In August 1945, Europe was still smouldering from the effects of years of total war on its continent, when the United States Air Force dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Over 100,000 residents in those two cities were incinerated immediately by the power of each atomic blast. In the months that followed those atomic attacks, tens of thousands more would die horrifying deaths from radiation sickness.
When those nuclear bombs fell on Japan and evaporated people into shadows that stained the sides of shattered buildings as if their souls had been turned into charcoal stencil drawings, I was 22 years old and part of the allied occupation army stationed in Hamburg. It was a city that had seen more than its fair share of ruin, because it was estimated that 50,000 of its inhabitants had been extinguished by conventional aerial warfare during the battle against Hitler. But I remember that the news of the creation and use of the atomic bomb alarmed me.
I’d seen what ordinary bombs could do to a city and so realised that there was no escape for anyone if this new type of weapon of mass destruction were to be used ever again. However, I was also calmed by the fact that, at the conclusion of the Second World War, all across the democratic world governments were paying out the dividends of peace to their citizens by building just societies held firmly together with a social safety network, fair wages and a proper taxation policy.
So, although I was concerned that nuclear war might be imminent during the Berlin airlift crisis of 1948 because the Soviet Union and America were at loggerheads over control of Germany’s former capital – or when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in 1962, which again saw the two superpowers in a deadly game of geopolitical poker – I reasoned that coolers would prevail. I had a feeling the carnage caused by the conflict against Hitler was still too fresh a scar on the souls of both the leaders of the western world, their citizens and their counterparts in the Soviet bloc for the Cold War to erupt into nuclear armaggedon.
Now, however, in 2017, the collective memories of the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the refugee crisis of 1945, as well as the joy of a peace that created a functioning welfare state, have dimmed and sputtered like candles on the dining room table at midnight.
Moreover, our present era is ripe for war, because we don’t live in a time of progress but in one of economic and social oppression. A fetid cancer of greed and corruption has allowed the 1 per cent of society to smother the rights of the 99 per cent to a decent as well as a meaningful life. History should teach us that this type of inequality can only exist for so long before it upends society and chaos ensues.
This is why I am fearful that in 2017, we are closer to world war than we have been since September 1939 or August 1914. Like then, we seem to be under the sway of leaders who are autocratic, dictatorial and unwilling to find a peaceful means to satiate their lust for wealth or unmitigated power.
Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping of China, Kim Jung-un of North Korea or the lesser players like Theresa May in this deadly real Game of Thrones: all seem to possess an inability to empathise with the suffering of their lesser citizens.
Too many of our leaders in government or in business today seem to possess the sociopthatic traits that made Tsar Nicholas 2nd of Russia, Hitler, Mussolini or Mao destructive leaders for their people. Yet we idiolise our oligarchs of business for their ruthlessness and emulate them, which is why Donald Trump has been an admired icon for conspicuous consumption since the 1980s.
I am an old man in the apogee of my days and that’s why I know we are on the cusp of war – if not in North Korea then somewhere else – simply because we are letting the greed and the self-interest of the few lead the many into the cul-de-sac of war. It doesn’t take a prophet to know that as long as Britain, America, Canada, China or Russia profit handsomely from the arms industry while ignoring the refugee crisis, the housing crisis, the wage crisis and the crisis for affordable health care, the world is sitting on a powder keg whose fuse has already been lit and is burning down quick.
Make no mistake: the only check and balance that will control Donald Trump’s urge to ignite the world into war through his grotesque arrogance and incompetence is impeachment.
As a young man in uniform during the Second World War, I witnessed the destruction of entire cities across Europe from conventional warfare that left millions dead, injured or traumatised for life.
Now I am 94 and I don’t want my remaining time on this earth to be one where I watch impotently as the world propels itself off the ledge of civilisation and into the abyss of total and irrevocable nuclear war. That’s why I urge everyone who wants a peaceful and prosperous future to protest and fight against the dying of the light. We all owe it to the generations not yet born.
‘Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future’ by Harry Leslie Smith is published by Little, Brown on 14th September (£14.99 in hardback)
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