6 August 2015

A picture's power to prevent

Seth Baum

Seth Baum

Seth Baum is executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, a nonprofit think tank that Baum co-founded in...


Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seventy years ago, killed far more people than any other two weapons in history. The combined death toll was around 200,000. It boggles the mind to think that so many could be killed so quickly, yet even as we take the moment to reflect and pay respects to the victims and survivors, it’s interesting to consider the number in context. By the absurd standards of World War II, the sum is small, amounting to about a quarter of one percent of 80 million or so total deaths.

The importance of the bombings as a strategy lesson may also be exaggerated. Careful historical analysis by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa,  Ward Wilson, and others shows that the bombs may have been inconsequential to Japan’s surrender. The Soviet Union declaring war on Japan may have been the larger factor. Wilson argues persuasively that some strategists mistakenly inflate the military value of nuclear weapons, partly thanks to the myth that the bombings ended the war.

But while the humanitarian and military significance of the attacks may be overstated, there is no overstating their significance as a warning. Images of the attacks and their aftermath—mushroom clouds, ruined cities—have become unforgettable emblems of nuclear war, that along with the gripping stories of survivors—the hibakusha—have burned the weapons’ terrifying power into our minds.

Those images are the most significant legacy of the bombings, because they dissuade anyone who sees them from ever using or endorsing the use of nuclear weapons again. And that’s important not because we know that a couple of bombs can kill 200,000 people, but because if nuclear weapons are used in a new war, they could destroy far more people than they did in World War II. In 1945, the United States used all of the nuclear weapons that it—or anyone—had. Today, there are around 10,000 in the world, and a war with these weapons would make WWII look small. The initial explosions could kill hundreds of millions, and the ensuing nuclear winter could kill billions—yes, billions—possibly even threatening the survival of the human species.

These statistics are alarming, but statistics do not inspire people the way that images and stories do. To be sure, powerful images have to be used with caution, because they can be used to manipulate as well as inspire. Appeals to images are likewise no substitute for careful analysis. But with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, image and analysis both point in the same direction: Disarmament should occur as soon as possible so that nuclear weapons are never used in war.

If their lessons are heeded, the images of the bombings will have had a positive impact. It would be nice to think that humans could reject nuclear weapons without ever having to see a picture of the destruction they can cause, but that may not be the case. Which means that in encouraging disarmament, the images may in fact be making the world safer.

If that’s the case, there’s a practical lesson to be learned with regard to many future threats. As autonomous weapons, biotechnology, and other risky emerging technologies begin to cause tragedies, we would benefit from knowing what the effects will look like, because statistics alone won’t win any arguments against them. Just as photos of a small nuclear war may help us avoid a large one, images of the first small-scale attacks with newly invented weapons may help us avoid them being used for massively more destructive purposes in the future. That is the best lesson to take from the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The views presented here are the author’s alone, and not those of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.