Belaboring the Obvious

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Unconditional Surrender

This day always has much significance for me. It seems to define the age in which I came to adulthood. Like so many of my generation, we lived with "the bomb."

Now, the 61st anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima seems anachronistic, part of another age. And, yet, it's not. Better and much more destructive weapons are still with us, and, thanks to George Bush, are still firmly imbedded in our consciousness. George Bush (at the likely urging of Cheney and the cabal around him) wants more of such weapons, made tactical and therefore, in the collective military/civilian mind, more capable of being used. This is not pure conjecture. It's codified in the White House's 2002 Nuclear Posture Review.

I lived with that bomb, perhaps more than the average kid subjected to "duck and cover" drills in elementary school, because my father was in the Air Force, and was the commander of a nuclear weapons maintenance squadron. Living on SAC bases in the early days of the Cold War was like living with a target painted on one's back. One became inured to it, forgot it. Otherwise, how could one function, day to day?

By the time I reached high school, I lived on one of those nondescript bases that sat on the northern border, ringed with missile silos, and with 14,000-foot runways a mile or so away from my house, in order to handle the heavily-laden B-52s and the KC-135 tankers that kept them airborne. It always seemed, to me, life as usual. But what reminded me, most often, of where I was and why such a place would be of keen interest to the Soviet Union's nuclear war planners, was the small, cylindrical radiation film badge that sat on my father's dresser when he was home and out of uniform.

There were times I thought about Hiroshima, though it was never a subject for conversation in the house. I thought about Hiroshima a lot in October, 1962. The rest of the country was glued to the television for news of the Cuban missile crisis. On base, it seemed everyone wanted out of the house. The bowling alley and the base theater and the gym were full, every night during the tensest of those days. No one wanted to think about what everyone knew could happen. Everywhere one went there were crews on alert, and a lot of hollow stares. (Every time I hear the phrase "people walkin' around with tombstones in their eyes," from Hoyt Axton's "The Pusher," I think of October, 1962, not of burned-out self-destructive types. Somehow, I'd seen that look in people, in a way that only imminent mass destruction can induce. It's just one of those cultural disconnects caused by one's personal experience.)

The difference between that time and that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that there was some warning (little good such might have done) and, of course, that the bomb did not fall in 1962. In a macabre sense, Hiroshima served as an early warning signal, echoing forward through the intervening years. The images of Hiroshima's destruction informed the people of 1962. If there is any honor in the deaths of the 140,000 civilian inhabitants of Hiroshima, it is by prescriptive example. The previously incomprehensible manner of their deaths ought to be forever proscribed in the future.

I was about to say that one day, perhaps hundreds of years from now, historians will describe this time as one of mass paranoia, where every nation with the financial and technological capability to do so armed itself with the ultimate terror weapon, and that at the center of that paranoia was the United States, urging on its friends to build more weapons (well, how else can one describe the latest nuclear technology deal with India?) and threatening its adversaries with those very same weapons if they try to bring themselves to nuclear parity with their quarrelsome neighbors or if they resist the economic demands of the U.S.

But, the assumption that there will be future historians to analyze these times is one we ought not make just yet. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most people assumed the end of the Cold War, and with it, the end of the nuclear threat. In fact, despite the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the threat of nuclear weapons continues to dominate the political landscape (most recently, through the particular efforts of Messrs. Bush and Cheney). As the two largest nuclear powers continue to find the most efficient and economical balance of nuclear weapons in their inventory, other countries have pursued them with all the intensity of purpose as was shown in the Manhattan Project of WWII.

WWI showed us how easily local antagonisms can blossom into a war enveloping a continent. WWII showed us the scope and developmental speed of technology in warfare and the capacity for truly mass destruction (the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden each killed about the same number of people as in Hiroshima, but involved hundreds of planes dropping thousands of incendiary bombs, whereas, in a scant couple of years, that same level of destruction could be compressed into one plane delivering one bomb).

The WWIII for which the neo-conservatives today are pleading may show just one thing--that we did not learn the lessons of WWI and WWII. Just as the lessons about asymmetrical warfare in Vietnam have been lost on the politicians and generals now managing the war in Iraq, they, and we, may discover that they've given no thought to unintended consequences (which is, after all, their metier).

Nor have they given much thought to what Hiroshima actually means. To them, I'm sure, it was a glorious victory, saving many lives (so the propaganda of the time went), as the means of obtaining an unconditional surrender from the Japanese. More importantly, the neo-conservatives see Hiroshima as an example of the sheer will necessary to impose a distinctly American order on the world. They see nuclear weapons as just another means to an end. That they have been so consistently wrong about everything they've proposed doesn't enter into their thinking. They can only imagine the end they desire. (Remember the throngs of cheering Iraqis throwing rice and candy and flowers? Remember the "cakewalk?") Anyone with their track record shouldn't be in charge of nuclear weapons, period.

It is inconceivable to them that things could turn out other than as they intend. That is precisely why whomever it is inhabiting the White House in 2009 has the obligation to begin the process of undoing the proliferation that the Bush administration has encouraged--either by policy, neglect or through subterfuge--and to change the nuclear equation for the better, to lead by example, however difficult the task may be and however improbable the current prospects for success. It's time to acknowledge that nuclear means can only deliver a nuclear end. It is no longer 1945, when the number of nuclear weapons could be counted on one hand. We live in an age in which the threat of nuclear conflagration is still great, and growing.

It's time for the world to unconditionally surrender the means of its destruction, to finally heed that early warning signal sent down the decades by the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's past time to break the sword of Damocles.

(The image above is of a pre-Guernica pencil sketch by Picasso)


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