Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Coda to 70 Years: The Unacknowledged Monster

Much of my writing this summer was centered on the 70th anniversary of the first--and so far, the last-- atomic bombings of human beings.  In addition to the two essays posted here, I wrote a long piece about the first Godzilla movie and the most recent, which was released last year, on the 60th anniversary of the first.  I caught up to it on DVD in June.  The original Japanese movie was called Gojira, and has essentially never been seen in the US except on DVD, not released until 2004.  That 1954 movie was a direct response to the radiation poisoning of Japanese fishermen from a US hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific.  I wrote on Gojira itself several years ago, and on the two films this summer at Soul of Star Trek.

These were not the first times I'd written on atomic bomb history, or the larger question of bombing of cities.  Several of my previous pieces on these subjects were published in the San Francisco Chronicle, but there were no takers anywhere for the two pieces posted here last week.

By coincidence, I ran across A Zen Life, a video about D.T. Suzuki, renowned for introducing Zen to America and the West in general, beginning before the first World War, gaining traction in the 1950s with the Beat Generation and then in the 1960s. Towards the end of the video were images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with Suzuki's words about the apparent efforts of some humans to eradicate their species and much of life on earth--a theme of course that led both of my posts here, though they were written before I saw this video.

In printed material accompanying the video (borrowed from the library), Suzuki had more words to say about the morality of bombing in general.  Soldiers consent to their participation in violent battle, he said, and they accept that they might be killed.  But bombing of women and children in cities is a morally different act.

This extended my thinking again about the issues raised in these 70th anniversary pieces.  We are reluctant to face nuclear realities (or ecological threats), but it strikes me as remarkable that the morality of bombing is never an issue, never a question.

One of my Chronicle essays was prompted by the well publicized likelihood that the US was going to begin its invasion of Iraq with extensive bombing of Baghdad. My piece introduced the concept of Shock & Awe, which I picked out of a CBS News report.  This was happening as I was reading a new book called A History of Bombing.  It's a fascinating if overlooked book that raises such questions.

My piece went on to say:

There are various strategic arguments for bombing campaigns that dovetail with apparent moral concerns, usually involving shortening a war's duration or substituting for ground assaults, thus saving lives, especially the lives of the side doing the bombing.

When facing the possibility that this war would unleash chemical, biological or nuclear weapons that have been largely absent from warfare for decades due to international taboos of one kind or another, it may seem quixotic to argue that bombing of civilian populations should be regarded as an evil in itself, and beyond the pale for nations that desire any sort of international relations. But it seems morally obtuse that there is a stronger taboo against assassinating a declared enemy's head of a state than against slaughtering babies in their beds. Surely bombing should be a last resort, not the first.

All of this brought me back to Gojira.  When Americans took the monster footage, eliminated much of the Japanese story and especially most references to the Bomb and added Raymond Burr as the American star, the movie that resulted (called Godzilla: King of the Monsters) became a US and international sensation.  Toho, the studio that made Gojira, then made a series of Godzilla and other more or less science fiction movies for an international audience.  Susan Sontag wrote about them in her generative 1950s essay, "The Imagination of Disaster."  Many of these films involved wholesale destruction of a big city--New York, London or especially Tokyo.

Movies are about other movies, and a lot of other things, but Gojira was the most intensively about the Bomb.  Godzilla was a creature awakened and strengthened by Bomb testing in the Pacific, and he came ashore to stomp and destroy and eventually to breathe radioactive fire on Tokyo.  Godzilla was the Bomb, and the battle of conscience that a scientist had whether or not to use against him the immense destruction of a weapon he'd accidentally devised was the crisis of conscience that the atomic scientists should have had.  (Some did, but mostly after the fact.)

But it hit me more forcefully after reading that Suzuki comment that Godzilla's attack on Tokyo was a reenactment of the actual destruction of Tokyo by American bombs, none of them nuclear, but with sheer numbers and incendiary power.  It is visually inescapable, and there is a moment that the script hints at the equivalence--when a young mother huddles in a doorway with her arms around her small children as Godzilla rampages towards them, and she tells her children that they will soon be joining their father.  A lot of fathers were lost in the war.

from Gojira
Because the only word sufficient to characterize humans bombing each other on this scale is monstrous.  And so Godzilla is the monster of bombing.  The bombing of Tokyo and Dresden and of London, and later of Vietnam and Iraq, as well as of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Godzilla, like King Kong, also had the personality that made him lovable, and in later movies he became a kind of hero (as reflected in the otherwise despicable Godzilla of 2014.)  It has been argued that the Japanese moved quickly from mourning to a kind of repression and willed numbness, as reflected in the cuteifcation of their popular culture.  But in the Gojira moment, less than a decade after Hiroshima, the monstrousness of modern warfare was at least metaphorically expressed.

To further tie together the themes of this 70th anniversary, movies about monsters who are resurrected and augmented forces of nature are usually brought to life by some human act.  The Jurassic Park monsters are about scientists playing God with genes, for instance.  The theme of science creating monsters is as old as Dr. Frankenstein.  But these days such movies more clearly attempt to exorcise through entertainment the unacknowledged yet increasingly felt fact that the monsters turn out to be us.

How do we defeat this monster?  The movies tell us this as well: by recognizing the nature, power and effects of the monster.  Then applying courage and ingenuity to defend what the monster would destroy.  Even if we are the monster, we can also be the heroes.

 The monster is vanquished, at least for awhile--driven to the hidden depths.  The sequels suggest we don't learn much--the monster's return always surprises people, who often don't recognize it if it has changed at all.  So the tasks begin again.

People in these movies often deny the monster exists until it is almost too late.  But eventually they see the reality, and they depend on those who saw it earlier and are ready.  Some may panic, but heroes emerge, however humble many of them are.    

Sunday, August 09, 2015

70 Years After Nagasaki, A World of Falling Skies

August 6, 1945 was the most important date in “the history and prehistory of the human race,” wrote author Arthur Koestler, because with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, humanity for the first time faced the prospect of its own extinction.

The Bomb brought the concept of humanity causing its own extinction into consciousness. Among others, Norman Cousins wrote about it in the 40s, Susan Sontag in the 50s before Koestler emphasized its importance in the late 70s.  But it turns out that before Hiroshima, and before Nagasaki (with its 70th anniversary today) human civilization had been creating the conditions that might yet lead inexorably to its extinction, and has continued to do so, even as we are becoming conscious of it.

Though the nuclear threat is not entirely over, 70 years later there are warnings of extinction with a different cause: human impact on the biosphere. A study released this summer suggested that a cascading mass extinction driven by habitat loss, exploitation and climate change could begin threatening humanity in three generations. Co-author Geraldo Ceballos warned that “if it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on.”

I was born during the first postwar atomic bomb tests in 1946. As have many others, I’ve lived with the specter of the Bomb all my life, amidst all the contradictory responses: alarm, denial, distracted indifference, inconsolable terror and even apocalyptic glee, and perhaps most of all, helpless numb despair. We see such responses to climate change today.

But there are differences. A nuclear exchange threatens an immediate catastrophic change, from normal life to instant annihilation. Environmentally-caused extinction would likely come at the end of a long process that’s already begun, with increasingly obvious consequences along the way.

Some changes are here and more are coming, because of what has already been set in motion. This presents new challenges, and like the advent of the Bomb, it requires new ways of thinking.

Among the places NPR commentator and author Craig Childs visited for his book Apocalyptic Planet was a research station in Greenland, where climate expert Koni Steffans would brief government officials and others seeking the latest information on global climate change. "What he tells people who visit is not that the sky is falling but that we live in a world of falling skies,” Childs writes, “and it is best not only to know your options but to make moves ensuring the worst does not happen."

In a world of falling skies, humanity will necessarily confront the effects of climate change (droughts, heat, droughts, storms, rising sea levels, food and water shortages, health problems etc.) that will continue for decades because of past actions.

Yet it will also be necessary to simultaneously and relentlessly attack the causes of climate change (principally greenhouse gas pollution) in every way possible to prevent the worst from happening in the far future. Keeping that cause and effect relationship in mind in a worsening time may be difficult but essential. It is the work of generations.

Living under the nuclear sword influenced how several generations viewed life in the present, as well as their attitudes about the future. At our best, we learned to identify and cherish the soul of this moment, while finding meaning in working for a better future.

“People have to have hope,” a conservationist told science writer Elizabeth Kolbert for her book, The Sixth Extinction. “It’s what keeps us going.” In the end, as the nuclear age may have taught us, hope is not just a feeling or attitude. It’s a commitment. It isn’t principally what you have. It’s what you do.

For even though we may have lucked and blundered our way through the nuclear threat so far, there were also 70 years of soul-searching and debate, research and imaginative inquiry, political and institutional action and change brought to bear in order to thwart the demise of the world. That counted for something.

There were people who confronted the world made by those days in Hiroshima and Nagasaki not simply out of fear but with a sense of responsibility. If we’re the species that realizes it may be causing extinction, we must be the species that does its best to prevent it.