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Alejandro Navas , Professor of Sociology, University of Navarra, Spain

Atomic bombs in criminal hands

Tue, 16 Mar 2010 09:18:29 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The newspaper Le Parisien uncovered the scandal in mid-February: during the first atomic weapons tests, carried out in Algeria between 1960 and 1966, the French government deliberately subjected its own soldiers to the effects of radiation. As stated in a secret report of the Ministry of Defense, to which the aforementioned newspaper has had access, "it was a matter of reconquering a position that had been hit by an atomic bomb... It was a matter of investigating the physical and psychological effects that atomic weapons cause in human beings".

On April 25, 1961, the 'Gerboise verte' experiment took place (gerboise: this is the name given to a kind of desert mouse). It is curious that the name employee for the operation was the same as that of the animals commonly used in biomedical experiments), in which 300 soldiers took part. 35 minutes after the atomic explosion, a group of soldiers approached on foot and without protection 400 meters from the center of the explosion. As gas masks had diminished their mobility, they were simply wearing dust masks. An hour later they were followed by other servicemen in vehicles, who stopped 275 meters from ground zero. Many of the soldiers were immediately stricken with cancer and other pathologies as a result of the radiation. Both children and grandchildren of these first victims still suffer from various diseases today.

For fifty years the French Ministry of Defense denied that the atomic tests had caused human damage. The Algerian survivors have formed a veterans' association, AVEN, association , and have recently obtained the French government's agreement to compensate the victims. The government has not been particularly generous, since, apart from the delay, it will only admit as beneficiaries of the compensation a part of those affected.

The current Minister of Defense could not resist the public pressure and has come out to justify the government's actions and respond to Le Parisien's criticism. In an interview with Le Monde, he declared that he did not know about this secret report and that he was sure that these soldiers were exposed to a very weak, non-dangerous radiation. And, of course, he praised in the most glowing terms the French atomic power, element core topic of national sovereignty.

The conduct of the French Executive seems to us criminal and cynical, then and now, when it refuses to acknowledge its guilt and compensate the victims. Once again, we see an overbearing State in action, hiding behind false national security motives to avoid transparency and evade the discussion. Lying does not matter, and is even done arrogantly, in the best absolutist tradition: individuals, even citizens themselves, hardly count in the face of the all-powerful State.

The French government has not been the only one fascinated by nuclear power and the possibility of experimenting it on flesh and blood people, since tests in desert locations soon proved insufficient, both for the military and politicians as well as for scientists: the "logic" of the bomb demands that it be used on human targets. When the communist regime fell and the archives were opened in Moscow, it became known that the Soviet government had done something similar, although on a much larger scale, at the beginning of the 1950s: an atomic bomb was exploded in the air, over an army corps of 40,000 soldiers carrying out maneuvers in Northern Siberia. The goal was the same: to test the effects of atomic radiation, and the consequences were equally devastating. In France, it is possible to put pressure on the government through public opinion so that - reluctantly - it ends up giving an account of some of its actions. In Russia, whose democratic condition leaves much to be desired, one has to put up with it, and the families of the victims were left alone with their rage and grief.

Over and above the different political ideologies, the modern State easily acquires a totalitarian character if it is allowed to grow without control or counterweights. Realpolitik would then seem to justify any outrage, even against the population itself. A vigilant citizenry and a vigilant and courageous media can help to curb this alarming governmental drift. In a country like France, where most of the media are subject to political and corporate power, the reporters of Le Parisien are showing us how a free and conscientious press can help to combat the scourges that also beset a democratic regime.