Marching For Peace and Justice in the Shadow of the Bomb

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We have been taught in America not to
worry about nuclear weapons. We are supposed
to pretend that they will never be
used, as if their only function is symbolic,
as if they are mighty but ultimately peaceful
sentinels deterring the aggression of others.
For over 50 years we have been taught that
the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) protected
our safety by guaranteeing that anyone who launched
a nuclear strike against the U.S. would be mutually assured
of its destruction. It is clear now, however, that both our
MAD fears and our MAD hopes were displaced.
Our MAD fear was displaced in two senses, for the
nuclear arsenal will not destroy life on earth via a massive
conflagration of warring robotic weapons but rather
through the slow filling of our planet with never-dying
nuclear waste and the slow strangulation of the Great Society.
That is, you cannot live on earth when the water is
poisoned, when the land is radioactive, when the air itself
simmers with silent death—and that, of course, is what
will happen some gorgeous afternoon when a cooling
pond loses control of its radioactive rods, when a train carrying
nuclear waste crashes, when some micro-sensor
fails, when the deadly waste produced by our arsenal of
weapons leaks out into the world, leaving it ruined forever.
While we await this ecological nightmare, let’s agree
that you cannot fund the programs that make civil democracy
possible when hundreds of billions of dollars are
spent each year building and maintaining nukes. Democracy
in America will not end because the Russians have
nuked it into oblivion but because the Pentagon has bankrupted
the nation, turning America into a flaccid land of
uneducated, sugar-devouring, TV-addicted, war-mongering
yahoos. We are rapidly approaching the suicidal position
of having the best weapons systems in the world yet
the worst schools among all modernized nations. We can
end life on earth, yet we cannot feed our homeless. We can
wipe Moscow or Beijing off the face of the earth, yet we
cannot count votes in Ohio.
Our MAD hope was displaced as well, for selling
democracy down the river in the name of building nukes
has not produced a world of insured safety. MAD worked
against the Soviets, but it will not work against Al Qaeda—
what could we possibly bomb?—or any of the other terrorist
groups currently threatening to wage asymmetrical warfare
against us, perhaps with “dirty bombs” or other blackmarket
nukes. 50 years of nuclear MADness has thus left
us helpless before the threat of more 9/11s—we are not
safe, our nukes are useless, they stand now solely as testaments
to waste and delusion.
And so we marched. Marking the 61st anniversary of the
U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
and protesting both war profiteering in Iraq and the continued
production of nuclear weapons, over 100
marchers converged on August 6 on the Bettis Atomic
Power Lab (BAPL) in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, just
south of Pittsburgh. We marched on the BAPL because it
is one of the nation’s largest nuclear weapons facilities,
where Bechtel helps design and refurbish the nuclear
reactors that drive many of the U.S. Navy’s submarines
and aircraft carriers. The 14 Trident submarines that run
on nuclear reactors built by Bechtel at the BAPL each
carry 24 nuclear warheads (336 total), meaning these
submarines alone—to say nothing of our land and airbased
nukes—have the capacity to extinguish life on
earth. And so we marched.
Fifteen activists dressed all in white to commemorate
the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki carried large cardboard
white doves held high on wooden sticks. Standing
in the BAPL parking lot awaiting the protesters, the phalanx
of police thus saw gliding toward them a flock of
doves, a cloud of peace, a message of hope. Behind the
doves came drummers, singers, chanters, clappers, those
with heads held down in silence and those with cameras
held high, those full of anger and those weeping with sadness.
We gathered before the gates of the plant and
splayed ourselves out on the screaming hot pavement,
performing a symbolic “Die In,” a theatrical moment of
lying in sweaty silence to mark those whose bodies were
vaporized 61 years ago in Japan, bombed yesterday in
Baghdad, shot today in Kabul, forgotten tomorrow in
Detroit. We sang old peace songs led by the “Raging
Grannies,” a group of elderly peace activists who have
embraced their role as grandmothers. OK, they say, you
respect grandmothers, so hear this: we oppose this rotten
war, we oppose nuclear proliferation, we oppose war profiteers.
Next to the Raging Grannies were the black-clad
skateboarders and next to them the flowing skirted hippies
and next to them the retired pastors and professors
and next to them the union organizers and next to them
the Code Pink women so strong and sexy—and regardless
of age or race or class or religion we chanted together,
shouting No Nukes, No War, No War Profiteers! No
Nukes, No War, No War Profiteers!
We were but a hundred—nearly outnumbered by police
and media, the march thus representing one of the key
dilemmas of our historical moment, where citizens of conscience
find themselves literally surrounded by the state’s
forces of oppression and the corporate means of perpetual
numbing. Television will report our march wedged
between ads for aspirin and mouthwash and new tires.
Nonetheless, we assembled outside the BAPL because
United for Peace and Justice (UPJ) and Pittsburgh’s local
August 6 Organizing Committee had issued a call to action:
“Stop Bechtel! Stand Up Against War Profiteers!” Linking
war profiteering in Iraq and the ongoing production of
nuclear weapons, we focused on Bechtel, the San Francisco-
based transnational corporation that UPJ calls “the
world’s number-one nuclear profiteer.”
As a charter member of the military-industrial-complex,
Bechtel is among the largest war profiteers in Iraq and around
the globe. One of its Iraq contract is ostensibly for $34.6 million,
yet the indeterminate nature of the deal has led one
commentator to estimate that the work contracted to Bechtel
may eventually cost as much as $680 million. It would be
hard not to reach this figure, for the New York Times reports
that the contract “covers virtually all the major projects in
Iraq, including two international and three domestic airports,
ensuring potable water is available, reconstructing electric
power plants and rebuilding roads, railroads, schools, hospitals
and irrigation systems.” The “reconstruction” of Iraq has
been managed so poorly by Bechtel and its fellow war profiteers,
however, that the International Advisory and Monitoring
Board of the Development Fund for Iraq, an auditing
board established by the United Nations, has argued that U.S.
firms being paid with Iraqi oil funds should pay back the
Iraqis more than $200 million.
Given its overwhelming record of botched work, readers
will tremble with fear when they learn that Becthel is
among the chief contractors of the U.S. nuclear weapons
arsenal. Indeed, among its work that is not classified, Bechtel
currently holds contracts for:
• $626 million worth of “operations management”
at the Kwajalein Atoll Missile Site
• $553 million for managing the Los Alamos
Nuclear Laboratory
• $1.9 billion worth of “nuclear waste disposal” at
Yucca Mountain
• $14.7 billion for “weapon refurbishing” at the
Savannah River Site
• $500 million for “development and repair of
naval propulsion reactors” at the Bettis Atomic
Power Lab
Bechtel is thus immersed in virtually every aspect of the U.S.
nuclear arsenal. Making nuclear reactors, handling nuclear
waste, and managing weapons labs, Bechtel grows rich by
making the weapons that may one day end the world. As
Frida Berrigan has argued, Bechtel is among the leading corporations
privatizing the apocalypse. And so we marched,
chanting “Stop Bechtel! Stand Up Against War Profiteers!”
As we marched through the rural poverty of West Mifflin,
we were shadowed by history. For sixty-one years ago, on
August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic
bomb on Hiroshima. When news of the bombing was
reported the next day, President Truman warned the Japanese
that if they did not surrender immediately, they could
“expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has
never been seen on this earth.” U.S. war planners were so
impressed by the destructive capacities of their new
weapon that they referred to it not as an atomic bomb but
as a “Cosmic Bomb”—it was the first weapon so powerful it
could alter the cosmos. And in fact the destruction caused
by the cosmic/atomic bomb was so great that the War
Department reported on August 7, 24 hours after bombing
Hiroshima, that it was “unable to make an accurate report”
about the damage to that city because “an impenetrable
cloud of dust and smoke” prevented U.S. reconnaissance
planes from actually seeing the city. The New York Times
covered the story with a mixture of awe, reverence, and
horror, yet it said not one word about casualties. We now
know that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (later
that week, on 9 August) injured hundreds of thousands,
killed over 200,000 innocents, and caused immeasurable
amounts of environmental and genetic damage. While the
Times avoided talking about specific death totals, it reported
that the scientists who helped design the bomb spent
those first early days of the new atomic age “frankly fearful
to witness the results of the invention, which might turn
out to be either the salvation or the Frankenstein’s monster
of the world.” Whether readers believe the bomb was salvation or monster
depends in large part on which school of history they
subscribe to. President Truman famously predicted that a
full-scale U.S. invasion of Japan would cost “half a million
lives,” meaning that dropping atomic/cosmic bombs on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki spared U.S. lives by forcing the
Japanese to capitulate. This atomic-bomb-as-saving-livesand-
ending-war theory worked perfectly with post-war U.S.
triumphalism, for it portrayed U.S. scientific and military
supremacy as the culmination of a new age of civilized U.S.
global leadership. We now know, of course, that Truman’s
estimate of likely U.S. dead was wildly inflated, that the
Japanese had in fact tried to surrender prior to the bombings,
and that using the atomic/cosmic bombs was not so
much a humane way to end World War II as a murderous
way of beginning the Cold War. Indeed, most historians
now believe the bombings were meant to intimidate China
and the U.S.S.R. From this atomic-bomb-as-wasting-livesand-
perpetuating-war perspective, the U.S. bombed
Hiroshima and Nagasaki to produce a deadly form of political
theatre offering viewers this harrowing lesson: mess with
the U.S. and this will be your fate.
The world thus worried in those early days after the U.S.
first unleashed the age of atomic/cosmic bombs if we could
survive such a monstrous predicament. In words as painfully
precise then as they are today, the New York Times wondered
“can mankind grow up quickly enough to win the
race between civilization and disaster?” To put the question
in contemporary political terms: can we reclaim democracy
from the clutches of Bechtel and the other war profiteers
who have made the U.S. military-industrial-complex the
greatest threat to life on our planet? We marched on the
BAPL because we believe the answer to that question is YES.
If you believe the answer to that question is YES, then get
involved with one of the following groups, who are all fighting
against war profiteering and the proliferation of nuclear
• United for Peace and Justice, “No Nukes, No Wars”
• Code Pink:
• The August 6 Committee:
• War Resisters League Stop the Merchants of Death
• The Declaration of Peace: www.declarationofpeace.
• Physicians for Social Responsibility:

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