Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Edgar "Ka-Boom" Montrose

Earlier today I finished reading Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Though it’s a cliché to say, I believe everyone ought to read this book. Rhodes not only goes through the physical conception of the bomb, but also the efforts and motivations of the scientists, politicians and industrio-militarists who tried to encourage either a new world order based on peace because of the destruction the bomb promised. We all know which way that argument went.

What I find more interesting is a discussion in the final pages of the book:

Rather than a guarantor of sovereignty the arms race has proven a reductio ad absurdum of sovereignty. Though they bristle with holocaustal weapons, the superpowers confront each other today totally vulnerable, totally dependent for their continued survival on mutual and reasonable restraint, their sovereignties so thoroughly compromised that they can exercise their military ambitions only through third-world skirmishes that seldom find conclusive end. The bomb, the final word on the accumulation of power – that matter properly arranged is all power – has saturated national sovereignty and burned it out.

Boy does that sound familiar, with Russia meddling in Georgia and the United States meddling, well, wherever it seems to please. Not to mention the collapse of the Soviet economic system in the 1990s and what appears to be the collapse of Western capitalism in these days.

Rhodes goes on to say, however, that the superpowers have done some good, working together – good that could be expanded if only the political will were there. He mentions a Soviet-led effort helped amply by the United States and the World Health Organization to eradicate smallpox. “The eradication of smallpox will represent a major milestone in the history of medicine,” Rhodes quotes the director of the campaign, Donald A. Henderson, as saying. “It will have demonstrated what can be achieved when governments throughout the world join an international organization in a common purpose.” It did, Rhodes goes on to say, end the most devastating and feared natural pestilence in human history. And this was all done with the cooperation, rather than the militaristic conquest, of third-world nations, who nevertheless had to learn to trust the Big Boys coming in to help.

Individual scientists reacted differently to ambivalence toward using the bomb as a bargaining chip for world peace, favoring instead the beginnings of the arms race. Oppenheimer became an advocate for what Niels Bohr proposed. “We know what is right and we would like to use the atomic bomb to persuade you to agree with us,” Oppenheimer said, “then you are in a very weak position.” Which is true, given what Rhodes wrote about the subjugation of national sovereignty in regards to the bomb. Oppenheimer and others, however, went on to produce the hydrogen bomb, a bomb Bohr hoped would be “big enough” to push nations toward peace. Perhaps it did, but only decades later. Leo Szilard, however, frustrated with the continued production and militarization of atomic bomb and nuclear physics, left physics entirely and began studying virus biology.

Killing with atomics, some realized, had become too easy. “By the time we reach the atom bomb,” wrote Gil Elliot, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ease of access to target and the instant nature of macro-impact mean that both the choice of city and the identity of the victim has become completely randomized, and human technology has reached the final platform of self-destructiveness. The great cities of the dead, in numbers, remain Verdun, Leningrad and Auschwitz. But at Hiroshima and Nagasaki the “city of the dead” is finally transformed from a metaphor into a literal reality. The city of the dead of the future is our city and its victims are – not French and German soldiers, nor Russian citizens, nor Jews – but all of us without reference to specific identity.”

This seems to be the desensitized version of war today, with even conventional weaponry or unconventional weapons in the form of airliners loaded with passengers and jet fuel. Anyone can be a victim, and, indeed, many have.

Most horrific in the book – and what I recommend reading – are descriptions of Hiroshima after the bomb it. Absolutely awful, summed up thus: "Those scientists who invented the atomic bomb,” Rhodes quotes a woman who was a fourth-grade student at Hiroshima, “what did they think would happen if they dropped it?”

They knew. The American government knew. We know today. But we still possess these weapons, still wage war, with innocents like this fourth-grader caught between belligerents.

No comments: