The role of Honor and Heroism in nuclear catastrophes

This morning my brother, Dick Atlee, wrote the following:

I was going through the UCS’s [Union of Concerned Scientists] latest update, from yesterday, and encountered the following, which crystallized a thought that has been nagging at me for days:

“Reports of high radiation levels around Unit 3 continue. Some reports indicate that a U.S. nuclear worker would receive the annual permissible dose in less than an hour. The high radiation levels continue to limit the workers’ access to structures. Limited access prevents workers from evaluating the extent of damage caused to date and to determine what systems or parts of systems can be returned to service to mitigate the problem.”

Here’s a situation where the wind is scheduled to turn around (or has already turned around, and nearby prefectures are already unacceptably contaminated. Under the present dire circumstances the continuing crisis will probably damage the health and economy of the country in major ways. It is possible that eventually it will be brought under control, but it seems clear that by the time that happens, significant damage will have been done to the country, and potentially to millions of people.

In a war, soldiers are ordered into situations that may cause hundreds of casualties among them, often for fleeting objectives which may be taken and lost several times in a relatively short time.

Yet here we have a situation in a country in which honor has played an enormous role in culture (consider the battle of the Pacific in WWII), in which hundreds or thousands or millions of countrymen could become casualties, and the army is apparently unwilling to risk or commit the lives of a relatively few soldiers to perform the vital roles which are described above as not being done because of the radiation hazard.

In other words, the balancing of the lives of a few professional soldiers against the lives of a nation is coming down on the side of the former.

Maybe I’m losing a point here, but it seems strange to me…

I replied:

This is a really excellent point, Dick, and central to our evolution of sustainability in the face of our civilization’s vast, expanding, and highly dangerous technical prowess.

However, I see it not so much as a matter of honor (in the Japanese sense) but more a matter of cultural story and archetypal roles, which are nearly universal but extremely adaptable.

Most modern cultural narratives feature warriors as those who kill for their group while risking death from opposing warriors from other groups. That’s what defines them. This has little to do with civilian nuclear accidents, beyond the use of disciplined, in-shape, well-financed armies for manpower in occasional humanitarian rescue operations.

Some efforts exist in alternative spiritual circles to redefine the archetypal role of “warrior” in terms of potent presence, skill, and commitment to the greater good, against all odds and often at great personal risk. Sometimes it features a capacity to kill which is then consciously withheld, as part of its moral potency. This archetype is modeled, for example, by Aikido and Gandhian nonviolence. Movies like Gladiator show how both versions of “warrior” can be embraced by the same character, and this ethic informs many principled modern soldiers. But this spiritual and moral definition of warrior, which is perfect for this nuclear disaster application, has not been adopted as the primary archetype by official military policy, which continues to focus on their army’s capacity to defeat human enemies.

The archetypal role that is both appropriate here and culturally ripe is “hero”. The role of hero is already played up in advertisements for the National Guard in the U.S., which feature not only battle scenes but ESPECIALLY humanitarian interventions in disasters (carrying a baby to safety from the hurricane, etc.). However, death from heroism is assumed as a risk in battle, but seldom as a common consequence of humanitarian action.

Creating a socially acknowledged and celebrated role for people who voluntarily sacrifice themselves (die or seriously risk death) for the common good, and whose contribution is not only widely publicized but actually rewarded — say, by communal commitment to care for their families, educate their children, support a charity or cause of their choice, etc. — would call forth those who would gladly enhance their reputations and support those they loved by giving their lives for the survival of their community. This would include soldiers and anyone else who chose this route — interestingly including those with terminal diseases, who might choose this rather than expensive treatments of dubious benefit.

In the current case the situation is complicated by the level of expertise required in so many of the interventions needed at these nuclear facilities. However, there are undoubtedly electricians, pilots, scientists, technicians, industrial workers, etc., who have basic expertise which, enhanced by specific instructions, would enable them to act effectively in this specific case. It is interesting to contemplate how if this institution of acknowledged “heroism” were a cultural norm, the social power of “honor” would most likely become a very significant motivator, especially in a society like Japan’s. Choosing to protect oneself when one had a unique and vital potential contribution to the community’s survival in the face of immense threat, might well be viewed as “dishonorable”. Whereas sacrificing oneself in effective service against an immense communal threat would be held in highest esteem.

While it may or may not be possible to establish this cultural institution fast enough to impact this crisis, it is clearly something that should be developed for the future, not only in Japan, but in all countries that have nuclear facilities or any other potentially disastrous crises whose solution requires major threats to the lives of those attempting to address it, such as disease epidemics or toxic cleanups (like after the 9/11 attack). It would be a powerful standard as an international role as well, adding a new layer to the kind of heroism represented by the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, the International Peace Force, and others.


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