Monday, February 4, 2019

Stop, Drop, and Cover.

You know how everyone makes fun of Mitch McConnell because he looks like a turtle? Well I am not in favor of that. I think it is not right to make fun of him. He is not funny. He is however, a treacherous and treasonous cancer on this country and author Christopher R. Browning recently referred to him as “the gravedigger or American democracy”. McConnell has probably done more damage to America than the actual fucking KGB did during its 37 years of existence.

But that's not what I want to talk to you about. Sorry. I somehow managed to start on a tangent. What I want to talk to you about is actually Bert the Turtle. OH! That’s what happened: Bert the Turtle is a turtle, Mitch McConnell is a turtle and so my brain just went from there. Now it makes sense. Anyway, fuck Mitch McConnell and now let’s proceed to Bert the Turtle.

In 1951 the US Federal Civil Defense Administration released a nine minute black and white film to American schools that focused on how to survive an atomic blast. If you know about this at all, you know about it because it’s where the phrase “duck and cover” came from. There was even a little song.

Well Bert the Turtle is a turtle and he’s just turtle-ing along (on his hind legs like a human, as turtles all tend to do when no one is looking) and suddenly a fucking terrorist monkey lowers a fucking stick of dynamite down next to Bert’s head. Well I guess that despite the well-known centuries-long blood feud between monkeys and turtles, this particular dipshit monkey didn’t know that turtles can RETRACT THEIR APPENDAGES inside their famously dynamite-proof shells, which is exactly what Bert does just before the fuckwad monkey detonates himself exactly like Mitch McConnell did to his sense of patriotism in order to make room in his heart for one of Donald Trump’s fucking horcruxes.

Anyway, when the smoke clears Bert is fine and the monkey is as dead as good faith parliamentary procedure is in the United States Senate.

As the film goes on it features actual humans and even school children demonstrating how to duck and cover. In each sequence there is a FLASH OF LIGHT as an atomic bomb goes off and then whomever is in the frame drops to the ground and curls up into a ball of hides under a desk or a picnic blanket.

By the time I became aware the Cold War was going on, we’d already entered the glasnost & perestroika era. I lived a childhood free of the fear that had my parents had been indoctrinated with. They lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis after all. On the other hand, I always kind of liked Mikhail Gorbachev, he seemed like a cartoon beaver. I certainly wasn’t afraid he was going to bomb the living shit out of everyone I’d ever met.

That, however, is the interesting part. See, even though I was not afraid of Gorbachev (even remotely as much as I am afraid of Mitch McConnell), in the 1980s he controlled somewhere north of 55,000 nuclear weapons including the largest yield ever developed, the 50+ megaton “Tsar Bomba” weapon. During the period of time when I was not afraid of thermonuclear annihilation, it was very much within the realm of possibility that I would die as a result of thermonuclear annihilation. At the very least it was technically POSSIBLE, which is to say that it was within our ability as humans.

And so we laughed at old Bert the Turtle. “Oh Bert,” we would say mockingly, “you dumb dumb stupid idiot turtle dummy. Just accept the sweet inevitability of death why don’t you?”

That’s how we all talked on my elementary school playground.

But Bert knew something we didn’t. Bert was a creature of his time and his time was 1951. When America dropped the first atomic bomb on the unsuspecting population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the resulting yield was clocked at about 15 kilotons.

Now 15 kilotons is nothing to sneeze at. That’s 15,000 TONS of dynamite. It killed an estimated 200,000 people. It was no laughing matter. Before and after pictures make it look like the city was scraped from the face of the Earth with the edge of a blade.

Three days later, Nagasaki was bombed. A big round implosion-type bomb named “Fat Man” free fell through the air for 43 seconds before detonating almost two miles off target. The blast radius was so wide however, that it didn’t matter that they missed. It killed about 80,000 people.

At that moment, as Fat Man dropped free of the B-29 bomber floating above Nagasaki, it was the only functional atomic bomb left in the world. The United States initially built three bombs. One was detonated as a test in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico. One was dropped on Hiroshima. After the third bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, there were literally no more. In what was possibly the boldest bluff in the history of the world, the United States acted like it TOTALLY had a bunch more of these things.

And in fairness, pretty soon after that they did have a whole bunch more. Turns out it is not that hard to build an atomic bomb once you already have the material and the manpower and the knowhow and the money and the desire to do so. And the US had all of those things.

The Soviets had a lot of those things too, but they didn’t detonate a bomb of their own until August of 1949.

That bomb was called “First Lightning” and it had a 22 megaton yield, so it was bigger and more destructive than the bombs that America had dropped, but it was not bigger by orders of magnitude. It was not unthinkably bigger. It was big and terrible and the most destructive thing in the history of human existence on the planet Earth, but what it wasn’t, was the end of the world. In fact, when the US dispatched researchers to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war, they discovered that the bombs had not even been as destructive as they’d initially believed.

Yes, that means that there was a moment when a team of Americans with clipboards were standing on the surface-of-the-moon blast zone that had once downtown Hiroshima and writing in their notes, “Need to make the bombs bigger.” They researchers discovered that in the midst of all of destruction and carnage and unspeakable horror, a surprising amount of life had survived. People in basements, people under water, even people who were simply lying down on the ground had survived.

So this gets back to the difference between Bert the Turtle in 1951 and me in the 1980s. The bombs of the 1940s and 1950s were of a type and size that - while powerful and god-awful-terrible - were strictly speaking, survivable in a lot of scenarios. That is to say, a child inside a single story brick or cinder block school building a few miles from the hypocenter of the blast could, if immediately upon seeing the flash, drop to the ground below a heavy wood and metal desk and maybe maybe maybe survive. “Duck and cover” was not actually nihilistically laughable advice in 1951.

But 30 years later in Reagan's America, we had every right to laugh. By then America had developed the B83 hydrogen bomb which offered 1.2 megatons of destruction at the push of a button. Whereas the Hiroshima bomb was equivalent to 15,000 tons of dynamite, the B83 clocked in at 1,200,000 tons of dynamite. Just to be clear: that is 15 thousand vs. 1 million 200 thousand.

By the time my friends and I were laughing at dumb old Bert the Turtle, mankind had very easily transitioned from having three bombs that destroyed cities to tens of thousands of bombs that destroyed species.

That is the important part. The real history is not - as we are so often taught it, when we are taught it at all - that humanity went from being simply really good at killing, to suddenly jumping the shark in the sky above Hiroshima in 1945 by suddenly becoming capable of utterly extinguishing itself entirely.

It didn’t happen that way.

We built three bombs. We dropped two of them on other humans. Then we carefully surveyed the destroyed landscapes, the sagging melted flesh of the survivors, the skin of the women whose kimono patterns were burned onto their bodies, the children whose eyelids had been seared from their faces, the blackened remains of bodies incinerated by light, and then we said, “We’re gonna need some bigger bombs.”

The decision to build the fourth bomb was even more important than the decision to build the first.

In 1951, when Bert the Turtle was turtle-ing along, minding his own business and trying to avoid monkey assassins, the Soviet Union had 5 atomic bombs. Five. A decade later they had more than 1,500. And America always had more than the Soviets did. By the time I was a kid, there were more than 70,000 bombs in the world. No amount of duck and cover can save you from that.

So the lesson - and now I remember why I was thinking about Mitch McConnell! - is that sometimes we don’t notice the BIG CHANGE. The point of no return isn’t always where we think it is. We did not develop the actual ability to destroy the world and the entire human race in 1945 or even 1951. It was on some random day sometime in the mid-1950s as the US and the Soviet Union raced to crank out bomb after bomb after bomb. One bomb, one city. One bomb, two cities, and on and on and on and suddenly we have one bomb for every city and two bombs for every city and on and on and somewhere in there we reached critical madness.

The day we developed the ability to actually annihilate ourselves went completely unnoticed.

*** Please tune in next week when we try to determine if a snail is a mammal, a bird, a fish, a reptile, or an amphibian. ***


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