Thursday, July 14, 2011


Recently, I have been reading and viewing many sources focusing on thermonuclear war. This is a topic which has always interested me due to the profound implications it has for humanity. People, as a whole, contain the power necessary to achieve absolute global destruction at any time based on any whim. Yet, we all live complacently, uncaringly, and some even unknowingly in eternal consumer bliss. Too often, people, you, me, we, often view things or have them explained at a level we completely understand, yet its implications we do not fully grasp and therefore accept the situation as if it were normal. We have this feeling of, ‘well, I understand what the atom bomb does so that’s just the way it is.’ Full scale retaliation, bomb shelters, diplomacy with North Korea, anti missile capabilities; all these things mean we’re safe... And all this talk of disarmament.

Today, Russia and the U.S. still have nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons primed for use at very short notice (1). Combined, the countries have approximately 4500 operational atomic bombs. Of course the potential to use them exists, that's why we have them lying around. Nuclear weapons exist as an implicit hypocrisy. As Martin Ames articulates so well in his essay Thinkability:

“...the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons [is] nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening the use of nuclear weapons. And we can't get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons. The intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves.” (2)

My question is, ‘where do we go from here?’ Stronger weapons? Tsar Bomba already carries a potential yield of 100 megatons of TNT. Purposely restricted to only half of its potential, this 50 megaton thermonuclear bomb has already been tested, and works. This bomb, at half power, produced, in one explosion, 10 times the amount of total fire power used in WWII, including both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This bomb exploded about 2.5 miles from the Earth’s surface and registered a 7.1 on the Richter scale. The seismic shock created was observable three times as it circumnavigated the globe. The fireball was 5 miles in diameter, the mushroom cloud was 40 miles high, all buildings in a village 34 miles were completely destroyed, third degree burns could be occur 62 miles away, windowpanes broke 560 miles away, the flash was seen 620 miles away, and the fallout at full scale could have accounted for 25% of all nuclear fallout since atomic bombs were invented(3). 

This is not a current event. This October 30 will be the 50 year anniversary of this detonation. And yet, this nostalgic tone has a tinge of bitter sweetness. It has been 50 years, and nothing of this magnitude has been deployed for combat reasons. However, it has been 50 years; I cannot imagine where we’ve come in our capabilities since then. But, the past has proven itself. We ought no longer to ask ourselves, ‘Coulda? Shoulda? Woulda?’ What we need to ask is, ‘Can we? Shall we? Will we?’ The answer to the former is blatantly obvious. The fact that some even consider the latter debatable, I find, absolutely detestable. To me, there is only one obvious answer to the question, ‘Where should we go from here?’ Kurt Vonnegut Jr., in Slaughterhouse Five, has already articulated my sentiment:

"American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England... The formation flew backwards over a ... city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The [soldiers] below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck... fragments from the crewmen and planes... When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals... The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again..." (4)

Although Vonnegut Jr. is obviously being rhetorical in his suggestion that we simply make time run backwards, metaphorically, however, this is precisely our only sane option.
Gort: Personified consequence of nuclear war- TDTESS (1951)

So, I look back on the many Sci-Fi films of the past and try to see how they relate to both ‘their’ times and ‘my’ times. That is, how did this have meaning then and how does it have meaning now. The Sci-Fi and horror genres are inexplicably connected with the fears, with the ethos, of the period. In 1945, America unleashed two atom bombs on Japan. In the 1950’s the Japanese personified this tragedy with Godzilla; American’s were warned of the consequences of nuclear war with The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the 60’s we had Doctor Strangelove and a very dramatic documentary from the BBC entitled The War Game depicting what nuclear war would spell for the United Kingdom(5). In the 70’s, the sequel to the Planet of the Apes predicted a future where humanity worships the atomic bomb. 

Here we are today. How does atomic warfare fit into our ethos? Is it still a menace as Godzilla portrays? Are we keeping it within our realm, under control, as The Day the Earth Stood Still beseeches us? Or are our whims of diplomacy feeble and nuclear fallout only inevitable? Do we still worship the atomic bomb? These are important questions we need to ask ourselves. Nuclear war is not a war, it is annihilation. We need not worry about the world ‘after’; we need to worry about the world ‘before’. The word before is in quotes because there isn’t really a world ‘before’; there is only the world. ‘After’, there won't be one left.

Scene from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

(2) Amis, Martin. Einstein's Monsters. Vintage Books. New York, 1987.
(4) Vonnegut Jr., Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. Dell Publishing Co, Inc. New York, 1969.

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