Is Judgment Day Inevitable?

When I was growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, one of our greatest fears, the one that disturbed our waking hours and gave us nightmares, was of nuclear holocaust. We were told in school and on television that the Bomb could fall literally any second. We might have warning. There might be an alarm. But then again, there might not be. Our teachers told us if we saw that flash in the sky we should 'duck and cover,' as if that would somehow ward off the explosion, the heat, the radiation. We had air-raid drills in school, marching silently in single file out into the hallway where we would face the wall, kneel, and cover our heads. Every day as I walked into the school building, I passed underneath the yellow and black Civil Defense sign that told us the school, the government, would give us shelter if we lacked our own (and never, as a child, seeing the irony in that). President Kennedy suggested we all build our own shelters in the back yard, and Rod Serling showed us on Twilight Zone what might happen when the Bomb finally fell (particularly 'Two' and 'The Shelter,' both from the autumn of 1961). It was a fear that infused the childhood of anyone who grew up then. In October of 1962, when I was 9, this fear suddenly crystallized and became intensely real when the newspapers and the television reported that the evil Communist government of Cuba had nuclear missiles aimed at the United States, and that Kennedy had decided to risk total worldwide annihilation to get them out.

The reality of the Vietnam War, of Watergate and then the energy crisis, however, increasingly pushed this comparatively abstract fear farther and farther back in people's consciousness. Now and then over the intervening 40 years or so, glimmerings of this fear rose to the surface ' in 1983, for example, television presented a movie called The Day After, which depicted American life after the Bomb ' but by and large it became a forgotten topic. What brought this immense, terrifying, almost unthinkable and yet almost forgotten Technological Power of the State again to mind was the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which ends with a nuclear holocaust. 'Judgment Day,' his character says, 'is inevitable.'

The French director Alain Resnais was one of the first to deal cinematically with the realities of living with the Bomb. He had already made a name for himself as a maker of documentaries, particularly with his short 1955 film Night and Fog about another Holocaust, that inflicted upon the Jews in Nazi Germany. The film combines black and white historical footage of the concentration camps with color footage of the same camps a decade later (the narrator points out that now 'no current runs through the wires': How effective is mass murder without appropriate technology? How effective is your coffee grinder when it's not plugged in? The rise of Technological Power coincided with the rise of, and remains a principal source of, Political Power. They are inseparable). It ends with these haunting thoughts:

'Who among us keeps watch from this strange watchtower to warn of the arrival of the new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own . . . . ? We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity's never-ending cry.'

The success of Night and Fog brought Resnais the opportunity to make another documentary, this one about the atomic bomb. As he researched it, however, viewing other documentaries already made, he came to doubt the usefulness of making yet another. He saw that, as with Night and Fog (and as the narration of that film admits), he could not show but only suggest the horror. In an interview contained on the DVD of the film he eventually made, he relates discussing the impossibility of such a documentary with writer Marguerite Duras: 'During the conversation I said, 'It's funny. We've spent three or four hours together, and that whole time, planes carrying atomic bombs in their holds have been endlessly circling the earth. So these bombardiers are flying over our planet ' and our conversation ' ready to drop more atomic bombs, and meanwhile, we haven't altered our external behavior to any extent. Here we are drinking tea or having a beer, and our days roll on just as before. So maybe the movie that needs to be made is not the one we had in mind with the atomic bomb as the protagonist. On the contrary, maybe we should shoot a classic love story in which the atomic bomb would be more of a background, a backdrop behind the characters, in the distance, like a kind of landscape.' We parted on that note, and two or three days later, Ms. Duras called to say, 'I think I have an idea.''

That idea became the extraordinary 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, which many, myself included, regard as one of the best films ever made. It concerns a brief love affair between a French actress, in Hiroshima to make a peace film, and a Japanese architect. Just as the man repressed the horror of Hiroshima, the woman has repressed the horror of her first love affair, a wartime tryst with a German soldier. They both try to live as if these things had never happened but, of course, they did ' just as we try to live as if the bombs and missiles were not lurking out there ready to destroy us when, of course, they are. This fact, as Resnais said, hasn't 'altered our external behavior to any extent.' But, the film makes clear, our denial of it ' our forgetting of it ' doesn't make it go away.

Take, for example, the fact that, according to former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the United States has '22 commissioned Trident nuclear submarines, which are first-strike weapons. Any one of those submarines can launch 24 missiles simultaneously. Each of those missiles can contain as many as 17 independently targeted, maneuverable nuclear warheads. And each of those warheads can travel 7,000 nautical miles and supposedly hit within 300 feet of its predetermined target. If we fire them in opposite directions, we can span 14,000 nautical miles: halfway around the world at the equator. This means we can take out 408 centers of human population, hitting each with a nuclear warhead ten times as powerful as the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki.' And that's just some of the Technological Power that the United States Government controls underwater. How much more is in the sky right now? How much is in space? How many missiles are in silos, waiting patiently for launch? And what of the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union? How many weapons did that nation have? Where are they now? And, more importantly: Who now has control of them? How do we live with such knowledge? Does the fact that we rarely if ever think about them, that these weapons have been almost forgotten, make the threat any less real, any less terrifying?

In 1964, another great director, Stanley Kubrick, released what many consider his finest effort: the black comedy Dr. Strangelove. In this film, a deranged general with the intriguing name of Jack D. Ripper orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union (when the President says he thought only he had such authority, General Turgidson, played by George C. Scott, says, 'That's right, sir. You are the only person authorized to do so. And although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it's beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority'). A mad hunt for the recall code ensues, but one plane, damaged by enemy fire, never receives it. The knowledge that his nation may be bombed leads the Soviet Ambassador to reveal the existence of the Doomsday Machine, which is designed to destroy the entire planet if the Soviet Union is ever attacked ('The Doomsday Machine,' he explains, 'is designed to trigger itself automatically . . . it is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to untrigger it.' When the President asks Dr. Strangelove how it's possible to have it triggered automatically and at the same time be impossible to untrigger, Strangelove replies, 'Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know: Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process, which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday Machine is terrifying, simple to understand, and completely credible and convincing . . . . But the whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret ' why didn't you tell the world, eh?' The Ambassador replies, 'It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises'). The plane, thanks to Yankee ingenuity and initiative, makes it through, bombs its target, and sets off the Doomsday Machine. The film ends with one nuclear explosion after another, set to the old song '(We'll Meet Again) Some Sunny Day.'

But, as I mentioned earlier, with the advent of Vietnam, followed by Watergate, the energy crisis, and the Iranian hostage situation, these nuclear fears faded from public consciousness. To a large extent, we as a people nearly forgot about them. While the first two Terminator films intimated nuclear holocaust, it wasn't till the end of Terminator 3 that I saw another graphic visualization of the fearsome and overwhelming Technological Power at the disposal of the United States Government. I was reminded as I watched that the Technological Power each of us enjoys is but a mere fraction of that enjoyed by the State; that the more we have, the more the State necessarily has as well; that our greed, our will to Power, fuels that of the State; and that our continued dependence upon Technological Power ' our dependence upon man's greed instead of nature's acceptance, upon the State instead of God and ourselves ' will, in the end, doom us. All those bombs, all those missiles: Can we eliminate them? If so, how? Or will they be with us always? Will they ever launch? Will they ever go off? True, they haven't for almost 60 years ' but does that mean they never will? What does their mere existence in the hands of the State mean for us as individuals?

Are the faces of the new executioners really different from our own? Will forgetting, will ignoring what has happened ' and what is happening even now ' keep our past horrors from returning? Have we already irrevocably triggered some unannounced Doomsday Machine? Is Judgment Day, as the Terminator says, inevitable?

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.