THIS is a week where we are face to face with the horrors of nuclear war. Our mediascape offers little respite from images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and rightly so. But here we still are – with ten of thousands of nuclear warheads distributed across the world. With superpowers still brandishing (and even refurbishing) their arsenals. And with our own island about to sign off on a pumped-up version of its own flaccid nuclear phallus. It would be easy to run to the hills, waving hands in despair.
As I’ve been surfing the cultural archive of the bomb this week, I have some questions about how the threat of nuclear weapons freezes our minds, as well as rouses us to activism.
Go online, and you can easily find a copy of Peter Watkins’ The War Game [bit.ly/1TbT5fL]. This is the 1965 drama-documentary about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Britain, banned by the BBC. It’s a period piece, for sure. At times, it’s a dull conveyor-belt of Cholmondley-Warners giving expert testimony.
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But it’s also obvious why nervous BBC managers kept it off the screen. Just like in his as-it-happened documentary on Culloden, Watkins had a brilliant eye for bringing extreme situations down to a raw human level.
He shows the family cowering under its table, tending to an already sickening child. The post-bomb firestorms that blacken and incinerate ordinary citizens. The food riots that lead to summary executions, commanded by a bespectacled man who clearly had an alternative career in meter-reading.
What also strikes the modern viewer is how many of The War Game’s scenes – where a previously orderly suburb is blasted to pieces, its inhabitants staggering around in bewilderment and rage – have become a staple of our 24-hour news media.
It could be the consequences of drone strikes in Gaza, Syria or Iraq, or the aftermath of a storm hitting New Orleans or a Thailand village, or the dusty city-dwellers moving through the debris of 9/11 or 7/7. But we are hardly shocked any more by the sight of modern life eviscerated, turned into tatters and ruins, at a stroke.
So to return to some of the post-explosion photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horrific and heart-stopping as they are – the skinless bodies, the eyeless heads, the bodies turned to instant shadows on the pavement in the heat of the blast – is to raise a flutter of uneasy questions in the 2015 breast.
We may have been memorialising the Holocaust and the two atomic bombs for the last seven decades, but remembering hasn’t overtly humanised us. We are only a few clicks away from enough images of mass murder, dismemberment and injury to satisfy the most incurable psychopath.
Indeed, what Martin Amis calls “horrorism” is an available media tactic all round. I will never be able to watch a Daesh beheading clip – the very thought makes me reel. But I can also barely watch the Wikileaks video showing US guncopter pilots picking off civilians in the Iraqi streets.
The burned Iraqi on the road to Basra – who inspired Tony Harrison’s great poem A Cold Coming – is probably as close as contemporary imagery gets to the charred icons of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. But say we did produce a further avalanche of horror images, in an attempt to represent the hundred thousand civilian deaths generally agreed to be the consequence of the second (illegal) Iraq War.
Would that keep our outrage at a peak, ready to be deployed when the next intervention is called for? Or – a dark thought – might some part of our visual conscience now be as cauterised and nerveless as the face and limbs of any of these victims?
I think there is a deeper numbing that the era of the atom bomb has inflicted on our everyday moral responses. You’ll remember the joke that went around a few years ago, when our set-top boxes began to receive the History Channel: “They should call it the Hitler Channel, there’s so many documentaries about him on it.”
But the joke had an elemental truth buried within it. Fascism, Nazism and Hitlerism are endlessly fascinating for the historically minded, because the processes behind their rise and fall can be so clearly identified – whether in terms of economics, ideas of race and nation, the use of mass media, etc.
We nowadays see familiar economic resentments meet the enduring purisms of racial identity, and keep our warning lights on for “neo-Nazi” tendencies across Europe. Yet it at least feels as if errant hearts and minds can be grappled with, perhaps changed, with appeal and argument – daily, yearly, across an electoral cycle. Historical, in the best sense.
But the atomic bomb, the tens of thousands of warheads, and their Cold War justification of “mutually assured destruction”? All things are a product of history, of course – even startling scientific discoveries.
But nuclear weapons do seem more like the opening of Pandora’s Box, uncontrollable demons escaping, than the warrior’s arms chest. And at the back of our minds, no matter our busy plans and schemes for the present, we know we must manage what Amis calls “Einstein’s monsters” – lest they end human history altogether, in a series of planetary flashes.
I suggest this awareness has run like cold steel underneath our affairs for much of the last 70 years. We have sensed – but kept largely buried – the terminal consequences of a malevolent (or miscalculating) “finger on the trigger”. And though I couldn’t praise the generations of CNDers enough, I think this has also driven us culturally in often heedless, manic directions.
For example, we usually identify the rise of consumer hedonism in the West with a number of drivers. Say, the need to stimulate demand to cope with over-production. Or the increasing use of Freudian psychology in the Mad Men era of advertising, their pitches getting deeper under our skin.
But might not another factor be the implicit awareness, in the era of the Bomb, that the future could be blindingly cancelled at any time? And thus to focus intensely on the present – to live, love and furiously purchase and pleasure-seek like there’s no tomorrow – was an understandable response?
I’m beginning to think we have underestimated how much the hair-trigger possibility of nuclear conflagration has affected us, and in particular our civic willpower. By comparison, the environmental crisis does feel eminently historical. Our graphs of human-made global warming don’t just give us timelines into the past, but deadlines into the future too.
Take action now, on whatever green guru’s script you choose, and you might be able to mitigate the worst of the changes we know are coming.
Yet when you watch the closing sequence of Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, with that crazed cowboy bestriding his missile, hat-waving himself and our civilisation into oblivion, there is true madness in his laughter – and ours. The end of the world comes as a bad joke about our technological prowess, our ingenuity and potency. The human virus consumes itself – and good planetary riddance.
For me, this is why the anti-nuclear politics at the core of Scotland’s independence movement (and Corbyn willing, perhaps to return to the UK Labour Party) has always been so powerful – and so wonderful.
It is a demonstration that we choose not to be paralysed by the sheer scale of the nuclear system. That we can keep our minds unfrozen, our political will concentrated upon an act of nuclear non-proliferation. That we refuse to sink into the waters of cynical despair, and dare to make history.
I’m not a spiritual person, but it’s difficult to avoid the language: we save our souls, and recover our humanity, by opposing the renewal of Trident.
The Bomb will not defeat us, one way or another.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today).