahrenheit, thousands of times hotter than the surface of the sun. Out of this light and explosion of flames arose the boiling column of smoke, mushrooming out—a flash of light, a blast devastating thousands of buildings, and then a burning turbulence of fire. This was the holocaust—in which thousands were burnt to nothingness, simply and completely incinerated. It has been estimated that of the 3,483 men, women, adolescents, children, and babies within 1,500 feet of the epicenter—the initial point of detonation—only 53 survived. Also, in order to shed all World War II comparisons, it is important to note that of the 45 hospitals, only 3 remained standing. Of the 298 doctors, 270 were killed. Of the 1,780 nurses, 1,645 were killed. These, please observe, are the insane figures not of full-scale nuclear war but of one twenty-kiloton bomb.


However, the effects of the bomb were not confined to the epicenter. As the immense blast of energy rushed outward, destroying all in its path, so, within a short span of time, air rushed into the vacuum it had created. This incoming air quickly became a tidal wave of fire, totally out of control, burning everything that it touched. In Hiroshima, the fire storm developed twenty minutes after the bomb’s detonation, lasted about six hours, and completely burnt out an area of four and one-half square miles. Dr. Hanoaka described his firsthand experience of the fire storm as follows:


Between the Red Cross Hospital and the centre of the city I saw nothing that wasn’t burned to a crisp. Streetcars were standing at Kawaya-cho and Kamiya-cho and inside were dozens of bodies, blackened beyond recognition. I saw fire reservoirs filled to the brim with dead people who looked as though they had been boiled alive. In one reservoir I saw a man, horribly burned, crouching beside another man who was dead. He was drinking blood-stained water out of the reservoir. Even if I had tried to stop him, it wouldn’t have done any good; he was completely out of his head. In one reservoir there were so many dead people there wasn’t enough room for them to fall over: they must have died sitting in the water.


Even the swimming pool at the Prefectural First Middle School was filled with dead people. They must have suffocated while they sat in the water trying to escape the fire because they didn’t appear to be burned.


That pool wasn’t big enough to accommodate everybody who tried to get in. You could tell that by looking around the sides. I don’t know how many were caught by death with their heads hanging over the edge. In one pool I saw some people who were still alive, sitting in the water with dead all around them. They were too weak to get out. People were trying to help them, but I am sure they must have died.6


It is sobering to reflect that the test bomb dropped on Bikini in 1954 was 750 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It is sobering to reflect that one authority on nuclear power has suggested that a twenty-megaton fireball could ignite 1,000 square miles. It is these truths that make the sandbag-and-curtain mentality criminally wrong.


Yet I am afraid we have not completed our contemplation of Hiroshima and its suffering. The survivors had then to encounter the invisible contamination caused by radiation. These effects gave a further terror to those already traumatized by what they had witnessed. A Buddhist priest remarked:


We heard the new phrase “A-bomb disease.” The fear in us became strong, especially when we could see certain things with our eyes. A man looking perfectly well as he rode by on a bicycle one morning, suddenly vomiting blood, and then dying. . . . Soon we were all worried about our health, about our bodies—whether we should live or die. And we heard if someone did get sick, there was no treatment that could help. We had nothing to rely on, there was nothing to hold us up.7


People were bewildered and terrified by the new invisible “disease” of radiation. As we now know, it had innumerable effects, which have been well documented: It led to leukemia (reaching its highest rates around 1950); it led to innumerable stillbirths and miscarriages; it led to babies born with various congenital defects and abnormalities; it led to cancer and thyroid tumors; it led to eye cataracts, various blood diseases, and skin disorders; and without a doubt it increased the sense of psychic dislocation and total meaninglessness that all the survivors of the bomb suffered for the rest of their lives.


Again, it must be remembered that in the case of Hiroshima the radiation was confined to that released in the initial blast. If it had been a surface burst (as opposed to an air burst) there would have been a further massive fallout of radioactive particles from the mushroom cloud. The effects of such radiation would be similar to that described before but would be much more extensive and, depending on the wind, capable of spreading up to 1,000 kilometers, as documented in the recent United Nations publication Comprehensive Study of Nuclear Weapons. The thin snow of death would contaminate whatever remained after the detonation of a number of bombs on key cities and nuclear sites.


I have described the effects of one nuclear bomb, a limited bomb in comparison with those that would be employed today. Yet, in a sense, there can be nothing worse than the indiscriminate mass murder and contamination of life that took place in Japan. The terrible has already happened. We must not let it happen again. Hiroshima must be our school from which we learn the need for permanent peace. But have we learned our lesson? If we look at the military phenomena of our century, we can see that we have gradually allowed our consciences to shift from the concept of limited war to the concept of total war. In 1907 the Hague Convention made an agreement that war should not impinge on unarmed civilians, and we find that of the numbers killed in World War I only 5 percent were civilians. In World War II we find that 48 percent were civilians. In the Korean War we find that 84 percent were civilians. In any third world war such a distinction between civilians and professionals will be utterly meaningless. Such a war would entail the indiscriminate mass destruction of life. Such a perception should deeply shock the ethical imagination, and yet we observe in our times the steady nightmarish increase and proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is calculated that the Soviet Union has 9,000 warheads targeted on Britain, Europe, and the United States. It is estimated that NATO and the United States have, for their part, 15,000 warheads ranged against the Warsaw Pact countries. Only last summer it was revealed that the United States is planning to spend 7 billion dollars over the next five years on chemical warfare and to begin manufacturing the neutron bomb. Moreover, it is thought that such countries as Israel, India, and South Africa may already possess nuclear weapons and that many other countries (moving from nuclear reactors for “peace” to nuclear missiles for “war”) are on the threshold of obtaining them: Brazil, Argentina, and Pakistan, for example. Arrogantly and paranoically, the “advanced” countries of the world stomp on the edge of the abyss. A disaster—perhaps even begun by a seemingly insignificant accident—is inevitable, unless there is a radical countermovement from the peoples of the world, claiming the right of all to live. Only a spontaneous and unceasing worldwide expression of the ethical imagination can save us. And teachers, by the nature of their work, should have an essential part to play in generating such imagination.


In conclusion, I want to raise one further question and to present one further image from the ethical imagination.


The question is this: Could there ever be cause that would justify releasing nuclear missiles in which millions of men, women, adolescents, children, babies, and the whole chain of biological life on which their lives depend would be indiscriminately destroyed?


I myself think that there could never be such a cause, never be a sufficient reason to sanction such an indiscriminate destruction of life. If you share my judgment, then it also follows that one could not defend any military program that would make likely or even possible such an action. One would certainly have to say no to any offensive weapons designed to inflict nuclear destruction.


If your answer to the question—Could it ever be justified? —is negative, then I think you are ethically obliged to unconditionally disown nuclear warfare—to disown it as criminal, and as totally unacceptable as a means to solve any conceivable human dispute. That is the negative form. The positive form of the same argument might well be that one must adopt against the world’s arsenal of missiles a radical concept of peace, moving outward from the individual life to the nation, from the national to the international. The profession of teaching, as I have implied, may well presuppose such a position; this may well be an implicit moral element of our job. And the same is, of course, true of other professions, most obviously the medical profession.


Finally, to the image I want to present. The day we sadly remember Hiroshima is the day on which Christians also celebrate Christ’s transfiguration. In the transfiguration we have the energy that is radiant and healing, a disclosure of the divine within the human. Here in these juxtaposed images of light and transformation lies, perhaps, the clue for the future. The quantum leap in technology calls out for the quantum leap in the ethical imagination—where we find the deep energies for renewal and for hope. If we meet destructive energy with destructive energy we create havoc. If we meet destructive energy with the counter-energy of nonviolence, our own action suggests the ethical way forward.


We must define peace in terms not only of Hiroshima but also of the transfiguration symbolically understood. Peace is not merely the absence of war. Peace cannot be secured by the deterrence of nuclear terror. Peace, rather, is a condition of being that renders nuclear war wholly unacceptable.


This is both the human and the ethical response, indeed the only living response to the prospect of the nuclear holocaust. It is, therefore, the response that should emerge most powerfully from us as a teaching profession. I have suggested that we as teachers are committed to a view of human potentiality that cannot sanction any kind of indiscriminate nuclear warfare. From the impoverished classrooms and the demoralized universities, should we as teachers and lecturers now move to unconditionally disown the instruments of genocide and to insist on the creative path out of the intolerable anxiety?



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 1, 1982, p. 174-183
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 825, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:07:34 PM

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