This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 Harker Quarterly.
At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima in an effort to end World War II. The bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” directly killed more than 80,000 people, including 330 students and teachers at Hiroshima Jogakuin Senior High School.
The attack, which destroyed nearly 70 percent of the buildings in the city, went on to take the lives of more than 140,000 people through radiation poisoning and injuries. The controversy over the death toll from the Hiroshima and (a few days later) Nagasaki nuclear bombings versus that of the alternative – a physical invasion of the Japanese home islands – continues, but few will argue that nuclear war is acceptable in any form, under any circumstances, today.
On the 70th anniversary of the bombing, the rebuilt Hiroshima Jogakuin Senior High School welcomed students from Russia, Japan and the United States for the 18th annual Critical Issues Forum, a student conference on nuclear disarmament. It was the first time that the conference was held in Hiroshima, the first city to experience nuclear devastation.
This year’s Critical Issues Forum, held April 2-4, focused on the humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament. It was co-sponsored by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and the Hiroshima for Global Peace Plan Joint Project Executive Committee. Students presented their research, listened to talks by survivors and visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
The conference also marked The Harker School’s first year of participation.
“I’ve always been interested in global policy issues,” said Manan Shah, grade 10. “Having debated a great deal about nuclear weapons and their potential violent effects not only on tight-knit human communities but also the world at large, I found the Critical Issues Forum a unique opportunity to promote real change.”
Shah was part of the Harker team of f our students who researched, wrote and presented their findings on using past events with global humanitarian consequences to determine prior successful initiatives. The team comprised Shah, Ethan Ma, grade 12, Alexander Sikand, grade 11, and Zarek Drozda, grade 11. Two of the students, Sikand and Ma, went to Japan to present the team’s findings.
“In spite of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of use of nuclear weapons, the issues of national security, military and strategic aspects have always taken precedence in the discussion of nuclear weapons,” Shah said. “The research for this year’s topic centered on discussion about the implications of potential human catastrophe as a result of the use of nuclear weapons and what must be done to avoid any such future occurrence.”
Harker held an assembly to announce the partnership with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies back in October 2014, at which three representatives talked to students about the conference, their past experiences and the importance of this work.
Ma was in that audience during the discussion and was inspired to participate.
“I think the topic itself is something that’s specific and one that students usually don’t get to study in great detail,” Ma said. “I found it interesting and a bit mysterious.”
The team of students spent about three months doing basic research on the topic of nuclear nonproliferation under physics teacher Eric Nelson’s guidance.
After completing the research, the idea that generated the most enthusiasm from the team involved researching past events with global humanitarian consequences (including abolishment of slavery, prohibition of land mines, ban of chemical weapons, and reduction in the use of ozone-depleting CFCs) to determine prior successful initiatives, Shah said.
After deciding to move forward with the topic, the team broke the work into subtopics; each student studied a subtopic, and then the team worked together to write a collaborative paper and presentation.
“During the research for this forum, we increased our understanding of the importance of nuclear disarmament, the current status of nuclear disarmament, and the issues and challenges in the disarmament initiatives,” Shah said. “I strongly believe that educating young high school students around the world on disarmament and nonproliferation issues will have a significant impact towards a world free of nuclear weapons, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this program.”
Lessons from Hiroshima
After completing the research paper, Sikand and Ma made their way to Hiroshima for the conference, a trip that would inspire in them an abiding compassion for those who have been directly impacted by nuclear weapons.
“I thought it was really shocking,” Sikand said. “I mean, you read about the nuclear bomb and you read about its usage in the text books and you know that it’s this devastating event that took thousands of lives, but when you’re there in the museum and try to fathom how it must have felt and looked … no one who wasn’t there will fully understand, but we did our best.”
The team learned that “Little Boy,” the 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was indeed small compared with the Soviet Union’s Tsar Bomba of 1961 – the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated at 50 megatons.
“Even looking at this massive destructive event [Hiroshima]… one of the professors there described [the destruction] as looking [like] at gunshot wounds from the 1860s,” Sikand said, while the destructive capabilities of today’s nuclear weapons parallel the damage done to individuals by modern battlefield weapons. “The bomb used in Hiroshima was a lot different from the capabilities that we have today,” Sikand noted.
Prior to traveling to Hiroshima, Sikand studied the use of the atomic bomb in Japan under then-President Harry Truman.
“We basically tried to justify the use and talked about how it probably saved this many American lives; it ended the war this many years, this many months earlier than it would have otherwise,” he said. “We debate it, but after going there, you realize that there is much left [to debate]. Think about the devastation to the immediate victims of the bomb – those who were completely incinerated, those who died of radiation poisoning days, weeks, months after; increased prevalence of cancer and even now, descendants of survivors have been marginalized by Japanese society because no one wants to marry them because of fear of birth defects.”
Although Shah did not join his classmates in Japan, the work he did alongside them while they prepared a college-level paper to present in Hiroshima allowed him to develop strong bonds with them and a desire to do more on the subject. “If one is looking for an opportunity to make a real difference in nuclear proliferation issues, participation in the Critical Issues Forum is a game changer,” Shah said. “The issue of use of nuclear weapons affects each and every one of us and our participation will ensure a better, safer and more peaceful tomorrow.”
While in Japan, Ma and Sikand visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which has exhibits depicting the city before and after the bombing. Established in 1954, the museum works to abolish nuclear weapons and bring about lasting world peace.
“Being able to be in the same place that you know such great calamity has happened and after that, listening to the survivor stories, visiting the atomic bomb museum – that all just kind of cements it,” Ma said. “It left a deep impression.”
Ma said that this experience, and the knowledge and perspective it gave him, has shown him the importance of what those who are involved in the work to end the use of nuclear weapons are doing. “It will always be a part of me,” he said.