Nightmares

I recently watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos (available online by request of his co-creator and widow Ann Druyan). It's a very effective piece of science popularization, and I'm sorry I passed up a chance to be introduced to Carl Sagan, but one aspect that stands out is how he reiterates the theme of "if we do not destroy ourselves". It sounds a bit odd now: while climate change and other coming global ecological crises are alarming, somehow they don't leave me feeling like we are risking extinction of the human race. Cosmos, though, was made in 1980, when two great superpowers were threatening exactly that. The danger of global nuclear war doesn't feel so immediate, but I think it is still very real, and so I am glad when I hear President Obama talking about nuclear disarmament.





In any case, the most fraught years of the Cold War motivated a number of people - including Carl Sagan - to make movies describing the likely outcome of a global thermonuclear war. Several of these powerful, albeit harrowing, movies are available online in their entirety.

When the Wind Blows. The British government issued a series of short films and brochures on how to respond to a nuclear attack. The makers of this film set up an ordinary retired couple who attempt to follow these instructions. It will come as no surprise that taking their doors of their hinges and building a nest of blankets don't do them much good; the film follows them right to the bitter end.

The Day After. Set (and filmed) in Lawrence Kansas, this film starts with some ordinary Americans living normal small-town lives, and simply supposes that a cold-war dispute over Berlin escalates until the two sides do what they've been threatening to. Small-town life has left the main characters better prepared to survive the immediate consequences of the devastation, but in the weeks after the exchange we see the effect of thousands of sick, dying, and desperate people converging on a hospital that could never have handled them all even with power, supplies, and healthy staff.

Threads. Perhaps the most harrowing of the three, this film is set in Sheffield, and follows the main characters - those who survive - past the initial deaths and civil disorder into the years that follow, in which what's left of the government attempts to keep some survivors healthy enough to eke out what crops they can in spite of nuclear winter. The name comes from the idea that the society we know is held together by a network of "threads" of personal connection, and that such a holocaust shreds the fabric, leaving no society we would recognize. Britain cannot even return to its state - even once enough people have died - as of the middle ages, since its forests are no longer available as fuel and (even leaving aside contamination and nuclear winter) possibly much of its soil is no longer suitable for cultivation without fertilizers. The social effects of the brutal measures necessary for survival - both by the government and by people trying to survive - well, I will not attempt to capture the grim picture the film paints, but it is wholly believable.

Incidentally, the consequences of nuclear war depicted in Threads are based on what British civil defense planners were told what to expect by the Americans. Apparently one of them let slip that they were warned that the bombs that would have so devastated Sheffield would have been launched by Americans hoping to deny the UK to Soviet forces.

Lest you think that these films exaggerate the horror of a nuclear attack, you can watch or read Barefoot Gen, about some children who survive the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The message of this movie is ultimately one of hope, unlike the previous three, but the images of the attack itself, based on the author's experience as a Hiroshima survivor, are far more horrific than any shown in the previous three movies.

My point is this: we, scientists and engineers, soldiers and workers and politicians, sweated for forty years to arrange this fate for ourselves. Almost all those missiles still exist, and are still pointed at the same victims now. I hope the political situation has changed to make it unlikely that they will be used (though I note that Threads begins with a conflict in Iran). But we shouldn't forget about the destruction we worked so hard on, and we should think about what it says about us that we planned this.

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