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The Guardian
Reprinted with permission from the
June 14, 1982 edition of The Guardian

Our Minds Have Been Set in Apocalyptic Mode
Doris Lessing

Of the spectres haunting Europe the worst - again - is war. And, again, we are ill-prepared. I am not talking about defense as weaponry or alliances, but of defense in its aspect of protection of the people.

Shortly after the last war policy was decided thus: government and the Royal Family, and top levels of the Civil Service, the army and science would be sheltered, but the people, not at all. Successive governments, Conservative and Labour, have seen no reason to change this policy, though by their deeds they announce their belief in the efficacy of adequate protection: shelters for the few are updated according to the latest research.

This costs billions of pounds. When it is suggested to the citizens who pay for it all that it is surely time they began to inform themselves about their own survival the reaction is apathy, or reproach. Even abuse and the wildest unreason.

For example, that if everyone cannot be protected or that if protection cannot be absolute, then there is no point in saving anyone at all, if it is not immoral to want to try. This is true not only of Britain, but of France and Germany. The three countries in Western Europe that suffered most from the two recent wars and which would lost most from another leave their citizens vulnerable.

I believe that historians will marvel at a situation that lacks all commonsense and logic. Yet the British are rightly famed for the ability to deal with crises. The forecasts of government before the last war turned out incorrect: people did not riot, panic, kill each other or go mad. They coped. Orwell was one of those who pointed out that the people were more adult and flexible than their government.

What is wrong now? I believe it is lack of information. Polls show that a majority believe there will be nuclear war in the next ten years, but only 5 percent believe they can survive it. In short, they feel helpless. Government issues inadequate pamphlets blurring essential facts, while CND and similar groups who are the most vocal and skilled at propaganda announce continually that there is no solution but to disarm completely a policy that does not, to put it mildly, carry much conviction - and that even to discuss civil defense is a form of war-making. The result is that most people do not know there is a comprehensive expertise on how to survive nuclear war. They are being misinformed by those who should be informing them.

Russia protects its people, has dispersed or shielded industry. US estimates are that a war would destroy 8 percent of the Russians, but 50 percent of its own, who have no protection at all. The Chinese look after their people on the principle: "To lead a people into war unprepared is to throw them away." The Scandinavians, the East Europeans, are preparing fast. Switzerland, the exemplar, can protect 95 percent against everything but a direct hit. (The Swiss run seminars on their expertise which they have been developing since the last war for anyone who will come and listen: they think that Britain, France and Germany are mad.)

It is the belief of an increasing number of us that if there can be a secret weapon it is this: our populations are helpless, but an enemy can reply to a threat: "And so what, most of our people will live, we look after them but yours will die."

What can we do? Firstly, most importantly, decide to look at the evidence. This means facing emotional blocks inside oneself. It is not easy to accept that war is possible or likely as a fact and not as rhetoric. These emotional blocks cannot be exaggerated, can be tested easily in oneself and others.

For instance, take a cluster of facts about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than 50 percent situated inside the blast area at the time of the explosion survived. People moved back within a few days, when essential services, telephones, trains, sewage and so on were already operating. In Nagasaki some survived uninjured inside conventional air raid shelters one third of a mile from the point directly below the explosion, without blast doors. Many simple earth-covered family shelters were essentially undamaged in areas where blast destroyed all the buildings.

The incidence of deaths from cancer is in line with the incidence of cancer throughout Japan. The incidence of genetic diseases in children and grandchildren of survivors has been no greater than for all Japan.

These and similar facts which add up to a picture different from our war propaganda (which is where the popular view originated) and from that offered by some peace groups, comes from the US National Academy of Sciences: "A Thirty Year Study of the Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." (Since 1945, 109,000 survivors from the initial radiation have been under study.) And from the Environmental and Medical Sciences Division, Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, April 29, 1980: "No genetic defects that can be unequivocally ascribed to radiation have ever been found in Man."

You'd think that people would respond to such information with "Thank God things are not quite as terrible as we've been believing: where can we get hold of the facts?" But more often they get angry.

Secondly. Our minds have been set in the apocalyptic mode, thus: "A great power will set off The Bomb and thereafter all civilisation will cease." (Attitudes before the last war parallel now. For example, a few people ran about offering poison pills on the grounds there would be no point in living after a war.)

But wars do not run on expected lines. Young people now see the last war as inevitable in the form it took, but no one at all foresaw what did happen. We should prepare ourselves (not) for a form of war, but for difference possible wars, or accidents. For some reason a conventional war is seldom mentioned. But why not? Is what we saw happening in Vietnam not worth protecting ourselves against?

Thirdly. We should be familiar with the different forms of protection. The most effective, the cheapest, is large communal shelters. Government leaflets do not mention these, for the good reason that there are not plans to build any. They can be made from car parks, motorways, by-passes, exiting underground tunnels. New houses should have shelters built in, as is done by law in Switzerland. Here are kinds and degrees of sheltering and ways of dealing with radiation, about which many myths are believed.

Fourthly. The cost. Estimates for Trident are that it will cost £7 billion. We can protect everyone in Britain for that sum. We are willing, it seems, to pay for one but not for the other. Public shelters must be built by central authority, but here can be efficacious individual effort.

To build a shelter to the levels of the latest Swiss research, from easily available materials like large sewage pipes, costs £15,000 for 18 people. This is not beyond the means of groups pooling resources. If the unemployed were given work building shelters, £10 million a week in benefit would be saved for every £200,000 used.

Fifthly. We are still, however inadequately, a democracy. Government responds to pressures. Ours does so little to protect us because in the present climate of opinion they would lose votes. A revolving destructive mechanism: government won't act because the people don't want to think about it because the government doesn't inform them.

Most of us belong to some kind of association or group and all can be used to exert pressure since war, nuclear or not, affects everything. We should use environmental and consumer groups, women's groups, sporting and social clubs and, of course, the branches of political parties. This is not a party political issue.


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