It's the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which is naturally causing a bit of soul-searching and rhetorical questions about the brutality of the event. Certainly, a bomb so large that it could destroy an entire city in an instant is a powerful thing. But to me, the bombing itself is not so remarkable, as the era that it announced.
It's estimated that the bombing of Hiroshima killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 people. It is terrible to say, but killing 100,000 was not really an accomplishment by August 6, 1945. The firebombing of Tokyo, in which relatively small incendiary bombs were laid in way to create a firestorm, also killed 100,000 people. There were bombings of Germany that had similar effect. The Germans, in turn, created their own killing machines of much more bureaucratic and banal functioning. Human beings have never suffered from lack of ways to kill one another.
The atom bomb was a symbol of an era, and dropping one simply made it official. We often talk about the late 20th century as having an "atomic age," just as it had a "space age," and later, an "information age." But it is not just about the fission, and later, fusion bombs. It is about aerial bombardment. It is about strategic weapons. Once you have developed the technological means for wiping a city off the map, it's about the strategy and logic that develops as a result of this technology.
I've been doing a bit of research on strategic-era thinking, and I'm constantly fascinated by this cultural development, associated with the military-industrial technology of destruction. As Tom Vanderbilt wrote in his book Survival City, "If one could not write poetry after Auschwitz, as Theodor Adorno postulated, then after Hiroshima, one could no longer speak of cities. [...] Over every city hovered the ghostly afterimage of a city." The maps of potential-ruins filled government studies and exercises. Megadeaths, a statistical legacy of this same thinking, are numbers we can only see in digit form. Who could see one million lives at once, let alone one million deaths? The same for the city itself. We created alternate universes of national maps, printed omitting certain numbers of cities. Areas provisionally re-zoned as wasteland.This is not just apocalyptic thinking, it became mundane. Herman Kahn and Irwin Mann, in their seminal paper Game Theory, managed to reduce global nuclear war brinkmanship into an analogy about feuding neighbors attempting to take possession of each others' wives. The entire world is reduced to coin flips and petty head games, while at the same time, trillions of dollars are funneled into ways of destroying the world a bit more completely, to create the overlap of theoretical options just that much more resolute. There are a thousand tales of weapons systems meant to be used to "defend one's wife" in this manner, but one that always grabs my attention is the Nike Hercules missile. It is a defensive anti-aircraft system, armed with a nuclear warhead. It was designed to shower American cities with airbursts as a defensive measure, to hopefully destroy Russian bombers on their way to destroy the United States. The best defense measure, it seemed, was to nuke our own cities to prevent them from being nuked. At least it was--after a decade or two, they were considered obsolete, having never been used.
There are hundreds of stories like this, about the pessimistic, Dr. Strangelove ways of thinking that the Cold War made standard issue in the minds of those making the important decisions. We can look back on that as "over" now--except that it isn't really. Setting aside the thousands of nuclear warheads still deployed, the ecological catastrophes that their construction has caused, and the continued threat of nuclear war, our technology of destruction is still latched onto our brains, like a reptilian basal ganglia. Technology changes the way we think, and it alters our logic into terms that are incredible, from other contexts unbelievable, and occasionally, brutal.
Today we have "smart cities." We have "personal data." We have "remote, automated weapons." We forget about it in our attempts to wrap our heads around the mindset of Cold War apocalypse, because the idea of total destruction seems so foreign and strange to us. But, it was the mundane horrors of today's surveilled, prison-state, extrajudicial murder world that people in the 1960s and 1970s feared. The fear of nuclear war with Russia was taken as status quo, while the "science fiction" of a technological police state got the populace in an uproar. Today, we go shopping online and look back to Hiroshima as a past barbarism, forgetting where the military research dollars are going today. What sort of Manhattan Project is currently underway, at a government testing facility somewhere?
The megadeaths are still here, they are just better distributed.