The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.” Carl Sagan
Yesterday, I went to buy a metro card and two of the machines were completely out of service and three of them wouldn’t accept cash. I went to the drug store and the self-serve kiosk kept announcing “Help is on the way” every step of the way. And, this is a pretty normal relationship to machines of the modern world. The bank’s ATM machine swallows my debit card for no apparent reason. An app with important data crashes and erases everything. A cab driver and I argue over the payment console’s buttons not working. The Home Depot self checkout has a total nervous breakdown when I put my scanned item in my own bag. The Wi-fi suddenly goes down when a vital document needs to go out. The wireless printer still refuses to speak to my laptop after two hours on tech support. My map app has lead me two miles in the wrong direction again. And, these are all machines specifically created to make life easier for millions of people.
On Saturday, I attended a panel of the world’s leading experts on nuclear issues What We Are Talking About When We Talk About the Bomb panel and the premiere of the bomb.
Panelist: Michael Douglas, actor, producer, and advocate of nuclear non-proliferation; Eric Schlosser, author Command & Control, Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness; Emma Belcher, MacArthur Foundation; Joe Cirincione, Ploughshares Fund; Robert Kenner, filmmaker Command & Control; Smriti Keshari, filmmaker the bomb.
“The problem with nuclear warheads is that they are machines. And machines break down. There’s this illusion the military is living under that they created these perfect beautiful machines that will go off only when they want them to and always perfectly. But, no machine works perfectly all the time. Every machine malfunctions. The problem with these machines is their only purpose is indiscriminate annihilation,” says Eric Schlosser. “I began to hear many stories from interviewing people in the military of accidents, near misses, near total nuclear catastrophes. There is serious mismanagement of these arsenals. These machines are difficult to control, especially when something goes wrong. A nuclear warhead doesn’t know how to stop when it accidentally goes off. It’s only job is obliteration. Once it goes off, command is completely helpless to stop it from doing what it was created to do.”
After Michael Douglas was diagnosed with cancer, he made a list of life goals. Taking on the problem of nuclear weapons was high on that list. “In 1979, we made The China Syndrome. 12 days later, Three Mile Island happened. A split screen was done comparing The China Syndrome’s depiction of a nuclear accident and Three Mile Island . 90 percent of the frames were the same. And, the US is spending trillions of dollars in developing more of this technology. There’s this seductiveness around the beauty of these weapons that doesn’t have us look at the actual damage it’s created to do. It is the most serious issue facing the world right now. “
The panelist discussed the danger of waiting until an accident happens to pay attention to these issues. Nuclear weapon’s potential for instant and long-lasting environmental catastrophe puts it at the top of the list for serious worldwide concern. But, climate change has the photos and felt experience. One image of a polar bear starving on an iceberg is worth far more than even a description of what nuclear meltdown would look like. But, the problem with waiting until we can see and feel nuclear disaster means facing a level of devastation that would eclipse anything the world has previously experienced. And, nuclear warfare being used intentionally could literally destroy the world in a very short time.
They also discussed the problems with narrative around nuclear weapons. That level of power is often presented as being something beautiful, exciting, awe-inspiring and celebratory. It’s a seductive object. The desire to love beautiful machines that are incredibly powerful feels natural now. The mushroom cloud images can be so hypnotic that it feels like something epic and wonderful is being witnessed . There’s poetry to it all. Nuclear warheads appear like precious breakthroughs in innovation. “Even though bombs today are far more powerful, my generation doesn’t have the emotional experience of living with how threatening they actually are. I designed this show to create that sense of immediacy and understanding,” said Smriti Keshari. Also, though imperfect, machines have now become beloved and personal. Our relationship to them has become largely positive and filled with wonder. But, that’s an extremely dangerous romance to have with nuclear warheads. “We can’t go and destroy another Earth after this one,” said Smriti Keshari
The television movie The Day After is the highest-rated television film in history. It focuses on the direct impact of nuclear war on a small town. It also caused President Ronald Reagan to change his views on nuclear arms. Many of today’s stories paint the nuclear bomb as the heroic intervention. Blockbuster movies like Independence Day, Avengers, & Armageddon use these weapons to save the world. Viewers are left with the impression that this level of weaponry is essential defense for a world catastrophe, while minimizing the reality that no immediate threat would create a worse fallout than nuclear war. Joe Cirincione co-wrote in the HuffPost piece The Avengers’ Nuclear Villain: “If the nuclear missile launched in the movie was similar to ones in the U.S. stockpile, it likely had a maximum explosive yield of 150 to 340 thousand tons of TNT. Fired in Mid-town Manhattan, the air blast would have collapsed most buildings from City Hall to the Upper East Side, and killed most of Manhattan’s 1.6 million residents. The initial blast would create a circle of death about 5 miles in diameter. Nearly 100 percent of the people within this circle would die instantly, or about half a million people in downtown New York. Mega-firestorms would kill perhaps a million more. The explosion would also produce a cloud of radioactive dust that would drift downwind from the bomb’s detonation point. If the bomb exploded at a low altitude, there would be a 6-37 miles long and 2-3 miles wide swath of deadly radiation that would kill all exposed and unprotected people within six hours of exposure. It would have been an unimaginable human catastrophe.”
Smriti Keshari’s aim in creating the bomb was to design something that connected an audience emotionally with the reality of this menacing technology. A fully immersive experience that creates a memorable novel evening uses great modern gadgetry to communicate the gravity of these issues. It inspires action and political engagement before we are experiencing in our actual lives this virtual nightmare. The panelist also explained that much of the conversation around nuclear power is thru high-level academia, policy makers, and scientists and it’s kept inside that community. Artists like Keshari can bridge those dense dialogues into layperson’s terms that can become part of the mainstream conversation. Artists and story-tellers collaborating with academia creates narratives that are accessible to everyone.
“The good news is this is something that can be completely solved by human beings. The ability to dismantle this technology is in our control,” said Michael Douglas.
the bomb Review
I don’t envy the challenges Smriti Keshari is up against in presenting the bomb to a live audience. Walking into Gotham Hall on Saturday night, the atmosphere is festive and light-hearted, as it was created to be. The show’s aim is to create a place people want to come to and also present them with essential, grim material in a compelling way. The hall was a big lovely room with live music and drinks. Friends were happy to be together after a long week and seemed happy to chat and let loose with a little booze.
I was just coming from the panel discussion so I was decidedly keyed up about the whole subject. “How can you joke around at a show about nuclear meltdown!?” was my general mood. I think I gave the stink eye to the guy who said “Standing for an hour? What a pain!” But, I get it. If I hadn’t been listening for the last hour to the world’s leading experts about the real crisis of nuclear weapons, I’d likely be a whole lot cooler too.
The audience stands surrounded 360 degrees by massive film screens with the band in the center of the room. A night sky is projected and sounds of a peaceful evening in nature fill the space. The show opens with a visually stunning immersion of marching armies around the world to a live soundtrack. It moves into projecting films that show the design innovation of nuclear bombs, brilliant minds passionately designing these machines, mushroom clouds transfixing the audience to sublime music. Videos of vintage advertising campaigns for nuclear safety create a hum of lightness and manageability. Then, the audience is swept into 360 fully immersive footage of nuclear fall-out. It’s like living inside the worst news story imaginable. And, the power of this technology is still seductive. The speed at which it can cause complete destruction is still awe-inspiring. But, it’s stunningly clear that this kind of power is actually completely overwhelming, an absolutely devastating overkill to aid in solving any of the current world affairs. This is especially clear in the footage of animals used to test nuclear weaponry and in the aftermath of Hiroshima. The show closes with reversing the mushroom clouds, reminding viewers that these are man made materials that we ultimatly can decide what to do with.
Once the show started, there were plenty of distractions: people checking their text messages or still wanting to chat with their friends, a guy who brought his medical marijuana vaporizer pen and got into a fight about with another audience member, Statler and Waldorf-type jokesters made loud running commentary the entire hour, people getting antsy from standing for an hour, the live band in the center jamming out to their set, and (this one I especially found odd given the subject matter) a couple on a date who were way more interested in seducing each other than getting swept up in the show. And, a gentlemen near me passed out in the middle of the show. I got a little dizzy too. But, the show crept under my skin. I didn’t realize how deeply it had affected me until the next morning. I was lying in bed physically feeling the terror of nuclear arsenal for the first time in my life. The show ultimately overwhelmed all the distractions for me. Within all those activities breaking out all over the room, the show was still bigger and louder. It seeped into my consciousness. Since seeing the show, I do have a visceral relationship to the dangers of nuclear war that I’ve never had before.
I had originally set my mind not to see the bomb. The idea of being fully immersed in a nuclear meltdown sounded traumatic. But, ultimately the technology seduced me. The draw of a new way to experience cinema won out. I heard my initial reservations echoed by the crowd. After the show I overheard a woman say “Phew, that wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it would be.” But, that is the brilliance of the bomb. It really was the most terroying show I’d ever been to but Smriti Keshari used the technology so brilliantly that the legitimate fear woke up without me even realizing it.
A pamphlet including these facts was handed out as we left the event:
1.The designers of the first atomic bomb were concerned that a nuclear detonation might ignite the earth’s atmosphere and kill every living thing on earth. They went ahead and tested in anyways.
2. A single hydrogen bomb, detonated at the Capital Building, could produce enough radioactive fallout to kill everyone in DC, everyone in Baltimore, everyone in Philadelphia, and half the population of New York City, with fatalities as far as north as Boston.
3. There are currently more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The United States and Russia possess more than 90 percent of them.
4. Many of the nuclear warheads in the American arsenal are about twenty times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
5. A single American ballistic missile submarine has the capacity to destroy more than 100 cities. The United States has fourteen of these submarines.
6. No nation in the world has emergency medical facilities that could cope with the detonation of a single nuclear weapon in a major city. The survivors of that city would have to fend for themselves.
7. On August 30, 2007, a maintenance crew at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana was surprised to find that a B52 Bomber parked on the runway was carrying six nuclear war heads. The weapons had been mistakenly removed from a bunker in North Dakota, loaded onto a plane, flown across the United States, and left unattended (Remember an American nuclear warhead is 20xs more powerful than the atomic bomb) For a day and a half nobody in the Air Force had realized half a dozen nuclear warheads were missing.
8.On May 17, 2014 during maintenance on a Minuteman missile at a silo near Peetz, Colorado a work crew damaged the missile. Almost two years later, the air force will still not disclose what happened during the accident or how extensively the missile was damaged.
9.In February 2015 a former launch officer at a Minuteman missile complex in North Dakota was sentenced to twenty years in prison. While serving in the Air Force and manning on the underground control center in charge of ten intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, the officer had also been the leader of a violent street gang, sold illegal drugs, and arranged of money for sex with underage girls.
10. In June 2015, General James Cartwright argued that the ongoing threat posed by cyber attacks was one reason the United States and Russia should take their missiles off alert. Cartwright formally served as the head of US Strategic Command, in charge of all of America’s nuclear weapons. You’ve either been hacked and are not admitting it,” he warned,” or you’re being hacked and you don’t know it.
11. In March 2016, fourteen airmen responsible for the security of the nuclear warheads and Minuteman missiles at F.E. Warren Air Force Based were suspended from duty. They are being investigated for using illegal drugs, including cocaine.