2013-11-18

Contemplating The Nuclear Age

I had the opportunity to watch a documentary called Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie. It was yet another in a long line of movies about the development and subsequent tests of the various kinds of atomic bombs. The "twist" in this movie is that - according to the Netflix description, anyway - it contained "recently declassified footage" of nuclear tests. ("Recently" is a relative term, I suppose, since IMDB indicates that the movie was produced in the year 1995.)

True enough, the film did contain a great deal of footage I had never seen before. I'm no expert in nuclear history, but I do have a long-standing casual interest in the topic, so I was surprised to see some of this film footage. A great deal of it would be familiar to most people with a similar casual interest in the atomic bomb, especially the footage of the actual detonations. But some of the interesting additional footage included safety videos for military personnel from the 1950s, survey pictures from the aftermath of the various explosions, the stripping of the vegetation on the Bikini Atoll, construction, footage of soldiers actually conducting the tests - counting down and pressing buttons and the like - and some archival "news reporting." I put that phrase in scare quotes because it is not clear to me that the footage shown was actually ever broadcast publicly at any point.

Beyond the previously unseen footage, the documentary did not actually provide any new information, or even a fresh take on the existing information. It was very low on facts and narration, and was mostly just a lot of archival footage set to spooky music. Some of the scenes depicted at the beginning of the movie weren't even genuine. The movie begins with a cringe-worthy fake WWII-era newsreel. Overall, the documentary was rather bad. If it weren't for the rare footage, it would be completely worthless.

The history of the atomic bomb is a history of how far human beings are willing to go to destroy their own world. Every time I see archival footage of the Bikini Atoll or the Nevada desert circa 1950, I feel a terrible pang of loss. How could human beings so completely and permanently destroy whole corners of the globe?

I recall reading in Edward Teller's Memoirs that after a certain level of power, atom bombs are no longer efficient weapons because the majority of the detonation explodes into outer space. Take a moment to consider how massive that kind of power must be. The force of a nuclear blast incinerates the part of the Earth's atmosphere that is within the blast zone. That is, once the atmosphere is gone, it's gone. The globe may have a sparser atmosphere in the post-nuclear age than it had before atomic weaponry was created.

The radiation released during and after the nuclear explosions in many cases surprised even the scientists who planned the explosions. Some radiation was always expected, but the level of poison released in some of the first post-WWII nuclear tests exceeded all expectations. And yet the detonations continued.

It's horrible to think that people would devise such weapons. It would be shocking in today's world since modern combat it more often than not a precision operation. We're no longer caught up with the notion of laying as much waste as possible to the enemy. These days, it's more about immobilizing specific targets. The atom bomb may well be obsolete in this day and age - and good riddance!

But for fifty years or more, the civilized world was transfixed by the idea of a super-weapon, a bomb so powerful that its detonation would mean the ruin of a whole nation. The US military even committed that atrocity against Japan. Then the bombs got bigger and bigger. The explanations given by scientists and military personnel sound absurd when heard by modern ears. At one point in the movie, a reporter getting ready for what would be the largest nuclear blast in the history of the world at that time tells us that "we" are "all" hoping, for the sake of science and our country, that the blast is a success.

And the unfathomable stupidity of some of these experiments was staggering. One of the detonations involved a bomb placed on the center of three islands which, once detonated, would be fed with additional plutonium from two adjacent islands to feed the chain reaction, in order to create as massive an explosion as possible. This wasn't even a weapons test - no combat situation could ever be conceived in which a bomb would be set up in a tower and fed plutonium through two tubes from tanks 2 miles away. Who authorized such a blatant act of vandalism? Science is none the richer knowing that massive explosions can be fed in such an impracticable way.

The Bottom Line
The most fascinating aspect of the history of the atomic bomb - in my opinion, anyway - is the idea that the government, the military, and the majority of the general public can become so caught-up in a situation that they can't stop to consider the idiocy of what they're doing.

Clearly, there are parallels between the nuclear age and the war on terror, the nuclear age and the war on drugs, the nuclear age and socialized medicine.

But in the heat of the moment, no one wants to think twice.