Two physicians visit high schools and tell students the truth about nuclear weapons
When the Cold War ended, most people went back to their regular lives, assuming nuclear weapons would disappear. Those of us who have continued to work on nuclear disarmament have found it difficult to arouse interest in the continued threat posed by nuclear arsenals.
The confrontation between President Trump and Chairman Kim of North Korea startled us to action.Once again nuclear annihilation was a serious possibility. The threat did not lead to an outcry, however. One of my friends said, with a sigh of resignation, “I think you are right. There could be nuclear war between the US and North Korea.” But she spoke as if it would be far away and not of any consequence.
My colleague, Dr. Jonathan Down, serves on the security committee of the American Physicians for Social Responsibility. He realized that the American physicians were more worried than we had been about a nuclear exchange by accident or intent. We began speaking to community groups about this threat, beginning at a church. Twenty-six people attended, most of them over 70 years old. Many were known to me from peace activities in the 1980s.
We showed slides of Hiroshima after the bomb, including images of the injured and dying. We used an interactive slide from nukemap.org.1 This program allows you to choose your city and hypothetically target it with a nuclear bomb of a chosen size. You can see the area that would be vaporized, the area that would have an intense firestorm, and the area of lethal radiation. We spoke about why doctors remain committed to nuclear disarmament. “In the event of a nuclear war, medicine has nothing meaningful to offer.” We concluded by signing the Nuclear Ban Treaty as citizens. We can sign as individuals even if our Government doesn’t.
The question period took us by surprise. Although the audience must have known the facts about Hiroshima, they were so shocked by seeing our slides they told us they felt raw and paralyzed. They said they didn’t realize that cities are targets. They didn’t remember the scale of the destruction. They couldn’t imagine that after decades, we were back in this perilous state. They told us specifically that when we presented next time, we should not give numbers and statistics, and not give details of treaties, but stick with what would happen and what we need to do. They booked us to speak to other groups.
We revised our presentation and simplified it to the human consequences of a nuclear blast and the good news of the Ban Treaty. We then presented to three service clubs, all fairly elderly. Everyone signed the Treaty sheets we were collecting, but they did not take any other actions.
We were invited to give a 90-minute presentation to the grade ten social studies students in a high school auditorium. The teachers were glad to have us come because World War II, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, and the Korean War were added to the grade ten social studies curriculum in BC in January, 2018.
The teachers warned us that the students knew nothing at all about nuclear weapons. But the students had seen science fiction/futuristic films and knew the iconic image of the mushroom cloud signaling the end of life as we know it. They had learned that World War II ended with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What they did not know was what the bombs actually did to people. The idea that students had done “duck and cover” exercises seemed quaint and funny to them. They could not understand the fear that gripped the Cold War period. But they were active on climate change and expressed a pervasive anxiety about their future in a rapidly changing world.
We tried to remember how we personally felt when we first learned about the threat of nuclear war. I remember that I was so horrified I didn’t sleep for three successive nights and still had to work all day. I could not believe that political leaders could be so reckless or stupid. And I felt completely helpless. Jonathan remembered looking at his newborn son and asking how he could protect this tiny being.
We knew that we had to tell the 16-year-olds the truth, but we could not add to their anxiety and despair about the state of the world. Somehow we had to live by the dictum “above all do no harm”. We knew that many of the teachers were too young to remember the Cold War. Our information might also be new to them.
We started our presentations with the four-minute film, Joining the Conversation on Nuclear Weapons by Jonathan Deaton, the First Prize Winner, Student Category, 2015 PSR Short Film Contest.2 The film features students revealing what they know about nuclear weapons. It is funny, irreverent, and powerful. It reassures the audience that no one else knows very much about nuclear weapons either.
I remembered that at peace gatherings in the 1980s, we always held hands and sang. Somehow singing together helped us manage our fear; we were not alone. Jonathan and I decided to take singers with us to the school and have a singing interlude after we showed the graphic images of Hiroshima.
As we showed the slides of Hiroshima before and after the atomic bomb, we could feel the shock in the students. We showed the “nukemap” of Victoria and what would happen if our city were targeted. The students were utterly silent, showing dismay and their sense of betrayal as if thinking, “not only are we facing climate change, but now we are facing the threat of nuclear war that could end life on earth in an afternoon, and this is the first time we are hearing about it!”
The most difficult slide for me to show is the one that Pope Francis gave out at his New Year address in Latin America in 2018. It shows an eleven year-old boy in Hiroshima. He is standing at a crematorium waiting to hand over the body of his baby brother to be cremated.
After this slide, Jonathan said to the class, “We can see how emotionally disturbing these images are and we want you to know that every time we show them, we feel exactly as you are feeling right now. We wish we didn’t have to teach you about this, but now it is necessary that we all know what is happening. We bring singers to join us to sing with you now. They come because they want you to know that adults care about you, and are working to abolish these weapons. We know that when we sing together we are not alone, and we will succeed in banning these weapons.” We sing “We Shall Overcome” and the John Lennon song, “Give Peace a Chance.”
Let me explain about the singers. I belong to a community choir of 250 people. I invited volunteer members to join us at school presentations to help lead the students. Usually, we had between 12 and 20 singers plus our two leaders. We discovered that high school students don’t like to sing in groups. One student taught us how to get the students to join in. He told them to pull out their phones and turn on the candle. Then they were delighted to wave their candles overhead and sing together.
The second section of our talk was designed to build hope. We showed pictures of successes of civil society in bringing about change. We told stories about the campaign that brought about the treaty to ban landmines, the work that brought about the chemical and biological weapons bans, our actions to found the International Criminal Court. We showed photos of the high school students who crossed Canada in 1987 speaking in schools about nuclear war. They are featured in the National Film Board movie, “Mile Zero”.3
We ended with stories about the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)-the central role of young people in its success and its Nobel Peace Prize. The students signed the Ban Treaty as citizens. We suggested that they use our PowerPoint to give a presentation in another class.
The Q and A periods following our presentations were electric. ‘Wouldn’t Médecins Sans Frontières come in to help?’ ‘Why do we have so many nuclear weapons?’ ‘Why hasn’t Canada signed the Ban Treaty?’ ‘What is good about nuclear weapons?’ ‘What can anyone do to change this?’ ‘How could we be sure everyone got rid of them?’ ‘What if we thought we got rid of all of them, but missed one or two, and some dictator or crazy person had them?’
Students lingered to ask more questions and to talk further about what they could do. They seemed to regard us like grandparents because they often hugged us as they left. One teacher called to tell me that students had already done five presentations about nuclear weapons in their English, Science and Media classes as a result of our class.
The school librarian called one of the teachers to ask for a resource list because she was unprepared for the number of requests for information from students. We recommended the website of the Swedish affiliate of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War.4 Then we prepared a resource list for our next presentations.
Over the spring of 2018 we spoke to 1200 people in 23 groups. Most of the groups were students, but we also spoke to political parties, service clubs, community and church groups. After each presentation we reflected on what we learned in the question period. We revised the presentations each time in the light of the feedback.
The effect of singing together was profound; in 12 presentations there were singers available and in 11 there were not. If there was no singing, the audience thanked us warmly for what we were doing, and then left. As far as we know, there was no follow up activity. On the other hand, when there was singing, the audience stayed for an extra half hour, talking, asking questions and taking selfies. Students went late to their next classes. Some singers had listened to our presentations several times, and the audience would often turn to them to ask about what they could do. The audience seemed to identify the singers as more like themselves than we were, as presenters.
Once we deleted a particularly disturbing slide about Hiroshima. The singers told us we should put it back in because the students had the right to see the truth. It took the singers three times listening to us before they really grasped the whole thing themselves. That comment reinforced their earlier suggestion to leave out statistics and data they didn’t need. Clearly the most effective presentations were ones that touched people emotionally, particularly through stories.
Presenting together was more effective than either of us alone. Two people bring different energy and perspectives. We also found that a 40-minute high school class is not long enough to give the students the emotional space to learn this difficult material and then move toward being empowered to take action. A 75-minute class seems ideal.
Next year we will offer the presentations to high schools up and down Vancouver Island. We match the presentation to the Curriculum Guides for specific grades and courses such as Social Justice. We would like to share our presentations and lesson plans with others interested in doing this work in other parts of Canada.
Mary-Wynne Ashford, MD, PhD. is a retired Family Physician and former Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. She was a high school chemistry and English teacher before studying Medicine. Her book, _Enough Blood Shed: 101 Solutions to Violence, Terror, and War (Gabriola Island: New Society, 2007), is available in Japanese and Korean._
Jonathan Down, MBBS, MHSc, DCH, FRCPC is a Developmental Pediatrician, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at UBC. He is President-elect of Physicians for Global Survival; a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility USA Security Committee; and a member of the Vancouver Island Peace and Disarmament Network.
Drs. Ashford and Down will receive the Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention Annual Achievement Award in September.
1 NukeMap: nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/classic, retrieved July 18, 2018.
3 National Film Board of Canada, www.nfb.ca
4 Swedish Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons: the Swedish IPPNW affiliate SMLK’s English-language nuclear weapons resource is Learn About Nuclear Weapons (laromkarnvapen.se/en)
Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2019, page 9. Some rights reserved.
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