I just returned from the Fourth Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy & Ethics sponsored by Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. As anticipated it met expectations. Particularly sobering were sessions about existential and catastrophic risks such as environmental/climate change, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology. What these types of events do not generally address are topics which, either do not fall within the theme of the conference, or a perception that governance (private, public) has the matter under control. But, on this Memorial Day weekend it occurs to me that the development of one technology, nuclear bombs, that although regarded as controlled by rational actors, does not appear to be moving into the right direction, that is their eradication.
Although, many nations are signatories to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the objective which is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons--it's not working.
In a world of rational actors, one might take comfort that the current protocols might be sufficient to avoid nuclear annihilation, but let's face it, all leaders are not rational (e.g., Kim Jong Un), and even if rational, many in the U.S. do not find eradication an appealing course of action, either.
We need look not further than as to the sentiment of a large swath of the American electorate, who where instead of being applauded, President Obama and his Iran nuclear weapons deal were vilified; and, as look no further than the congressional approval of the recent B61-12 nuclear bomb program, expected to go into full production in 2020, eventually producing 400 bombs (cost $11 billion), as part of a $350 billion plan that the U.S. has to "modernize" its nuclear weapons over the next 10 years. Three independent estimates put the expected total cost over the next 30 years at as much as $1 trillion.
At this stage in our civilized existence, we applaud war more than we applaud peace. Memorial Day remembrances, have no connection to our collective affection to wars that insure that these "holidays" persist into the unfathomable future.
As a child born at the start of WWII, I once thought war was part of everyday life, like going to school, church. I can remember my first Memorial Day, its exhilaration, standing next to my mother, watching men in uniform 4, 8 and 16 across, ten feet tall, marching down Main Street, USA echoes of brass bands playing in the distance, people cheering, clapping each time the skeleton of a new regiment crossed our path. I remember troops passing who'd fought in the Spanish American War, 1899, dozens of companies who'd fought in World War I, and then those that were then serving World War II's on the home front. Among those in the crowd were veterans and veterans to be, and those that would perish in wars not yet named: the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, the first Iraq War, parents and grandparents of a second Iraq War and Afghanistan. Thinking about those days comes hard, so far away, time gradually erasing the details of scores of flag waving parades in the course of a life.
What also cannot be erased, and which I'm occasionally reminded, is the toll of lives lost in war. By the most conservative estimates the deaths for all major wars in which America fought over the past 100 years or so: WWI, 116,708; WWII 407,316; Korea 36,914; Vietnam 58,169; Iraqi 4,425; Afghanistan, 2229. I have not included a few of the smaller wars we participated in.
The number of casualties on a per war basis is decreasing due to new technology and style of warfare, but brutality remains unmitigated e.g., in 2010, 400,000 war motivated rapes in the Congo; between 2001-2010, 168,000 traumatic brain injuries for U.S. military personnel. Afghanistan, since 1978 reports 2,000,000 cumulative fatalities; Iraq since 2003 reports over 1,000,000. Last year-2015, death totals for 3 major wars, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, ran into the 100,000's.
Just this week President Obama, as the first president to do so, traveled to Hiroshima, where between it's bombing and Nagasaki's bombing, 129,000 died. He called on nations to "escape the logic of fear" and reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons. How he squares producing 400 new bombs, as part of a $350 billion plan, is mind boggling. Is this crazy? Would we seriously think about leveling the world? Or is part this part of the double-speak, we have come to expect from government?
It strikes me we've learned nothing from the past. Rather than the number of wars diminishing, the number is increasing: currently 43 separate armed conflicts plague the world. Yet, for all the resources modern nations exploit, none are committed to counterbalancing, in inspiration, advocacy, people or money a non-violent war against war, or to the eradication of nuclear weapons.
Take notice, that no candidates for political office this year have seriously addressed: downsizing defense departments, converting industrial military complexes into less lethal more productive enterprises. And, take notice, that our assumption that we live in a world of rational actors, and therefore, the current protocols might be sufficient, may be proven wrong, come the November election for president.
In this political climate Americans should demand that candidates respond with proposals for both governmental and nongovernmental intervention when nations are at the brink of violence, to ending just a fraction of the ongoing wars.
Is it possible that Memorial Day can be set aside to show respect to those that gave their lives during armed conflict by opening a conversation that focuses attention away from war rather than its propagation? After all, Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world - indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Let's give the day the dignity it deserves, a day of contemplation and shared mourning. Let's not be so complacent.