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Reflections in anticipation of Oppenheimer, the movie

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is probably a good film, but there are issues ex ante that may be discussed – even if they draw from ‘dead ideologies’.

There is probably no greater division of sensibilities and loyalties than that which divides opinion on the role of Western Europe and North America in world affairs since the end of World War 2. Related, here for the sake of argument, is the division over science; some people believe it is value-free in application, others believe it is open to manipulation and may insist that the way it is applied by the West is necessarily (always) good. They will admit that there is a traffic light somewhere in Idaho that is dysfunctional, but the USA is always, everywhere, the honest broker, and necessarily good for the world. Questioning that, as mentioned previously in this space, can be career-limiting…

We’ll get to the film Oppenheimer, the science and the politics of nuclear weapons, below.

One has to only skim news reports, commentary, and what passes for “objectivity” or “realism”, to get a sense of how subtly and insidiously ideological solidarity with Washington is spread. Of course, any attempts to contest this blind faith and complete obeisance is dismissed as misinformed, misguided and/or guided by “dead ideologies”. It is almost as if only “realists”, “rationalists” and inheritors of the European Enlightenment have had an education that is worth anything, and everyone who disagrees is, well, wrong and hates the West, progress and 57 Varieties… You don’t have to be a post-colonial theorist to agree that the European Enlightenment and putative Eurocentrism needs to be placed under scrutiny.

The ideological solidarity with the West (the Atlantic Community, more broadly placed) is significantly influenced by the intellectually embarrassing “end of ideology” trope that was pushed out by Francis Fukuyama at the end of the Cold War. It is worth reminding ourselves of the main argument Fukuyama put forward: the end of the Cold War marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. (My emphasis.) 

In other words, human beings have no need, or there is no room for further intellectual “evolution” because liberal democracy signals the “final form” of human government. One of the outcomes of this certainty is that nobody is meant to look behind the screens at who, and why, the puppets are manipulated to tell the stories that they do. While Fukuyama has expressed “exhaustion” of having to discuss his original thesis over and again, he remains a firm favourite with the right-wing and among lazy liberals. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Fukuyama received favourable responses from some Marxists, who acknowledge the way that liberal capitalism nestled and settled everywhere. It’s like when you acknowledge something, but differ on whether it is good or bad. Or, we accept that the USA built and maintained the post-war liberal international economic order, but we cannot decide whether it has been good or bad, or we get mangled up in economics-logic and, by extension, by material gains, never mind the human cost.

But the end of the ideology thesis was the “beginning of nonsense”. The hogs of end-point ideology would probably frown at the fact that it was Strobe Talbott, a darling of the liberal establishment in the USA and former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (at the time when Nato bombed the former Yugoslavia) who described this “nonsense”, adding the following: “In one melancholy respect, there is nothing new in Fukuyama’s pernicious nonsense. In the bad old days of Stalin and Brezhnev, too many Americans were preoccupied with the threat of Communism to attend adequately to Third World problems (overpopulation, underdevelopment, sectarian strife), as well as First World blights such as drugs and homelessness.” 

For what it’s worth, Fukuyama’s thesis was not entirely new. It was simply a reorganisation of previous discussions (in the 1950s) about capitalist and communist convergence…

What has all this to do with Oppenheimer the film? A lot. I have not seen the film. This is not a review. It is simply among the ideas that go through my head in anticipation of the film. It may well be a good film. Christopher Nolan is a good filmmaker (not in the league of Tarkovsky, Bergman, Ray or Kurosawa, among others) and the film has a stellar cast. There are, nevertheless, issues ex ante that may be discussed. Unless, of course, the reader thinks that there are no contending ideas at the end of ideology, that it is perfectly acceptable for a country that has previously used a weapon of mass destruction, invaded or occupied countries, dropped bombs and created human and ecological disasters (in the former Yugoslavia) to retain the privilege of having a nuclear arsenal, and that anyone who disagrees does so on the basis of a dead ideology.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The science and politics of the bombs

The scientific achievements of the Manhattan Project, the research projected that birthed the nuclear bombs are well known, and widely acknowledged as epochal. The technical details are available from reliable sources. See here and here. The Manhattan Project marked the start of the nuclear age, and was one of the highlights of physics in the past century. It is impossible to overstate its significance. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers in physics worked on the project. The project was led by the military, under the supervision of General Leslie Groves, with the scientific community represented by Robert Oppenheimer, a pre-eminent theoretical physicist from the University of California, Berkeley.

My favourite physicist, Richard Feynman, joined the Manhattan Project as a twentysomething, and never made any bold statements about the ethics of the bomb. Like most scientists who joined the project, he wanted to be ahead of the Nazis in developing a nuclear weapon. He was motivated by politics. Science was what built the weapon, but it was politics that brought the scientists together. In his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he remained ambiguous about the deadly destruction wrought by the work of the scientists, and expressed satisfaction only that nuclear weapons had been unused or “useless” in the decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That, anyway, was what I learnt from reading the book twice. 

My personal position may be associated with pacifism, one of those “dead ideologies”. The stand-out example of pacifism during the first half of the past century was Albert Einstein, who expressed regret over signing the letter to US President Franklin Roosevelt that led to creation of the atomic bomb. Einstein would continue his pacifism and opposition to nuclear weapons during the arms race during the Cold War. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto (Bertrand Russell was a signatory) was released after Einstein’s death in 1955, warning the public about the dangers of a nuclear arms race. I can’t imagine Washington’s triumphalists and their lickspittles endorsing the pacifism inherent in the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. Their anti-ideology is tightly imbricated with the West’s “necessary” and “justified” wars on the others of Brussels, Washington and Whitehall.

It was, of course, not only outright pacifists who opposed the bombs. Defenders of the realm have no compunction about killing people so their ideologies may thrive. The former president and Commander in Chief of the US armed forces in Europe Dwight Eisenhower, was fierce in his criticism of deploying atomic weapons against Japanese people. When US Secretary of War Henry Stimson told Eisenhower that they were going to drop atomic bombs on Japanese people, Eisenhower expressed “a feeling of depression” and had serious misgivings. Eisenhower believed, as did many people at the time and afterwards, that Japan “was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary”. It did not matter. People with access to power and powerful weapons have desperate intentions only to use them. Former US secretaries of state Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright reminded us of that.

Where does all of this lead? Well, by prevailing standards, Oppenheimer will probably win one or more Oscars. It will probably cause a lump in the throats of Washington’s praise singers. It has already been described as a “masterpiece” by the BBC. It probably is.

Parenthetically, I watched Maverick a few months ago and was thoroughly convinced that it was the most sophisticated propaganda for American military dominance and male machismo. Endorsed and assisted by the military and intelligence community in Washington, it is probably unreasonable to expect criticism of that country’s military adventurism. Maverick is in the same band, though a much better production, as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Nolan’s Oppenheimer will undoubtedly leave audiences feeling deep senses of pride, joy, triumphalism and (hopefully) regret. The best thing I can say about the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to paraphrase Albert Camus, who said of the slaughter, “technological civilization has just reached its final level of savagery”. 

The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima was as unnecessary as the firebombing of Dresden. After the firebombs burnt everything in Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut reminded us, in Slaughterhouse-Five, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre”. Later in life, Vonnegut remarked wryly: 

“The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book [Slaughterhouse-Five] which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is… One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”

It would be disingenuous to ignore Oppenheimer’s deeply felt regret, nor the fact that the Atomic Energy Commission had stripped him of his security clearance in 1954 because he was a leftist, and associated with communists. When the “father” of the bomb watched the first detonation of a nuclear bomb on 16 July 1945, he reportedly invoked a remorseful passage from the Bhagavad Gita – the holiest of Hindu scriptures written in the last millennium Before the Common Era. 

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” were the words that flowed under Oppenheimer’s breath. 

His apparent remorse increased over the years after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. He died in 1967. The New York Times reported him having said, “We knew the world would not be the same …  A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.” (He sounded remarkably like Vonnegut about the devastation of Dresden, as cited above.)

Oppenheimer was not a one-dimensional person. Between the scientific achievement and his personal moral dilemma stands the issue of science, and the use or application of science. Once scientific and technological achievements leave the drawing board or laboratory, they can and usually are used for nefarious purposes. Or, in the case of nuclear technology, for medical science

I come back, here, to a trick question I often asked first-year students of Political Economy, of War Strategy and Intelligence and of International Politics. I will rephrase it, here, as a statement. We made significant scientific and technological progress in warfare between the late 19th and mid-20th century, but it’s difficult to make the argument that we made moral progress. All we have done, in this context, is increase the efficiency of killing people. 

Oppenheimer will make a killing at the box office. I certainly hope it will have people sit up and think of the futility of war, and of dropping bombs on people (from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Dresden and Novi Sad, from the safety of your cockpit or with a joystick at Norad (the North American Aerospace Defense Command). Removing warriors from the battlefield was “perfected”, as it were, when Nato decided to bomb the former Yugoslavia at the end of the last century. DM

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  • Robert Pegg says:

    The author seems to ignore the reasons that led to some actions in the second world war. The Nazi regime in Germany were systematically murdering millions of Jews and other opponents. Drastic steps were necessary to stop the war as all other attempts had failed. As for Japan, their military were brutal towards prisoners of war and did not abide by the Geneva Convention. They swore to fight to the end regardless of how many people died. These were governments voted in by the masses of their people. If the author had a father who died int the second world war fighting these regimes who wanted to take over the world, he may have a different opinion. People who vote governments in power get what they deserve, as is happening in SA the last 30 years.

  • Andre Parker says:

    Once again, we’ll said sir!

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    If you enjoyed ‘Enigma’ (Alan Turing) and/or ‘A Beautiful Mind’ (John Nash), you will probably enjoy ‘Oppenheimer’. It’s a story about a person – if you just want to see special effects and stuff blow up, then you can give this a skip. It should play well with academics, intellectuals and fundis; it is quite sophisticated and convoluted, especially given Nolan’s predilection for no-linear storytelling. Ultimately, it’s all about J Robert Oppenheimer, the person, as an ‘American Prometheus’ – (Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, gave it to mankind, and was consequently tortured for eternity, ne?)

  • Alan Hirsch says:

    I agree with you on Maverick–it was a mindless endorsement of the right of the US to intervene in a nameless central Asian country for obscure reasons. Though the flying sequences were seat-grabbingly thrilling. Though I haven’t seen it yet, either (it seems to be sold out in my neighbourhood for the weekend) I don’t think it will please Washington’s praise singers too much. Dunkirk, Nolan’s last WWII movie, was about the bravery of some men in the face of the savagery of war, a turkey-shoot on the beach and along the mole. This one, I understand, is about the agony of a man who knew how much damage he had done, and tried to unravel it.

  • Willem Annandale says:

    A competent karateka is better equiped to prevent violence or abuse of self and others than a nerd. I am a pacifist in the sense that I’m against being the aggressor. However, when my home is invaded by thugs, or when my loved ones, my country or my beliefs are threatened by evil forces, I see pacifism as potentially weak and benefitting only the perpetrators. A great deal of wisdom and integrity is however required not to overreact, blindly retalliate and thereby escalate the violence, or to abuse your power and lie about your motives. If a criminally inclined individual or government knows I am a pacifist I believe they will take advantage of that, whereas they may be demotivated and deterred if they are aware of my/our willingness and competency to fight.

    • Beverley Roos-Muller says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful article, once again interesting to read. It made me recall the firebombing of Japan ordered by America at the end of WWII, which was completely unnecessary and utterly catastrophic – the flimsy houses were no match for fire, and neither were their inhabitants – not as flashy as the nuclear bombs dropped on the country, but even more deadly in terms of deaths. It’s not about ‘to use the nuclear bomb or not’, though that is an important debate. Humans could use the development of new and more inclusive social contracts in order to quench the killings too often justified on ideological grounds but in fact, really only
      about grasping power. Beverley Roos-Muller

  • Lesley Young says:

    Again, my favourite saying by Einstein, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and man’s stupidity. And I’m not sure about the former. “

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