I was sixteen years old when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I remember reading the newspaper accounts with mixed feelings of awe and relief.
My brother Terry was in the navy and was about to ship out from San Francisco to the Pacific Theater of War. The news of Hiroshima was accompanied by speculation that the war would soon be over. Terry would be safe. Terry would come home.
As the months and years went by, the horror of Hiroshima became more familiar. The nuclear age emerged in everyone’s mind and imagination.
As the forties faded into the fifties, the Soviet Union perfected its version of the atom bomb, and the race was on. On both sides of the globe bigger and bigger explosions celebrated the destructive power of the atom as East and West competed in developing nuclear weapons.
John Kennedy bragged that America had enough bombs to wipe out the Soviet Union twice, while the Soviets had only half as many. Nikita Kruschev replied that killing us once would be enough.
It was the era some called the balance of terror. If you nuke us, we’ll nuke you. The threat of retaliation was our only security. The very existence of the human race on planet earth seemed to hang in the balance of an international game of chicken.
I remember many days, when driving back to Detroit from Lansing, feeling the icy grip of fear clutch at my heart as I would see in my mind’s eye an ominous mushroom cloud rising up on the horizon in front of me, signaling that the great city of Detroit and everyone I loved in the world had just been obliterated.
People lived in fear in those days. They dug bomb shelters in the backyard. School children practiced cowering under their desks at the sound of the emergency bell.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons and the dissolution of the Soviet Union have changed the mood. Our challenge is no longer eye ball to eye ball confrontation with a single nuclear rival.
In addition to the United States and Russia, Great Britain, France and China now have nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan and North Korea have also tested atomic bombs, and although they have not publicly confirmed it, Israel is known to have nuclear capability as well.
Retaliation has lost its appeal. If the world has learned anything from the centuries old Middle Eastern warfare between Arabs and Jews it is that retaliation begets retaliation. Blowing up your enemies doesn’t bring your loved ones back to life. It only creates and motivates more enemies.
Anyway, how can you retaliate against an anonymous terrorist attack? How can you retaliate against a suicide bomber? The frustration of 9-11 has been that America, the most powerful nation in the world, cannot extract an eye for an eye, cannot simply obliterate those responsible for the cowardly attack upon our homeland.
Al-Qaeda has no borders. Osama bin Laden has no throne, no castle, no city. President Bush determined to wage a war on terror. But a war on terror is not a real War. It is a slogan, like the war on drugs or the war on poverty.
The invasion of Iraq was excused as a preemptive strike. Saddam Hussein was thought to have weapons of mass destruction. So what? Do we invade every country that has weapons of mass destruction? France? China? Not hardly. No, let’s admit it; we invaded Iraq as a symbolic retaliation for 9-11.
And we went in there with no Congressional declaration of war, and no clear military objective. In the Second World War our objective was clear and simple: Unconditional Surrender. What was our objective in Iraq? Simply to oust Saddam Hussein and replace him with a kinder, friendlier potentate? Was it to force the Iraqi people to adopt a democratic constitution and elect new, more agreeable leaders? Or was it simply to colonize the place and establish an indefinite military presence there?
Didn’t we learn in Viet Nam that you cannot subjugate a hostile indigenous population? Has no one in Washington read about the 700 year troubles in Ireland?
In 2008 we elected a new President. Barack Obama made much of his opposition to the Iraq war, and he endeared himself to the young people who opposed the war, and to the liberals who believed that our commitment to the United Nations barred us from unilateral action against any nation.
Now, after almost a year in office, the President still has troops in Iraq, has increased our military commitment in Afghanistan, and is weighing a military surge against the Taliban and aggressive action in Iran.
Curiously, perhaps because he is their hero, the peaceniks have not taken to the streets to protest Obama’s wars.
I’m 80 years old. The United States has been at war for 31 of those years. I’m sick of it. I thought that when V-J day came and the Great War was over, and the United Nations was organized, we could begin to look forward to an era of peace.
Now we live in terror, not so much of invasion or of rockets fired by enemy nations as we are of a nuclear device being surreptitiously delivered to a major city in an eighteen wheel semi and set off by some suicide bent fanatics.
So what should or what can we do about it?
We can try to accommodate ourselves to life in a code red security envelope, though I can’t see Americans putting up with being stopped at every street corner and asked to show their picture ID.
Or we can just decide it’s a dangerous world and learn to live with it.
We can accept the fact that lightening strikes and rivers flood; that tornadoes and hurricanes, and earthquakes and tsunamis happen.
And that insane human conduct is as much a part of nature as any other disaster.
We’re all going to die. Somehow, some day. Alone or with others.
For some people that realization means eat drink and be merry. Suck up all the pleasure and have all the fun you can beg, borrow or steal. As a friend of mine once said, the one who has the most toys at the end, wins.
For myself, there is the vision of the Pearly Gates. As a guilt ridden Roman Catholic, I have been getting ready all my life.