Southeast Asia is on the brink of war. India and Pakistan have amassed about a million soldiers and heavy artillery along their border, in what many are calling the largest military mobilization since World War II. India has threatened to strike at what it calls terrorist training camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir in retaliation for attacks on India's Parliament, the Kashmiri legislature and an army camp over the past seven months. Pakistan is warning that it will respond with "full might" if attacked.
And neither side is ruling out the use of nuclear weapons.
That's what makes this conflict so scary. As Jonathan Schell points out in The Nation, the two sides "are closer to nuclear war than any two countries have been since the Cuban missile crisis, or perhaps ever," with 12 million lives now at immediate risk.
At issue is Kashmir, a mountainous region populated by about 7 million people, most of them Muslims. The two countries have gone to war over the region four times &emdash; once in 1947, after the colonial-era rulers attached the region to India, again in 1965, 1971 and 1999. The result of the first two wars was that Pakistan and China gained control of portions of the territory, though India held on to the most populated areas.
The Bush administration has visited both countries hoping to diffuse the situation and Vice President Dick Cheney has said the threat of war was receding. But both sides were more equivocal in their assessments, waiting for the other to step back from the brink.
In the meantime, the world watches, waits and worries.
The reason is simple. The threat of nuclear weapons raises the stakes, globalizes what the combatants see as a regional conflict.
A nuclear attack, even one limited in scope will have devastating worldwide effects, ranging from immediate destruction in Southeast Asia to radiation sickness and other medical issues caused by the fallout.
But it's senseless to castigate India and Pakistan for their irresponsibility when we refuse to consider our own role in the nuclear game.
We possess more nuclear firepower than any other nation and we've been fighting to keep it that way for years. Most recently, we've forced Russia into a new nuclear treaty that does little more than take a handful of nukes off alert and stores them. Not one warhead will be dismantled or destroyed.
At the same time, the Bush administration has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed in 1972, plans to move forward with its missile defense shield and has announced that it will consider "pre-emptive strikes" (possibly using nuclear weapons) against terrorists and rogue nations.
What kind of message does this send to the rest of the world?
We can no longer sit atop the world in judgment, determining the players, granting certain countries the right to own nuclear weapons while denying them to others. That does nothing more than breed resentment and encourages a nuclear build up.
According to the "End the nuclear danger, an urgent call," drafted by Schell, who is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow of the Nation Institute, and fellow disarmament activists Randall Caroline Forsberg, director of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, and David Cortwright, president of the Fourth Freedom Forum, the huge stockpile being held by the United States and its commitment to build more weapons "fuels proliferation."
"The failure at the end of the cold war's political hostilities to bring with it the end of the cold war's nuclear arsenals is a fact of prime importance for the era that is beginning," Schell wrote in The Nation (June 24). "No longer justified as a remnant of the old era, they have now become the foundation stone of the new one. They relegitimize nuclear arsenals at lower levels. The plain message for the future is that in the 21st century, countries that want to be safe need large nuclear arsenals, even in the absence of present enemies. This of course is a formula for nuclear proliferation."
He later writes that, for the rest of the world's nations, having "one self-designated enforcer of a two-tier nuclear system sits atop a mountain of nuclear bombs and threatens destruction of any regime that itself seeks to acquire them" easily turns into "national humiliation &emdash; a continuation of the hated colonial system of the past, or 'nuclear apartheid,' as the Indian government put it."
So to protect themselves, to empower themselves, they build nuclear weapons.
We need to lead by example, to begin a real process of disarmament that would culminate with the destruction and abolition of all nuclear weapons. Our safety and the safety of our children and their children depend on it.
For more information on nuclear weapons and disarmament issues contact the following organizations:
Nuclear Disarmament Partnership, 1875 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Suite 1012, Washington, D.C. 20009; phone, (202) 667-4260, ext. 240; fax, (202) 667-4201, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site, www.disarmament.org
Peace Action, 1819 H St. N.W., Suite 420, Washington, D.C. 20006; phone, (202) 862-9740; fax, (202) 862-9762; Web site, www.peace-action.org
20/20 Vision, 1828 Jefferson Place N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; phone, (202) 833-2020; fax, (202) 833-5307; e-mail, email@example.com; Web site, www.2020vision.org
Urgent Call, c/o Randall Caroline Forsberg, Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies, 675 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass. 02139; phone, (617) 354-4337; fax, (617) 354-1450; e-mail, info@UrgentCall.org; Web site, www.urgentcall.org/
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org