A nuclear war has already begun
by E. Martin Schotz
November 19, 1983
The Boston Globe, p. 15
A while back I got a call from two students asking me to speak at their high school on the danger of nuclear war. Because I am a psychiatrist, the students specifically requested that I talk about the psychological effects a nuclear war would be likely to have. They said. “A lot of students expressed an interest in hearing a doctor talk about that.” Their request seemed to indicate a misunderstanding, since in the aftermath of a nuclear war, psychology would be the least of our problems.
But their request set me to thinking. I thought about Einstein’s statement. “The splitting of the atom has changed everything in the world save man’s mind, and so we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” I thought about Jonathan Schell’s magnificent book. “The Fate of the Earth,” in which the author has given flesh to Einstein’s skeletal warning. For Schell has drawn our attention to the problem of extinction – that mankind could actually annihilate itself in a nuclear war – that it is very likely we would annihilate ourselves in such a war. That extinction is something no one can suffer because, when it happens, there is no one there to suffer it. Because extinction is not something we can suffer in reality, we must suffer it in imagination – suffer it and begin solving it in imagination. That is the unique historical reality with which nuclear war confronts us.
I began thinking of the Catholic Bishops’ recent pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” the stress they put on peace as more than simply the absence of hostilities, that peace is a process, a process that must be built and defended, that war begins before the first shot is fired, that war begins when we plan it, when we fall prey to the illusion that security can rest in our capacity to destroy others.
I returned to Einstein’s thought and began thinking that one of its meanings is that the whole order of things has been reversed by nuclear weapons. Before we could think of war as beginning when the bombs started falling, when fear and suspicion crossed a threshold into physical hostility. But the threat of nuclear weapons is once and for all calling a halt to that illusion. Now we must understand that the last act of the war would be launching nuclear weapons. It is a mistake to call what is going on now a “cold war.” We are in a hot war whose end will be our incineration if we do not turn back. The targets have all been picked out. The weapons are amassed and aimed. Hate and hysteria are being fostered daily. We have only to commit the final act to conclude the present war. The child in the film said it right: “There’s a nuclear war going on inside me.”
But something else is also happening – for in the midst of this war unprecedented forces of peace have sprung up. Peace has broken out and entered the fray.
I am thinking of how our problem is seen by a Soviet author, Chinghiz Aitmatov, one of the leading writers in the Soviet Union today: “The movement for peace ... is an irreversible process of the social awakening of the masses, a spiritual birth ... Mankind is proposing liberation from a universal humiliating terror, from a feeling of isolation, indifference, and cruelty – from everything that impudently inspires and provokes one through propaganda to serve insanity ... In the movement for peace, as in no other, concretely and not abstractly, the contemporary thought of mankind in all its fullness is reflected, tests itself and is realized ... we must find ... a path which transforms the idea of humanism into an activity which will be able to preserve peace.”
How to encourage in every person a faith that knowledge and action are not irrelevant, an awareness that the building and defending of peace and mutual understanding between peoples is a daily personal responsibility, a commitment to join with others in turning our moral and spiritual resources into energies for active good. This is the real psychological problem of nuclear war.
E. Martin Schotz is a member of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.
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