Let Them Eat Grass

As the atom bomb exploded it created a fireball that was as hot as the centre of the sun. On the ground it created a firestorm which burned uncontrollably for six hours. Everything within two kilometres that could burn, including people, burnt. Anyone out in the open as far away as three and a half kilometres had their skin burnt. The fire raged, and people burnt, and there was no one to put out the fire. Even if there had been, they would have been helpless. The explosion had destroyed all the water pipes.

Buildings disintegrated from the shock wave that followed the heat. Almost nothing was left standing. Half a kilometre away from the explosion even the strongest buildings collapsed, their walls crushed by the shock wave. Even as far away as two and a half kilometres all the buildings were so smashed up that they were unusable. The city, now only rubble, became its own map.

The firestorm and the blast could have been produced by conventional bombs. It would have taken about 300 tonnes of high explosives and nearly a thousand tonnes of incendiary bombs. But what these bombs could not have done was produce radiation. This killed people immediately; there was nausea and then vomiting, loss of appetite, fever, diarrhoea and spontaneous bleeding. Hair started to fall out, and the bleeding increased, blood seeped form every orifice of the body. Death, when it came, was a relief. There was no way to treat these living dead. No one knew how to treat such radiation injuries. There were no hospitals where they could have been treated. There were few doctors left alive and able to take care of themselves, never mind patients – the patients already in hospitals died. The complete destruction of the city's administration meant that there was no one to count the dead.

The radiation from the explosion meant that people kept on dying. It was a slow lingering death. Radiation made the bones of the living radioactive and killed them from the inside. Among the survivors, the number of people with leukaemia increased gradually, reaching a peak nearly 10 years after the bomb was used. Other cancers also increased; especially cancer of the thyroid, breast and lung.

This is what one atom bomb did. This is the great attraction of nuclear weapons. A single bomb in a moment shorter than the blink of an eye snuffed out half the people of a city and demolished the city itself. It is the concentration of destruction. And, in the age of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence, it is the fear of this moment that is meant to keep the peace. When two nations have nuclear weapons both must live in fear of this moment. They must keep fixed in their minds what it means to use nuclear weapons. They must let the bomb fill their days and nights. With their nuclear tests, the leaders of India and Pakistan have condemned their people to spend their lives dreaming of Hiroshima.

However, while the leaders of India and Pakistan have been seduced by the bomb and its terrible promise to destroy almost everything, they have not learnt that it is useless for anything else. The last 50 years of the nuclear age teaches us that simply possessing nuclear weapons is no guarantee that a state will win a war. Nuclear weapon states have elected to fight wars on many occasions and have lost. Britain fought and lost at Suez, even though it had already developed nuclear weapons. The United States suffered significant defeats during the Korean War and the war ended in a stalemate. The more famous examples are, of course, the defeat of the United States in Vietnam, and of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan despite their enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons. In all these cases, a non-nuclear state fought and won against a nuclear armed state.

If nuclear weapons cannot guarantee that a state will win its wars, what else can they do? The last 50 years also teaches that nuclear weapons offer no freedom from attempts to intimidate or threaten. At different times during the Cold War both the US and the Soviet Union made nuclear threats numerous times, with the United States making around 20 such threats and the Soviet Union making five or six. Efforts at such blackmail were not affected even though both states had massive nuclear arsenals.

The complete failure of nuclear weapons to offer protection is one of the great dark secrets of the Cold War. Neither the US nor the Soviet Union could ever admit to this though. How could they explain that the weapons that were able to destroy the world were useless for anything else? So they kept quiet, and hoped no one would notice. But people did. What gave it away was that no matter how many nuclear weapons there were, there was always a need for more, and bigger.

This is a lesson the leaders of India and Pakistan are starting to learn for themselves. The decades of claiming that a "nuclear option" was a deterrent finally gave way to the argument that a real deterrent needed tested weapons. Soon, this will give to the argument that only deployed weapons are a deterrent. This, in time, will give way to to the claim that only tested, deployed weapons, on hair-trigger alert for use in a first strike are a real deterrent.

The fact is terror does not last. The dreams of Hiroshima become too familiar. People get used to them. New and greater sources of terror are required. This is clear from the arsenals of all five of the established nuclear states, which have all increased their arsenals from a few nuclear weapons to hundreds of weapons; they all rely on thermonuclear weapons that are tens if not hundreds or thousands of times more destructive than the simple nuclear weapons they started with.

It is clear that if the basis of Pakistan's security is to have nuclear weapons that can match India, then Pakistan will in time have to test a thermonuclear weapon of its own. And how many will it have to make? And then there are the missiles, and the command and control systems. The list goes on and on.

This arms race about to start is not something new. It has been a slow tortuous marathon for 50 years. It is the one constant, apart from hostility and proximity, in the relationship between Pakistan and India and it has always been an unequal race. Pakistan is less able to run, but the desperate terror of India, along with the occasional kicks and punches from its army, have forced it to keep the poor, tired and battered body of the nation on the move. It is exhausted despair that has made the nuclear test so appealing to so many. Pride in something, anything, no matter how misplaced, has offered them some consolation for all the pain. A nuclear medal.

Thirty years ago, when Pakistan embarked on its nuclear path, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had said Pakistan would have its own bomb even if it meant Pakistanis had to eat grass. Decades of hateful and wasteful military competition between India and Pakistan has already meant living in that squalid and desolate place between war and peace. The people of India and Pakistan would have survived if nuclear weapons were not tested. But many, if not all of them, would exchange their ticket into the nuclear club for a new hope for tomorrow. It is they who will be condemned to eat grass to pay for these nuclear tests.

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Himal Southasian