Friday, August 8, 2008

Fat Man's Anniversary

Sixty-three years ago the city of Nagasaki, Japan entered the atomic age. 39,000 of Nagasaki’s citizens died in the Atomic bombing of that city. A few days earlier 66,000 citizens of Hiroshima were also killed by a nuclear device. The whimsical names of those two devices, “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” hid a monstrous truth: atomic scientist had weaponized the power of nuclear fission.

Ever since that day we have had to come to grips with some very grim realities. We had developed a way to literally vaporize our own species. Major cities could be flattened in the blink of an eye. Earlier in 1945 the city of Tokyo was laid waste by firebombing. With nuclear devices one plane could accomplish the job a squadron of bombers had done only a few months before. The American mania for efficiency had taken a very dark turn.

As in Tokyo, most of the victims died from burns.The lucky few were instantly vaporized. Most though died slow horrific deaths from 2nd and 3rd degree burns either directly from the bomb itself or from the numerous fires it started. In Nagasaki 95% of the deaths were caused by burns. Instead of focusing on how prosaic most of the deaths were we focus instead on the fatalities caused effects of radioactive fall-out. Even in Hiroshima the causes of death were what one would expect from a more “ordinary” bomb 60% of fatalities were caused by burns and 30% of fatalities were caused by falling debris.

Another factor that added to the carnage was the destruction of emergency services. General infrastructure also was decimated. Many died because the doctors and nurses who could have treated them perished in the initial blast. Hospitals, Fire stations and other public service facilities were either flattened by the blast or burned down to the ground in the ensuing fires. Transportation services were taken out of action reducing travel to walking. There was no way to transport the injured to treatment, next to no place to take the injured to in the first place and very few people who could treat the injured in the few facilities that remained.

We tend to forget what a nasty business the bombing of a civilian population is. We have watched too many Hollywood movies and been shown far too many sanitized DoD press releases and come to believe in the oxymoron of a “surgical strike.” Bombings always cause “collateral damage.” That means people get maimed and killed, people who had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nagasaki stands out in relief because it makes this point so painfully clear. The city of Nagasaki had only limited value as a military target. It was chosen mostly because it was an excellent way to show off the USA’s newest military hardware. It was chosen because Tokyo was already a smoldering wreck from earlier conventional bombing. The bombing was psychological warfare write large.

To this day there is scholarly debate on whether the atomic bombing actually did shorten the war. Conventional wisdom holds that Japan did surrender because of the nuclear attacks. Even then, it was a very near thing; elements of the Japanese military tried to foment a putsch and prevent the Emperor from making his surrender announcement. Many historians hold that it was the Soviet invasion of Manchuria that pushed the Japanese over the threshold. With the 20/20 vision that history provides, it can be argued that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary. It can be argued that atomic weapons should never have been used. What can not be argued is that nuclear devices were used. What can not be argued are the results of that use.

Today the USA alone has tens of thousands of devices much more powerful than Little Boy and Fat Man. In today’s arsenal those historical weapons would barely qualify for tactical use. Strategic nuclear weapons these days are much bigger in terms of explosive power (yield) and accuracy. Today the USA is no longer the sole owner of the technology either. The Russians, the Chinese, the French, the British, the Indians, the Pakistanis, and the North Koreans all have nuclear weapons. The Israelis are a little bit more demure about their ownership; they claim that they won’t “introduce” nukes to the area. Still this dodge fools absolutely no one. It especially does not calm the nerves of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In the food fight that had been the 2008 election no candidate has said much about these weapons. Hillary Clinton did have an idea to extend our nuclear umbrella to the Saudis which was interesting. At least she was trying to come up some kind of solution to a huge elephant in the room. The message got muddied by both her comments about Iran and her refusal to even acknowledge the facts on the ground- those 150 odd devices stamped “made in Israel.” Exactly what was accomplished by her threatening the Iranians over an effort they were no longer engaged in? Not that Barack Obama covered himself in glory over this item either. He seemed to be in competition with Hillary on who could pander to the Likudnicks better. Of course when it comes to Neo-Con viciousness against Iran no one can out testosterone John Sidney McCain III. Neither Hillary nor Barack was willing to put a military policy to Beach Boys music.

What is really unfortunate is that one of Obama’s strengths is his stand on Nuclear proliferation. Unlike George W. and his heir apparent McNasty he understands the threat of loose nukes. Instead of abrogating the non-proliferation treaty he would strengthen it. He would also stop the Republican’s Strangelove-like obsession toward even more types of nuclear weapons. Bush and Darth Cheney on the other hand ended the ABM treaty, tried to cut funding for securing loose nukes, botched the Clinton deal on North Korea which lead that country’s mischief, have funded the development of new “bunker buster” munitions and other tactical nuclear devices and done major damage to international institutions like the IAEA.

Not since Nikita Kruschev has a world leader been so careless and provocative with nuclear weapons. There is a reason Russian leader Vladimir Putin wants a repeat of the Cuban missile crisis. George W is putting a huge forward deployed ABM site right in his back yard. Shades of the old ICBMs stationed in Turkey. W’s excuse is that we need those missiles station there in case a “rouge nation” decides to attack Europe with nuclear weapons. Of course no Russian leader worth the name would believe such nonsense even after snorting up his nose whatever W is using these days. W’s defensive shield looks suspiciously like an offensive 1st strike weapon to the old KGB hand. Truthfully can one blame Putin? With W’s history, especially with Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, Putin has every right to default to paranoia.

The real question is why is not the American public as paranoid as Putin? On this day especially we should be alive to the consequence of nuclear weapons. We need to pull this subject out in to the light of reason. We need to talk seriously about it. We owe that much to those 105,000 people who died in Japan sixty-three years ago.

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