From the Burma-Thai railway to nuclear disarmament: the making of Tom Uren’s collective consciousness
I didn’t know Tom Uren very well. Tom was President of the Evatt Foundation from 1989 to 1997. I met him many times. I went to his house. We had several conversations, but I became a bit wary of Tom — because he spoke so readily about ‘love’. I don’t think I’m exceptional among Australian males in finding this novel, and disconcerting. When Tom got onto the topic, our dialogue roughly resembled a Beatles song. Tom would talk about love. I'd say yeah, yeah, yeah.
Thankfully, I don’t have to talk about love tonight. Rather, I’ll offer a brief interpretation of something else that I discovered about Tom when I picked up his memoir, Straight left (Random House, 1994). When I started reading, sure enough, by the third page, Tom was talking about love. ‘Dialogue cannot exist in the absence of a profound love for the world and other men’, he wrote, quoting a Brazilian
writer. OK, here we go, I thought, I don’t know if I’m going to get this book.
But when I got to chapter three, a new theme began to emerge. Chapter three tells of Tom’s experience as a prisoner of war who was forced to work on the Burma-Thai Railway — a horror story, if there ever was one. ‘The camps built up a special comraderie among the inmates’, wrote Tom. My interest quickened as he told the story of the remarkable — and of course now famous — collective that the Australian prisoners forged under the leadership of the legendary Weary Dunlop.
Surprisingly, a little way into the book, I also discovered that Tom had been pretty religious as a youngster. When he was fighting in Timor, where he was captured by the Japanese, Tom would actually kneel down in front of his fellow soldiers and pray. Now maybe that was not so unusual back in those days, but it’s an expression of piety that I’ve never actually seen in my life. I discovered that Tom’s apostasy began on the railway, when he suddenly realised that he was praying for himself, not for others. And so, he wrote, ‘I stopped saying my prayers’.
To go back a little, Tom had always been a social creature. He swam at the beach all year round, was an active member of his surf club, worked a newspaper round before school, loved going to the movies, played football and cricket, enjoyed watching the tennis and golf, and of course became a trained boxer. Tom also went to church and loved reading the Bible. The point is that, while on the railway, his drift from religion, the most common form of collective consciousness, didn’t lead to a more intense sense o
f individualism. On the contrary, his break was sparked by a greater social awareness, as if the limited apprehension expressed in his religious beliefs was challenged and then subsumed by a more profound understanding. ‘Once I had seen the hypocrisy of praying only for myself’, Tom wrote:
I don’t think I prayed again during my time in the prison camps. But I tried to live by certain ethics and certain principles. I developed enormously as a collectivist during those tortuous three and a half years. The more time went on, the more my ethics meant to me.
As it happened, Tom wouldn’t finally break with his religion until he was in his mid-40s, and when he did, he accomplished a full reversal. Unable to disavow his youthful joy in reading stories about Jesus, he now saw Christ as ‘a radical, a fighter for people’s rights and a fighter against injustice in the world’. Unable to disavow his attachment to reading the Bible, he was now attracted, not to the supernatural but to the work’s humanism.
Here I want to interpolate a little, for it seems to me that the case of Tom Uren exemplifies something fairly basic and important that, as far as I know, Emile Durkheim articulated the most clearly almost exactly 100 years ago. As everyone wi
ll know, for as long as I can remember, the prevailing philosophical trend in the world has been to pit the belief in the individual against the belief in the collective; to claim that this is a zero-sum game between mutually exclusive categories; to insist that the collective must not only deny but come at a cost to the individual. You know the drill. Collective beliefs and practices might have been alright in the past, but they’re inappropriate for today, where they only present obstacles to individual happiness.
What Durkheim attested through his work a century ago, and what I suggest that Tom exemplified, is that the individual and the collective are not antagonistic but continuous and mutually enriching human dualities. It’s through the participation in the collective experience that individuals transcend themselves when they think and act, said Durkheim. Collective cultures are the product of co-operative effort that extends through space and over time, creations that by definition involve many individual minds associating, mingling, combining their ideas and feelings. Collectives are the way we accumulate experience and knowledge, concentrating an intelligence that is inherently richer and more complex than any individual's.
To channel Durkheim, collectives have an intensity that a pure state of individual consciousness cannot attain, for they are fortified by the numerous individual articulations that created and shaped them. Collectives are not wholly external to us, Durkheim insisted; we’re not entirely moved from the outside. Since society can exist only in individual minds and through them, collectives penetrate and become organis
ed inside us; become integral parts of our individual being, and in so doing, elevate and enlarge that being, releasing new energies that take us outside ourselves, raising us above ourselves into a life that is different from the one we still ordinarily lead as individuals.
In this argument, Durkheim’s killer point was inspired by what’s remembered as the Dreyfus affair, during which he observed that respect for the rights and dignity of the individual was a function of and depended absolutely on the strength and vigilance of the collective. What followed from these observations was Durkheim’s famous investigation into the collective beliefs and practices of Australia’s indigenous people, The elementary forms of religious life (1912), which came to the radical conclusion that religion is not the soul of society, but rather the opposite, that ‘society is the soul of religion’.
It seems to me that this was what Tom personally discovered, imprisoned and working on the Burma-Thailand railway: the realisation that the collective is not an alternative to or antagonistic toward the individual. Rather, as Durkheim wrote, ‘the collective consciousness is the highest form of psychic life, since it is a consciousness of consciousnesses’. Tom repeatedly takes us to the spirit of the collective in retelling the extraordinary horrors that have recently been captured in poetic fashion by Richard Flanagan in The narrow road to the deep north (2013). The experience, wrote Tom, is ‘why I have been a collectivist all my life.’ From this observation, he drew a direct line to the point of tonight’s talks. ‘I think the important things that come to the fore when people are placed in situations like prison camps’, Tom wrote:
are collectivism, team work, comraderie and comradeship. It is a wonder that these sorts of attributes of humankind do not prevail more in society at large. If we lived by these principles we would have a far better country and a far better society. In the great anti-nuclear marches I have been privileged to take part in, I have seen that collectivism of the human spirit, because if we do not act together we will not survive.
The cause of nuclear disarmament is a collective movement for the sake of the collective sine qua non. If individuals are to be inspired to transcend their naturally limited selves by participating in and supporting the cause, Durkheim would have insisted that there must be a symbol. There cannot be many more inspiring embodiments of the cause than the memory of Tom Uren.
Ready for (combatting) nuclear Armageddon? A note on
current nuclear dangers and opportunities
After the crisis in Crimea/Ukraine last year and the NATO-Russia imbroglio over Washington ally Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian bomber last November, the world has revisited a Cold War crisis level of nuclear tension and danger as both sides posture and maneuver menacingly to ‘reinforce deterrence’ of the other. Both are stressing their enthusiastic willingness to think and do the nuclear unthinkable if push comes to shove over Ukraine or along Turkey’s Syrian border or over the Baltic states and Poland — blithely added to NATO since the collapse of the USSR, despite promises to Gorbachev.
So what should peacemakers be doing or saying? The Australian peace movement’s Tom Uren would have probably been looking to street protests by now, but the world of people seems largely indifferent to its own potential demise, with about five-minutes notice, from nuclear holocaust and ensuing nuclear winter. All it would take is one large (Rus-NATO) or even ‘small’ (Indo-Pak) nuclear war.
This heart-wrenching conclusion does need to be promptly qualified. There is a new civil society and civil government push going on at the UN and around the nuclear literate planet to begin to take our global nuclear danger seriously — as happened in the later 1980s under Reagan and Gorbachev. That was a peoples’ campaign stimulated an
d modulated to a surprising degree by Australia’s biggest (and continuing) gift to anti-nuclear activism, Dr Helen Caldicott.
This time we see a gathering build-up towards a critical mass of peoples and governments prepared to venture down the path of nuclear disarmament and abolition. A huge majority of 142 governments in the UN General Assembly has just voted for and signed up to a Humanitarian Pledge to ‘close the gap’ in humanitarian treaty law, which outlaws cluster munitions and poison gas but not nukes. (The Permanent Five nuclear powers of the Security Council voted No.) How did this happen?
One big factor has been the very successful and UN-influential umbrella NGO, ICAN (International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons), which originated in Australia in 2007 and had been very active on the sidelines of a series of three inter-governmental ‘humanitarian consequences’ conferences held in 2013-14. These conferences finally gave birth to the Humanitarian Pledge under Austrian sponsorship, and now the task of treaty drafting is to be carried forward in an OEWG (Open Ended Wo
rking Group) under UN auspices tasked by the General Assembly to develop ‘legal measures, legal provisions and norms’ for achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world.
The P5 nuclear states voted against it, and one nuclear client of the US and fervent believer in that Holy but undefined Grail, ‘extended deterrence’, was prominent in a push to make the new group meet under ‘consensus’ rules and not be granted a right to conduct ‘negotiation’ about a nuclear ban or nuclear disarmament convention. This was our very own Australia at work, but in the upshot there will be majority voting in the OEWG and the group will be free to make recommendations about treaty content.
The UN envisages 15 days of meetings in Geneva for the OEWG by mid-2016 — and John Hallam and I from the Human Survival Project at Sydney University are planning to be there. We at the HSP have been dedicated since 2012 to raising the issue of human survival from accidental, inadvertent, unauthorized, cyber hack-induced or deliberate nuclear hostilities. We are particularly scandalised by the arrogance and presumption of the P5 nuclear powers, who have had us all (including themselves) on a Nuclear Death Row of their construction since the 1950s. And the Big Thermonuclear Two seem to have forgotten why, if there were ever a plausible reason, the five-minute alert status of their
thermonuclear missile warheads (900 apiece) has not been jettisoned since the end of the Cold War. Now, with Cold War style nuclear tensions on the rise, it is more urgent than ever to ‘lower the operational status’ of Big Power nukes and give humans and several millions of other planetary species a fighting chance of surviving to 2100.
Afterword: ICAN international is not so clear about campaigning around human extinction as we are at the HSP—but ICAN Australia has so far been co-operative towards the Peoples Tribunal on the Nuclear Powers and Human Extinction which we are organising with the Sydney Centre for International Law next July 7-8, Deo (and the Nuclear God) Volente.
Back to the future with nuclear weapons
The year 1983 was a very very important year. It even felt so at the time, with my beloved with whom I would spend the next 32 years walking into my life early that year, by far the most important thing I was aware of at the ripe age of 30.
We didn’t know it at the time (though it was ‘in the air’, and public consciousness of the possibility was indeed very high), but later that year, the world nearly ended, twice — once on September 26, half past midnight Moscow time, and in a more prolonged crisis in November as the Able Archer exercises came to a climax that was more terrifying than anyone had thought possible, with Russia planning on the basis that this was to be a NATO first strike.
Nobody exactly knew at the time that these things had taken place — the details and the hero of the Sept 26 incident at Serpukhov-15 emerged only in 1998. But people DID understand very well that the world was in danger. I remember my parents’ friends saying things like ‘I’m going to see Europe while it’s still there’ (and later saying they’d decided not to because it was too dangerous). By 1986, demonstrations in Sydney, co-ordinated by a coalition of groups including People for Nuclear Disarmament (PND), numbered hundreds of thousands. Even larger numbers attended demonstrations in the US and Europe.
It turns out that the Serpukho-15 incident and the Able Archer exercise are by no means the only occasions on which the world has nearly ended. There are disturbingly many such events, including the mistaking of a Norwegian research rocket for a US First Strike in 1995 (Boris decided not to launch, but the apocryphal wisdom is that we were saved by an unknown presidential adviser who uttered the immortal words ‘excuse me Mr President, let’s wait another minute’), and a bunch of computer glitches in the US in the late 70s and early 80s that indicated thousands of incoming Soviet warheads but turned out to be a malfunctioning microchip. In addition, there were at least two major ‘near misses’ in the Cuban Missile Crisis, plus an event in 1964 in which some idiot in STRATCOM (who it was is unknown) managed to inadvertently and unknowingly (!!) transmit a valid order to launch to the entire US strategic nuclear forces.
We are, it seems, lucky or blessed by divine providence (according to General Lee Butler, whose finger was on the nuclear button for a decade or so) to have made it to 2015 at all. Bracketing the question of whether divine providence actually exists, if we assume it does, the next question gets to be ‘when does the miracle supply dry up?’
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists both in 1983 (in fact, since 1946), and in 2015, operates an iconic symbolic timepiece known as the ‘Doomsday Clock’. In 1983, the year the world nearly ended twice, the Doomsday Clock stood at three minutes to ‘midnight’. The closest it ever got was two minutes to midnight in 1954, immediately after both the USSR and the USA exploded their first thermonuclear weapons, and amid mutual threats (and active military planning for on the US side) — of a ‘disarming’ first strike. Today, the Doomsday Clock sits at three minutes to midnight. ‘Midnight’ is of course, the apocalypse, the end of ‘civilization’, and of much much more than mere civilization.
We now know that the global climatic effects of even a relatively small number of nuclear weapons, numbered in the hundreds, are sufficient to cause a ‘nuclear winter’, or at least a ‘nuclear autumn’ in which up to two billion of the world’s poorer people could die of famine caused by global crop failure. The use of the roughly 1800 of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals that are kept in silos on high (‘day-to-day’) alert, would bring about conditions of global freezing and darkness colder than those of the last Ice Age.
We actually didn’t know any of that for sure back in 1983, when the research into nuclear winter was in its infancy, and computer global climatic simulations were also in their infancy.
We also didn’t know, though we should have, that the entire techno-structure/cyberstructure of contemporary (2015) ‘civilization’ will disappear in the first milliseconds of a nuclear confrontation between either NATO and Russia or the US and China, as large warheads are exploded high in space and the resultant electromagnetic pulse fries the microchips of everything. The global financial system literally disappears. In an instant. It’s also worth a reminder, though it may seem brutal, that of course, the 180 million or so tonnes of very dark black smoke lofted into the upper stratosphere does of course consist of US (and of course, ‘THEM’), our friends and enemies, our houses, cars, and our cities which have been converted into firestorms that burn till there is nothing left to burn. Up to a billion people thus get to die in the first 90 minutes or so.
While there are places that might escape the immediate holocaust (the south island of NZ, the Falklands, Patagonia, some of Africa, Tasmania), the subsequent cold and darkness that makes agriculture all but impossible, combined with the total destruction of the ozone layer, would make the majority of complex land-based life forms extinct. Humans would be very lucky to make it at all. Our own extinction would be definitely on the agenda.
The Doomsday Clock, now as in 1983, stands at three minutes to midnight for an event sequence that has been known for decades as in every real, meaningful sense, the end of the world. In 1983 this was the very top of everyone's political agenda. Now.....? If we stood in 1983 as we now stand, there would be again hundreds of thousands in the streets.
Expressions of alarm at the possibility of a world-ending conflict are not uncommon. These days they tend to come from rooms full of Nobels or former foreign ministers, or from organisations consisting of famous people. They come also from retired military, including most recently, Generals Cartwright and Vladimir Dvorkin, respectively at one time leaders of US and Russian strategic missile forces. And of course, from the indefatigable Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whose moving of the hands of the clock remains a highly scripted and iconic media event, even if it is now a little ‘Ho hum, end of the world again ...’
Yet the threat of nuclear weapon use and the threat of the end of ‘civilization’ and of possible human extinction is as real as it has ever been, and just got a bit closer with the Turkish shooting down of a Russian aircraft over Syria (or maybe for 17 seconds, over Turkey). Yet they seem to meet with expressions of blank incomprehension.
That is why Professor Peter King and I set up the Human Survival Project (a joint project between PND and the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, both solidly 1980’s organisations). That is why we are holding an International Tribunal on nuclear weapons, human survival and human extinction in 2016. Preparations by the Human Survival Project, CPACS and PND are under way. Our aim and object is to put the issues of nuclear abolition, and human survival firmly on people’s agendas.
And that is why both NGOs and 135 governments at the UN are holding discussions in 2016 at an Open Ended Working group aimed at charting a course whereby the world might eliminate nuclear weapons forever and take the apocalypse off the global agenda, where it has remained for far too long.
The Tom Uren Memorial Fund
A passionate anti-nuclear and peace activist, Tom Uren believed that the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan was a crime against humanity, and fought all his political life against these immoral weapons.
In the final year of World War II, as a prisoner of war at the Omuta camp about 80 kilometres from Nagasaki, he witnessed the second US atomic bombing. ‘I will never forget, as long as I live, the colour of the sky on the day the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on that city on 9 August 1945. The sky was crimson.’
At the time, he didn’t realise that what he was witnessing had vaporised tens of thousands of people, with many more still to die from burns and radiation exposure. Fifteen years after the war, Tom returned to Japan and, on a visit to Hiroshima, was horrified to see the terrible burns scars on human flesh. He was convinced that ‘no nation should use nuclear weapons against any other member of our human family’.
Tom served as a minister in the Whitlam and Hawke Labor governments and was a member of parliament for 32 years. He passed away on 26 January 2015 but his legacy as a peacemaker lives on. The Tom Uren Memorial Fund aims to honour the life and work of this champion of the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements — one who stood for a more just and peaceful world.
The Fund supports the important work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Australia to raise public awareness about nuclear dangers and build support for disarmament. ICAN opposes Australia’s reliance on ‘extended nuclear deterrence’ and is at the forefront of international efforts to achieve a global treaty banning nuclear weapons.
We want to encourage you to support and give generously to the Fund, which was established with the support of Tom’s widow, Christine Logan, and his close friends. Tom did not live to see his dream of nuclear abolition realised, but the Fund carries on his lifetime’s work to make that dream come true.
These talks were presented at an evening dedicated to celebrating the life of Tom Uren and the peace and nuclear disarmament movement, introduced and chaired by Bruce Childs at Edgecliff on 6 November 2015. Christopher Sheil is the current President of the Evatt Foundation. Peter King was the founding President, later Director, of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at Sydney University in 1988 and has been co-convener with John Hallam of its Human Survival Project since 2012. Gem Romuld is the Outreach Co-ordinator of ICAN. The images are from the Federal Labor Parliamentary Launch of the Tom Uren Memorial Fund on 12 November 2015. To support the Fund, a dinner will be held in Sydney on Saturday 20 February 2016.
Foundation, Evatt, 'Peace, anti-nukes & Tom Uren ', Evatt Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, February 2016.<https://evatt.org.au/peace-anti-nukes-tom-uren>