Arming ourselves for peace

U.S. could generate goodwill helping world prepare for disasters

Special to the Observer

A week and a half ago an earthquake shook the Hawaiian Islands. After checking the news to find that there were few injuries, my attention turned to the impact on the great observatories on Mauna Kea. At the peak are some of the largest telescopes in the world, doing cutting edge research in astrophysics and cosmology, from searching for exoplanets to exploring the types of solutions to Einstein's general relativity equations that define the shape of our universe.

The earthquake also rattled my memory of recent and bigger natural disasters -- the earthquake in Indonesia, the tsunami in Asia, the temblor on the India/Afghanistan border. Add in Katrina and Rita's destruction of our Gulf Coast.

There will be more -- you can count on that.

When watching the recovery efforts after those events, I had noticed that they all shared a theme: slow response with inadequate tools, the wrong tools or, maybe in Third World countries, no tools. It struck me that we may even not know what the right tools are because they have not been invented yet.

Intrigued, I called the name that comes to my mind when I think of big machines at rescue sites: Caterpillar. I left a message on their voice mail and was pleasantly surprised to get a call back within a few minutes by Anne Leanos, a media representative in their corporate public affairs office.

I wanted to know if they had ever considered the problem of designing special equipment for disaster recovery: machines that gingerly pick up and move debris that may be covering survivors. Not your standard trackhoes and backhoes. I asked if they had had engineers visit disaster sites and watch the action. Had they thought outside the box about what kind of devices could do what can't be done now?

She had me send an e-mail with my questions and said she would get back with some answers.

I pondered the situation further. Why is it that we routinely have defense contractors develop massive killing machines with guaranteed orders if they win the bid, yet we have never done this for special machines to save lives? Do we really aspire to peace?

I got my e-mail reply. She sent information on how they had helped greatly with disasters worldwide last year, including a $1 million commitment to the tsunami alone. Would they send engineers to disasters to observe? Hard to speculate, but similar site visits have helped produce better engineering. Have they had brainstorm sessions on special equipment for disaster situations? If she told me she would have to kill me. She didn't say it that way, but you get the idea -- they do not discuss specifics of products that may or may not be in design.

Imagine a world "armed" with fleets of these machines stored near but not right at spots of routine disasters. Kept safely back from shore or far from fault lines but ready to respond. In order to keep them in known working order and to keep the "soldiers" trained, they would be used in field exercises that would be peacetime development projects on their own.

And imagine the good will generated by such an effort. Contrast that to the hatred and resentment our war efforts are generating in the Mideast, in the Muslim world and among our allies.

But that is not our world. We give short shrift to peace, saying we want it but not really trying very hard to achieve it. As a measure of our respect for peace, I googled "peace memorial." It yielded 14.6 million results. Sound encouraging? Well, they are all actually war memorial sites, the main one being the Hiroshima "Peace" Park. Sort of like celebrating auto safety at a car crash site.

What do you get when you google "war memorial"? More than twice as many, 29.6 million, and they are all about, well, war. Our fallen soldiers, especially from the world wars, deserve those memorials since they truly died for world peace. But I could find no significant, international memorial to those who died quietly after a lifetime of work in peace. The closest we get is the Nobel Peace Prize, a brief annual reminder of those who are working toward a better world.

Einstein said that you cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. It is sad that almost a century later we continue to study his cosmology but remain deaf to his philosophy.

That is an earth-shaking thought.