Thursday, August 06, 2015

The sun that should never rise

When I was twelve, I helped my daddy build a bomb shelter in our basement because some fool parked a dozen warheads 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Well, this thing could park a couple of hundred warheads off Washington and New York and no one would know anything about it till it was all over.
Skip Tyler, The Hunt For Red October

I am always reminded of this line, from The Hunt For Red October, whenever I'm at my parents' house where I grew up in the London suburb of New Malden. Because when I was not much older than the age Tyler was during the Cuba crisis, nuclear war was all the rage.

In 1983 the BBC made a truly chilling docudrama, Threads, about an imaginary nuclear attack on the steel city of Sheffield. Around the same time, there was an American TV movie, The Day After, about the impact of nuclear escalation between the US and Russia on a small Kansas town, close to America's midwestern intercontinental missile silos. Even Duran Duran thought it cool to say "you're about as easy as a nuclear war" in Is There Something I Should Know?

After my brother married and moved out, I moved into his bedroom, which was on the backside of our house. Thanks to an enormous sports field immediately behind us, and green belt land beyond it, I had a clear view due west.

10 miles northwest is Heathrow Airport, and I could watch inbound planes in the final stages of their landing slope. This, then, became the source of nightmares, when I discovered that Heathrow would be one of numerous - numerous! - Soviet targets for a nuclear attack on London. Frequently I would see in my mind's eye a giant mushroom cloud over the airport and, with the knowledge of what a blast that close to my house would mean, the obliterating heat rushing towards us in the few seconds that we would have left to live.

It's a gloomy thought, of course, but every generation since the end of the Second World War has lived in varying forms of nuclear fear. In fact, after a 25-year lull in the Cold War, we might well be doing so again today - thanks to Vladimir Putin's sabre-rattling, the perennial prospect of terrorists making dirty bombs, or a rogue nation like North Korea letting off a nuke.

The trouble is that even with these risks reappearing, we've become desensitised to nuclear threat. We've become so used to James Bond or Jack Bauer defusing ticking nuclear devices with just seconds to spare that nuclear annihilation has almost become a frivolity. We hear of "nuclear talks" with Iran, or the dubious WMD grounds for invading Iraq, but the prospect of thermonuclear, mutually-assured destruction that put the heebeegeebees into my teenage years seems to have evaporated.

Even the reality of an actual nuclear detonation is disappearing further into history. At 8.15am, on August 6, 1945 - 70 years ago today - Captain Paul Tibbets, commander of the Boeing B29 Superfortress Enola Gay, became the first human to actually launch a nuclear attack. Tibbets dropped Little Boy, a 16-kiloton atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people, more than half of them instantly. Today, the total number of dead has been revised upwards to 297,684.

Some survived the initial attack by diving into the Ota River - naked due to the blast shredding their clothes, incinerated skin hanging off them like rags - only to die agonising deaths through radiation sickness and cancers. Three days later, the United States repeated the exercise and dropped a plutonium bomb called Fat Man on Nagasaki. On August 15, Japan surrendered. Almost six years of bloody world war would be over.

The world did, of course, come perilously close to nuclear armageddon during those 13 days in October 1962. But, as our political leaders have maintained for much of the seven decades since Little Boy destroyed Hiroshima, the world has been a safer place because of deterrent.

That may well be so, but the 50 megaton elephant still in the room is not that the nuclear nations - the US, Russia, the UK, France, India, Pakistan and Israel - have the ability to drop a single bomb, but that they have the ability to carry out Hiroshimas many times over and with 100 times the destructive power. A single Trident missile, used by the US and Britain's Royal Navy, contains a treaty-restricted eight W88 warheads, each capable of 475 kilotons, as opposed to the 16 dropped on Hiroshima.

Commemorating that first bomb earlier today, Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe said that, as the only country to have been targeted by an atomic weapon, Japan had an "important mission" to promote nuclear disarmament. Hiroshima’s mayor, Kazumi Matsui, reminded the world of Barack Obama's pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons in a speech six years ago, saying that the world "bristles" with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, a capability of "absolute inhumanity and the absolute evil".

This year's anniversaries of World War II events - the Battle of Britain, VE Day, the liberation of Auschwitz to name just three - have correctly generated sepia-tinged images of the reasons why war in 1939 was inevitable, and why it was only through the remarkable determination and sacrifice of those who fought to liberate Europe, North Africa and Asia of the tyrannical subjugation enacted by the Axis forces that war prevailed and a form of peace ensued.

But the World War II that should be learned the most must be from the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imperial Japan may have carried out unspeakable atrocities, especially on Allied PoWs, but their citizens became human lab rats of a weapon that, thankfully, has not been used since in anger, and hopefully never will - ideally by having it stuffed back into the genie's bottle and put properly beyond reach.

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