The bomb?

Finally got round to watching Oppenheimer with Nel, Eleanor and Christian last week. I was impressed with it, not so much for the exposure of Oppenheimer’s sex life, which I hadn’t known about and was frankly wholly uninterested in, but for a really good rendition of the horror of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings without actually using significant shock material, and its effect on Oppenheimer, and also the exposure of the machinations which led to Openheimer’s security clearance being revoked and his career blighted.

This was material close to my heart. As a physics undergraduate in the 70’s, one of the physics professors at the time and my college tutor had both worked on the Manhattan project and both had major guilt complexes about their involvement. I’d become aware of the threat of nuclear war at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when I was 8, and have lived with that threat ever since, though it became somewhat less all-encompassing when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. At 16, I painted a picture of an industrial wasteland with a mushroom cloud in the background, titled “The sinks of iniquity, the haunts of the ungodly”, in which the explosion was the beautiful thing, and the rest of the scene ugly. I was reminded of that when Nel commented that the explosion was, in an awful way, beautiful. It was an awful beauty, epitomising the word “awful”. An entirely fitting reference for the texts Oppenheimer quotes from the Bhagavad Gita “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” and “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one” in my opinion, though I gather an Indian official has decided that the use of these quotations (attributed to Krishna) is an insult to Hindus, notably to non-violent Hindus.

I don’t remotely think that Oppenheimer meant any insult – more a strong admiration for this major work of literature. He clearly admired Indian civilisation enough to learn Sanskrit, after all. Perhaps the Indian official was aping the attitudes of some Muslims who regard the Koran as something divine, and take any apparent disrespect of it as a cause for violence, not something I’ve tended to associate with Hinduism. But then, there are those within Christianity who adhere to “the Bible is the word of God” school of thought (ignoring the text in John 1 which clearly states that Christ is the logos, the word of God) and would clearly like to feel able to take the same view – and, in the past, some have. That is by-the-by for my purposes – the Gita, and Hindu theology, clearly identifies Krishna as being not only the source of good but also the source of destruction. Of course, the Koran also has passages identifying Allah as the source of destruction (for instance 47:10) and the Bible contains Isaiah 45:7.

Unjust prosecutions are also something I have strong feelings about, having struggled against a few of them, once with some success (although whether you can repair that kind of damage is a moot point).

1962 to 1989 were not just fear-engendering in the same way as most of my friends and family, either. Firstly, I had a keen appreciation of the effects of nuclear explosions from my time studying physics, but also during the latter half of that period, as someone involved in local politics with a science degree, I was enlisted as a volunteer Civil Defence Scientific Advisor, which meant regular training in predicting fallout in various blast scenarios and the assurance that in the event of a nuclear alert, I’d be summoned to go with others to an underground facility in order to do that in earnest. I’ll note that I wouldn’t have been allowed to take my family with me, which meant that I’d have had an agonising decision if that ever came to pass – and I’m not sure I’d have abandoned them. It did not, of course, happen, and the government of the day abandoned the Civil Defence volunteer system in the early 90s, with it vanishing completely by 1993 – although local councils were still theoretically obliged to have plans and infrastructure in place against the event.

In conscience, I’m not sure the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union ended my nervousness about possible nuclear threats. There are still huge nuclear stockpiles in the hands of Russia, the USA and China, and quite a few countries (including my own) have some nuclear capability. It isn’t certain that all of the former Soviet republics have eliminated stockpiles of nuclear weapons which were on their soil, and Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea (at the least) have nuclear weapons. The fact that India and Pakistan both have this capability and have actually been at war with each other in the meantime is deeply worrying, though it seems unlikely that either of them (or, indeed, North Korea or Israel) would detonate something which would have much of an effect here. The situation is different with Russia, which is currently at war with an European country in the form of Ukraine, and which has threatened several others which are actually members of NATO – in effect, we do have a Russia -v- the West war ongoing at the moment. This is a serious source of concern, given that both Russia and the USA have doctrines regarding use of nukes which are not foolproof.

Indeed, the Ukraine war is more of a concern in terms of threat to my country than is the Israeli assault on Gaza. That does not seem to have the capability of spreading to here – the Ukraine conflict does. I don’t think I’m exhibiting any racism by being more concerned about Ukraine (and about the fact that our media seems to be forgetting about Ukraine) as has been suggested by some acquaintances. I feel the same horror (and helplessness) when I learn of civilian deaths in either location, admittedly far more of those recently in Gaza, and I bitterly resent the fact that my government continues (as at the point of writing) to provide weapons to Israel to continue the one-sided slaughter of Palestinians. I do not want to be complicit in that genocide, and my government makes me. The thing is, the Gaza conflict is not going to spread to here. Ukraine could do…

Do I wish that Oppenheimer and his team had not developed the bomb? Nor really. The science was already there, and someone would have done it, if not then, then in the intervening years. Do I think that Truman should not have dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? That’s difficult for me. My own country’s bomber command under Harris (who was the pawn of Churchill in that) caused as much and more devastation in Dresden, Leipzig and Hamburg using conventional weapons in an attempt to break the will of the population, not attacking purely military targets. Hiroshima seems to me at least marginally justified when weighed against the probable loss of life in an invasion of Japan, despite also being a broadly civilian target. Nagasaki? Well, it seems that might have been more to prove to the Russians that it could be done again than out of any need to convince Japan – Truman did not wait long enough between the two to know if resistance had been crushed. Killing perhaps another 70,000 civilians in order to make that point? Well, that starts sounding like Israel’s attitude to Palestinians.


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