Nuclear Movies, Morality and A Cautionary Tale

Watching nuclear bomb films has a strange effect.  The topic is so heavy, the issues are so profound, that I find myself unable to think clearly.  The depth of the problems and questions raised are so vast, dense and intense.

I am often too shaken to write.

As I began my film watching on this topic, the list grew and grew.  The list is now at about 70 films. I can’t watch a lot of these films at once.  It is too much to take in.

What I’m finding is that the films made in the 1950s and early sixties are enormously powerful and really well made.  I’m not sure how these films have been buried and forgotten—it must be that the topic is just too hard to deal with.  The moral questions they raise are really scary—but also deeply thought provoking.  They require us to remember that we are (still) living in a perilous nuclear age, and to consider enormous questions around nuclear war, illness, death, and the competition for national power—in a world where we have far more weapons than necessary to destroy the earth many times over.  The issues and questions about why we possess these weapons, who this serves, how it endangers us, and the risks involved, are things most of us don’t want to consider.  We’re worried about Global Warming now—at last some people are aware of that—but what about a nuclear winter and radiation poisoning?  Nuclear winter could very well result in the end of the human race. What about the incredible rise in cancer and other diseases, as well as the long term genetic mutations (passed down through untold generations) from radiation poisoning?  The latter is happening right now, and it will escalate if we continue on our current path.  Yet it is rarely spoken of.

The films from the 1980s are also incredibly strong—and they, too, ask politically pointed positions.  They take aim at the Pentagon and the US government. They also raise profound ethical questions about the right to possess, build and use weapons of mass destruction, and the dangers of such complicated technologies.

Imagining a world after a nuclear holocaust is something most of us do not want to consider.  Most of these films ask us to think about it.   It is hard to do.

Many of the films from the start of the 1990s onward are less focused on the morality and ethics of nuclear war—they tend to be distracting action films with hunky muscular male heartthrobs fighting their way through a dusty world.  They are macho fighter films—not so different from any other crash and bang ‘em up flicks with high-tech weapons.  Does this shift in nuclear war films speak to the general malaise and lack of concern or awareness in our culture about the dangers of nuclear radiation and disaster?

No one talks about the danger of nuclear war anymore.  It seems like everyone thinks it has gone way.  Probably this is because the Cold War is over.  The two countries have reduced their arsenals, but not by enough.  Now there are many other countries that possess nuclear bombs—India, Israel, France, England, and more—accidents happen, even if wars don’t break out (on purpose).   Who is to say that a war won’t break out and some unexpected country won’t use their nuclear weapons?  What then?  What about the DU weapons currently in use in Iraq (these were used in Kuwait was well); these are poisoning and causing cancer and genetic alterations in our own soldiers as well as in the innocent people and lands we are and have been at war with.  Our own military doesn’t acknowledge or take responsibility for any of this.

I cannot get myself out of this story. I’ve dug myself in very deeply.  I have read so many books on uranium and the building of the atom bomb, as well as so many recent articles on the pros and cons of retaining, maintaining, modernizing and reducing/expanding our nuclear arsenal, and the pros and cons of nuclear power.  While the President claims he’s committed to reducing our nuclear arsenal, some articles I read say the opposite is true.  Only last week our President announced his commitment to give loan guarantees to the nuclear power industry in the amount of 54 billion dollars to build 100 new plants (if you paid close attention, before the 54 billion announcement-- just a few weeks earlier-- the number was 5 billion).  In a short time, the loan guarantees will grow, that is for sure.  The President will have to guarantee at least 100 billion and probably more in order to accomplish this goal.  As far as I’m concerned, this is a huge mistake, and from everything I read, the cost far exceeds the benefit.  Even if you look at it purely in economic terms, it doesn’t make sense.  In terms of safety—the industry says it is safe.  This is absolutely not true.  There are constant leaks from our present plants (though the press doesn’t report this, and countries like France--the supposedly model nuclear country--are dumping their radioactive waste into oceans. Also, France and other European countries have other problems with their plants, and this is downplayed or ignored by the mainstream press).  So, while we still don’t know what to do with the dangerous radioactive waste we’ve accumulated so far, taxpayers are about to mortgage this country to build more plants and create yet more poison that cannot be disposed with safely (and which lasts thousands of years).  There are plans to make plants that don't create much waste, but we are not there yet, and the story is never that simple.  The nuclear industry lobbyists are behind the plan (surprise, surprise), and even Democrat politicians who typically don’t support nuclear power—are behind it.  The President is behind it.  What are they thinking?  I don’t see any vocal opposition.  Where is everyone?  In Long Island, in 1989, we refused such a thing.  What has changed in twenty years that no one seems to be taking notice about 100 new nuclear plants?  


Our current situation reminds me a bit of the moral tale in  the movie Fail Safe.  In Fail Safe the men in charge of government and the military industrial complex are all so proud of the power of our nuclear arsenal and the advanced technology used to oversee the war machine.  The movie asks, who is really in power here (we the people?), who makes the decisions about our political and military stance, and shouldn’t we be afraid that giving over more and more of our human control and will to technology puts us at great risk?  It also suggests that while military technology is seductive and thrilling we must be careful to harness this unheeded passion and exercise caution. We must be careful not to be like Dr. Frankenstein.  He fell in love with the thrill of his project, but when the monster was born, "man" had lost control.  Mary Shelley was sending out an important  warning.  Many scientists who worked on the atom bomb regretted their accomplishment and saw the making of the bomb as a 'dark day for mankind'.  

These are huge questions.  Most of us are just trying to get by, make a living, pay the bills, and raise our families.  We’re tending to sick parents, sending money to Haiti (that is a very good thing), grumbling about Obama not saving us from the depths of recession, hoping our schools don’t lose more funding , saving for college (if possible) and if we have jobs—feeling very grateful.  Many of us are watching the Superbowl.  Obviously--not all of us are so blessed to have these worries.  Numbers of homeless are escalating and it is cold outside and if we're there, it is got to be all these folks can do to stay alive and making it through another day.

Life needs to be lived.  I just hope we keep living it.

There was almost no such thing as childhood cancer before 1950.  Anyone remember what day Hiroshima was bombed?  Anyone know how many bombs were built and  tested in the US in the 1950s?  Many link the testing of such bombs and the exposure to nuclear radiation from these bombs to the enormous rise in cancer in and after the 1950s.  More and more many have started to think about the connections between DDT and cancer  (DDT and other toxic chemicals also came into use post-WWII and DDT was sprayed across the country for years and years, many other related toxic chemicals remain in use).  After WWII the US and other industrialized countries began the perilous love affair with cancerous chemical pollutants.  We are not free of either environmental problems--radiation or toxins--they plague us today.  Our cancer rates and other terrible environmental and health problems have risen accordingly.

I dream of a world free of their production, and free of these poisons.  I would like to see an end to childhood cancers, birth defects, and disease.

Can we do anything if we do wake up?  I think so!  We deserve a "safety" first environmental and earth policy, because we have the right to have clean air, water, soil, and food.  We, the people,  must wake up and demand that our safety comes first.  Politicians won't listen if we speak up and make our voices heard.

Can we wake up?  Will we wake up?

Science and technology are thrilling and seductive.  Yet, there is a cost if we don't exercise a policy of safety first.

I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it's there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles - this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.  --Freeman Dyson

Asleep at the wheel?