Friday, November 28, 2008

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Having my childhood in the late 1950s and early 60s, I grew up simply assuming that I, along with all others, would eventually burn to death in a nuclear war.

When you're a child, you take for granted everything you see in the world around you - having lived through no other alternative, the world you encounter appears "normal." So it did not seem strange to me when some of our neighbors began digging fallout shelters in their suburban backyards, or when we received civil defense instructions in class, such as the notorious "duck and cover" drills, and pamphlets on how to survive in a shelter ("if your grandmother or any other member of your family should die whilst in the shelter, put them outside, but remember to tag the body first for identification purposes later"). Fallout shelters were merely perceived as fun places to play, and our teachers at school assured us that everything was under control, everything was "normal."

As the Cold War intensified, anti-Communist propaganda repeatedly reminded us that Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at the United States, ready to be launched at a moment's notice (they failed to remind us that we also had the same weapons aimed at them, and that both sides felt justified in their actions to protect themselves and their interests). I remember watching "instructional" films that illustrated the effects of a nuclear strike by skillfully mixing dramatizations with archival footage of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of the Allied firebombing of Dresden. I have to use the word "instructional" in quotations, since in retrospective the films were clearly propaganda.

The culture of the times, the zeitgeist, seeped into my consciousness: Seven Days in May, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fail Safe, the Bay of Pigs, Dr. Strangelove. The effects of all this did not make me an ardent anti-Communism so much as make me something of an existential nihilist. It was obvious that ducking under my schooldesk would not protect me from a nuclear bomb, and even if it did, the prospects of living through a post-nuclear Armageddon seemed worse than dying in the actual blast. What was the point of graduating high school, getting a job, starting a family, and so on, when we're all going to die, suddenly, horribly, and without warning? Those were end times, or so I believed.

Not that I ever articulated these thoughts, or was even consciously aware of them. But looking back at certain self-destructive behaviors and attitudes of my youth, I see now the effects the Cold War and nuclear civil defense/propaganda had on my consciousness. When I first heard Captain Beefheart's apocalyptic "The Blimp," I immediately understood the titular airship to be a symbol of the military industrial complex:

"Oh, daughter, don't dare.
Oh momma who cares?
Look up in the sky,
There's a dirigible there.
It's the blimp! It's the blimp!"

Earlier in the song, Beefheart shouts (I really can't call his vocal stylings in this piece "singing"), "If I see you floating down the gutter, I'll throw you a bottle of wine." The end is here, we're powerless to stop it, so we might as well, well, party likes it's 1999 (to paraphrase another song that came along much later).

As my childhood continued into the later 1960s, I began to see the peace-and-love hippie movement as a possible antidote to the nuclear madness. But although I didn't actually go to Woodstock, being only 14 years old at the time, I followed the news as the promised dawning of an Age of Aquarius quickly soured into Hell's Angels beating the crowd at Altamont. The peace marches, sit-ins and love-ins devolved into police riots in Chicago, the Weathermen, and the Manson family. The brief appearance of a respite to the seemingly inevitable nuclear holocaust vanished, and I found myself in the 1970s and the era of Nixon, Brezhnev, Kissinger, and continued nuclear brinkmanship.

So, having lived most of my life anticipating nuclear Armageddon at any moment, I was shocked to turn on CNN in the late 80s and see Germans joyously taking sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall. As one communist regime after another fell, culminating in the end of Communism in Mother Russia herself, I once again allowed a hope that perhaps I had been wrong; perhaps nuclear annihilation wasn't, in fact, at hand.

But the world, it seems, is not such a benign place. As the perceived threat of Soviet aggression faded, new "enemies" soon materialized: Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, various breakaway republics. Slaughter in Rwanda, the Balkans, Dafur. And although it seems unlikely now that the world will end in Mutual Assured Destruction, there is no shortage of unsavory characters in the world with nasty, unpleasant intentions. In fact, the age of Bush the Second often seemed more paranoid than those of the coldest of Cold War years, as America succumbed to terrible practices such as warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, and sanctioned torture. The claims made against Barack Obama during the Presidential campaign ("He's a Muslim!." "He's an Arab!," "He's a Socialist!"), along with divisive rhetoric about the "real America," resonate with the worst of 1950's McCarthyism. And with all of that, all hope inspired by watching the Berlin Wall collapse vanished when the World Trade Towers fell, if it hadn't already disappeared.

So now I find myself in my middle age, in a new millennium, hoping that a new President can restore sanity to a new world. But I've been fooled before, not just once (in the 60s and the promise of an Age of Aquarius) but twice (the 80s and the post-Communist New World Order), and now realize that no outside agency can lead us to peace, to serenity, and to compassion. Even the Buddha said, "There is no liberation by others" (Guhatthaka Sutta) and "There is no way I can emancipate people from suffering in this world. The only way for you to be able to cross over the stream of your passions is to know the highest truth of life" (Parayana Vagga).

And that was probably something else that I had known intuitively since childhood.

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