Nuclear War and Me: Annihilation Inscribed Across Time and Place
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 31 Dec 2018
“This is the way the world ends,
not with a bang, but a whimper.”
— The Hollow Men (November 23, 1925) T.S. Elliot (1888-1965)
Time awaits Poet T.S. Elliot’s prophetic words! And who would be left to affirm Elliot’s insights amidst a nuclear “wasteland?”
Why T.S. Elliot’s claim of a “whimper?” “Whimper!” “Whimper” murmurs! Whimper is subdued, timorous, surrender, like a final gasp! “Whimper” a sound preceding silence! I imagined myself “whimpering” in a final surge of life. Annihilation!
August 10, 2018: 4:00 AM
I awake in the silence of night. It is 4:00 AM, Friday, August 10, 2018. My mind is alert, a reflex from graduate school days. My mind turns to inscribed visions of the past few days: atomic bombs dropped on Japan! Anniversaries of still evoking fear, grief, guilt. Warm blankets, soft pillows, body-contoured mattress, offer no comfortable or relief. I am 78! Annihilation!
On August 6-9, 1945, two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were erased from the Earth. It was sudden and total! A new age of impersonal mass destruction etched into minds across the world. An iconic mushroom cloud rose from a devastated land. Inquisitive faces gazed upward at a single plane, oblivious to their fate, another day in a war-torn ravaged nation, their final moment. Not another day for the world, however, aware now an apocalyptic fate could befall anyone, anywhere, anytime. Annihilation!
My fears were multiplied when I learned the frightening reality of military and moral event: Two men, controlled life and lives, across the world. Two men, studies in contrast, drawn together by unfolding events neither could have imagined in their youth. Once they played in the mud and rain, laughing and frolicking with abandon, never imagining their lives would one day seal humanity’s fate. Two men, human in all ways, would command destiny! Annihilation!
Two men: J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, born in New York City; Harry S. Truman, a haberdasher, born in small-town Missouri, thrust unexpectedly into the Presidency. Years later, their encounter arbitrating survival. Annihilation!
Los Alamos Testing Grounds: July 16, 1945
Now I am become Death,
the destroyer of worlds.
— Bhagavad Gita (Hindu Scripture) Recited by J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) Father of Atomic Bomb
It is said, J. Robert Oppenheimer uttered these words from the Hindu mythological scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, as he witnessed the first test of the atomic bomb in proving grounds in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Bhagavad Gita, an allegory for eternal human conflict: Duty and Conscience (Dharma)! Duty calls! Duty, obligation, responsibility are glues of societal survival! Conscience, do what is right, do not compromise! Compromise risks moral decline, chaos, societal collapse.
Past as Prologue
The clash of duty and conscience reaches an apocalyptic climax in the Gita, when Vishnu, mythical Hindu protector and preserver of life, responds with fury to the crisis of choice between Duty and Conscience, an ancient choice still defining the human condition.
Vishnu’s presence is revealed in a swirling cloud, furiously threatening world survival.
“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”. . . “A thousand simultaneous suns arising in the sky, might equal that great radiance, with that great glory vie. (Bhagavad Gita) (Oppenheimer, 1945, quoted in Temperton, 2017)
On July 16, 1945, in Los Alamos, a mushroom cloud rises into the sky, expanding, unfolding, unfurling, grasping the sky, (“A thousand simultaneous suns . . .”), analogous to the image in the mythic Bhagavad Gita. Annihilation!
How can this be? Coincidence? Ancient wisdom? What mind created this mythology? What heart weighed “Duty” and “Conscience” in Oppenheimer and Truman? A synchronistic confluence of different “times,” no longer different! Tremble!
Childhood Mind: Fear, Trembling, Annihilation
For those of us born in the 1940s, annihilation was, and remains, a punishing reality. Our childhood minds were concerned with Easter bunnies, holiday feasts, Santa Claus. Then, in a bewildering moment our invincibility was lost.
I recall family members mumbled, “Oh my God!” in shock and awe, as we listened to cabinet radios, and read morning newspaper headlines! I looked at my silent family members. In that moment, fear and trembling were inscribed in me, shields of childhood ignorance, we lost! A new existence architecture was born. Annihilation!
Across time, from August 6-9, 1945, leading to my 4:00 AM awakening on August 10, 2018, no longer shielded, I have tried to understand humanity’s maddening pursuit of war, a hopeless addiction assuring death! Annihilation!
My thoughts today are now consumed by “war” and “peace.” I write daily of these concerns. I know and recognize war! I yearn for peace, a release from an omnipresent fear and trembling. Annihilation!
Militarism, an ideology, culture, institution, overwhelms humanity with hubris, deceiving us with patriotic claims! “War . . .,” generals claim, their chests adorned with ribbons and medals, “. . . is glorious!” Harbingers of death, I say! Mythical figures, now saluting, waving flags, promising security! Presidents, generals, admirals, marching in parades, arguing for more money for building new destructive weapons! Within their absolute hierarchy, protest, dissent, opposition, are considered treason!
Do these military and Congressional minds, consumed with power and position, not grasp the costs and consequences of wars? Build another base! Take more land from indigenous people! War and profit are priorities. And when they retire, they go to work for corporate war industries at huge salaries, their training paid by public funds. And for government supporters, contributions to presidential or senatorial libraries, buildings, bridges, highways, schools, airports, ensuring an enduring legacy of war.
No one wins in war! Get it! War begets war, hate beget hate. There is no victory! There is only illusion! Does the poem Ozymandias, have no meaning for you, shifting sands, a broken statue?
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Folly, Insanity, Madness . . .
Is this possible? Is this what national leaders have succumbed to in their efforts to protect us from annihilation? To protect us from annihilation, create more weapons for annihilation! Let us be sure annihilation is total and complete!
China, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, Russia, UK, and numerous other nations and groups nuclear weaponry and other weapons of mass destruction! This the legacy of the Duty and Conscience. Nuclear bombs (i.e., hydrogen bombs, neutron bombs, dirty nuclear bombs) are distributed today across nine nations, with the USA and Russia possessing the largest number.
Tragically, and I can think of no other word, President Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called for a budget increase of one trillion dollars to modernize the USA’s nuclear arsenal. President Donald Trump augmented this budget to 1.2 trillion, with the possibility of a final amount reaching two trillion dollars (Kuznick, 2018). The race is on, until someone somewhere, concludes “enough!” and a slight smile appears on Ozymandias face!
There is a pervasive “madness,” a preoccupation with violence, war, death! Inappropriate emotions are omnipresent: arrogance, superiority, pride, hate, rage, anger, loathing, impulsivity, paranoia. “You are either with us or against us!” Elected leaders, appointed staff, career professionals, corporate gift givers, hidden powers.
“Deep State,” “Secret State, and the “Military-Industrial Complex” privilege our neo-liberal and neo-conservative economies (e.g., Military, Corporate, Government), bringing mass inequality in wealth, health, opportunity, and wellbeing. Annihilation!
Childhood Days . . .
WWII Soldiers Return Home: I listen to War Stories
War’s horrors were inscribed in me as we welcomed back relatives and family friends who served in in WWII. Women shrieked, kissed, hugged returning veterans, those who survived combat!
I stared at uncles and family friends, with childhood awe and reverence. How courageous! I listened as they sat around tables quietly speaking to each other. No children or wives were permitted to hear their words; I hid behind a basement furnace or crouched underneath a table, listening, thinking.
Family and family friend veterans would sit together alone after dinner dishes were cleared. Ash trays and a bottle of Four Roses whiskey, shot glasses, and soiled napkins still gripped in hands. Salute! Shot glasses would be raised. Names and places, memorialized: Patton, Nimitz, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Bradley, Clark; Places: France, Bulge, Aleutians. Heads nodded in agreement.
Cigarette smoke hung in the air: Camels, Lucky Strikes, Chesterfields. No filters! Veterans sat with bent elbows on table, looking down, occasionally wiping watery eyes with a crinkled napkin. Crying was unacceptable. Soldiers don’t cry!
Uncle Jimmy B . . .
I remember a close family friend we called, Uncle Jimmy, who came to visit after the war! Even as a child, I recalled his appearance as he went off to the wars in the 1940s. Uncle Jimmy was typically Sicilian in appearance and temperament: dark complexion, black wavy hair, a big smile on his face, constant jokes with me and cousins, a show of bravado, a display of courage to comfort those who would await his return.
When Uncle Jimmy returned to our Sicilian home after the war, however, his hair was white, his skin pale, his eyes had bags, and his demeanor was serious and detached. There was no bravado, no Sicilian joviality, no presence; a few hugs, soft voices, silence. Family faces were grim! They understood something I could not imagine.
Jimmy sat quietly at the dinner table as my mother and aunts brought him and others pasta and salad: “Eat, Jimmy, eat! Do you want some more? Nina! Get Jimmy some bread.” My aunts kissed his head and shoulders.
Uncle Jimmy was an infantry soldier! He ended up fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the major battles of WWII. In December, 1944, Germany made a final effort to stop allied advances. The German military massed tanks and artillery in an area in the Ardennes region of Belgium and France, surrounding the American troops between December 16, 1944, and January25, 1945, pounding them daily artillery and fresh assault troops.
American soldiers fought back gallantly, but were over-matched in supplies and weapons; the American Airforce was grounded because of dense cloud cover. I remember my Uncle Jimmy saying the frontline troops hunkered in frozen foxholes, shitting and pissing, awaiting a deadly shell or German attack. It is estimated 19,276 American troops were killed; the second highest number in any battle.
As I tried to understand my Uncle Jimmy’s face and behavior, my mother, Nina, took me aside and said: “Uncle Jimmy was in battle. Don’t talk with him now. He doesn’t want to talk about it.” I shuttered. And then the child’s obvious question: “But why is his hair all white now, and why does he look so sad?” He survived! He should be happy!” My mother never answered.
Uncle Jimmy died shortly thereafter! It was called “shell-shock.” No care was provided for many of the WWII vets who served. This remains a problem today for returning veterans from the Middle-East wars; there are 22 suicides each day. War! War!
Crouching Under School Desks as Warning Sirens Blared
By the latter days of the WWII, fear of nuclear bomb attacks gripped our nation. For children in elementary school, the shrill blaring sound of a siren meant you were immediately to stop what you were doing and crouch beneath your heavy wooden desk. As l learned more of the atomic bomb’s total destruction in Japan, I wondered how a desk would protect us? There was barely enough desk-top for coverage.
Was this the best our school, our city, our nation could offer for protection? Did they care? I accepted neither I, nor any of my school mates, would survive. I was bewildered! Should we stand bravely and sing God Bless America? Was this assertion of courage better than hiding beneath a desk, cowering, awaiting death? Should I assume leadership for the class: “Get up from your knees, if we are to die, then let it be as brave children, not hunkered victims? We don’t kneel to foes! John Wayne never did!”
I awaited death for reasons I could not understand? We were told there was the possibility of war. War! What do I have to do with war? I am just a kid living in a basement in trying to survive, caring for family and friends, hurting no one! I was confused, torn between passively awaiting death, and struggling for survival. Movies were socializing my mind! War movies, cowboy and Indian movies, cartoons imitating good and bad in life.
I reflectively complied with the teacher’s orders: “Get under your desk! Stay there until I tell you to leave.” Where did the teacher go? Did she hide under her big desk? That was protection!” Her desk was an old-fashioned wooden four pedestal teacher desk. I remember she turned it away from the windows. Did she take off her high heel shoes? No email or tweets at the time. Just loneliness!
Was this a drill or the real thing? In the moment, we never knew. We relied on the teacher to tell us! What would she say? Some kids were frightened, I could see it on their faces.
I tried not to show any fear. My uncles, veterans of WWII, told me always be brave! Do not cry! It was what a soldier would do. This was my foxhole. We stared at each other, smiles, fear, resignation on faces. Some classmates whispered: “Are we going to die?”
So be it! I would die with my buddies, and with some pretty girls dressed with ribbons and bows in their hair, crouching modestly protecting any stares at their panties from peaking boys who took advantage of the situation. “Hey, Patti has pink panties! I saw them when she crossed her legs.” Patti stuck her tongue out at Howard; Howard laughed!
At least if you are going to die, make sure a girl’s panties are inscribed in your mind for eternity. Then, relief! The all-clear siren blared. We had survived the unimaginable. At least for the time. No annihilation!
1950’s – 1960’s New Wars, Threats, Villains, Words:
Childhood fears of war and nuclear annihilation were compounded when the end of WWII did not bring an end to war. Within years, the Korean War furthered my fears of injury and death.
“Where the hell is Korea?” New battle fields! New terms and villains: Communism, China, Russia, Stalin, North and South Korea. Does it ever end? These guys have atom bombs too; some American citizens gave them the plans. Who did that? The bastards!”
Mid 1940s’ war movies added to my fears. For ten cents, I could sit in the Union Square Theater all day: Back to Bataan, Wake Island, Guadacanal Diary, Sands of Iwo Jima. John Wayne could not protect us! Neither could William Bendix, Lloyd Nolan, Richard Jaeckle, Henry Fonda, Errol Flynn, Randolf Scott, Anthony Quinn.
Screen images were burned in my mind. I watched bayoneting, shooting, flame throwers, bombs, machine guns, and dead bodies. “Jesus, a soldier shoved a flame throwers into a cave and pill box filled with people!”
I recall a dream! A nightmare, returning today, usually prompted by some words or events I see on TV. My recurring dream:
The Chinese Communist soldiers are running down a hill toward our position, screaming, firing guns. There are endless numbers. We wait for commands to fire. We are afraid, and know we cannot win! I accept my fate! I look at my rifle. It is my toy rifle, bought for me by my uncle in 1940s. I have no weapon! I need a real rifle! How can I protect myself or others? I am going to die. I wake up sweating, breathless, afraid.
I have never forgotten the anniversary days for the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). Years later, images remain in my mind. Rising, unfolding mushroom cloud. As I a kid, and now as an adult, I try to grasp the bizarre meaning of events! A mushroom cloud.
I became hyper-religious, reading the Father Peyton Catholic Bible sold to us by a door-to-door priest salesperson. He convinced my mother to “donate” $20.00. The words and pictures were fascinating. I even read the Catholic Newspapers, with their list of forbidden movies. I would go to the darkened Church, sit in silence and awe at the statues of saints and Blessed Virgin Mary. Clusters of candles were burning in red votive jars. There was mystery about it all, but I could not understand! Should I become a priest? Annihilation!
Movies of Nuclear Catastrophes
In the 1950s there was an omnipresent fear of nuclear war. Scores of protests and anti-war organizations emerged. One of these organizations was Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), founded by Alex Red Mountain with the help of many others (e.g., Anne Anderson). I later served as the President of PsySR, 2005-2007. Destiny!
In 1959, the movie, On the Beach, brought tears and sobs to me and others as a group of survivors from a deadly nuclear attack gathered on a beach in Melbourne, Australia, awaiting a nuclear dust cloud. Couples and families took suicidal pills to escape the horrible consequences of surviving. The movie was a poignant reminder of horrors of a nuclear war. I was 19 years old at the time, a college student, confused and still afraid.
Another nuclear war left an impression on me: Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This 1964 movie was supposed to be a dark satire of Soviet Union and USA nuclear threats.
How could anyone forget the last scene? A mis-communication resulting in the image of an rabid American soldier shouting as he rode a hydrogen bomb from orders for a first strike on the USSR. The President of the USA and his staff tried to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. They failed! (see Wikipedia, 2018, 11:00AM)
Like many others, I remember vividly where I was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. The confrontation between President John F. Kennedy and USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev! We watched and waited. No desks to hide under! We learned it was the closest we had come to nuclear war. Both countries continued to build more powerful nuclear weapons. Annihilation!
Nuclear-War Risks Continue
I continue to have memories of total destruction and death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. I visited Nagasaki. I could not escape the guilt. I was alive, but death was inscribed in the name and place.
I still recall crouching beneath school desks as sirens blared. Classmates, giggles, and fear and trembling! Victims in Japan below saw a circling plane; it was their last sight! The legacy of horror of remains!
History is the story of survival! We recall and remember! Until the time lessons are learned, we remain, as Bishop Tutu of South Africa poignantly stated, we remain, “Prisoners of hope.”
References and Background Readings:
Bhawuk, D.P.S. (2011). Spirituality and Indian Psychology: Lesson from the Bhagavad-Gita. NY: Springer SBM (now Springer- Nature).
Kuznick, P. (2018 August 9, 2018). Interview: 73 years after atomic bombing of Japan: Nuclear threat more immediate than ever. The RealNewsNetwork.com
Marsella, A.J. (2011). The United States of America: A “culture of war.” International Journal of Intercultural Research, 35, 714-728.
Marsella, A.J. (March 25, 2013) A lexicon of war “(redux): Does excessive word use result in a loss of meaning?” TRANSCEND Media Service.
Marsella, A.J. (2014). War, Peace, and Justice. Alpharetta, GA: Mountain Arbor Press.
Maurer, W. H. (1986). Pinnacles of India’s Past: Selections from the RigVeda. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamin Publishing
Radhakrishnan, S. (1971). Bhagavadgita. Bombay, India: Blackie & Son; Calcutta, India: George Allen & Unwin (Calcutta, India)
Temperaton, J. (August 9, 2017). “Now I have Become as Death, the Destroyer of World’s.” The Story of Oppenheimer’s Infamous Quote. Wired. Retrieved August 10, 2018, 11:00AM.
Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Emeritus Professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus in Honolulu, Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 21 books and more than 300 articles, tech reports, and popular commentaries. His TMS articles may be accessed HERE and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 Dec 2018.
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