This story came out a year or two ago, and for those who missed it, here’s a “rehash.” As we all know, James Blunt was a tank commander in the British army and his unit was deployed to Kosovo as part of the NATO mission there in 1999. As Serbian troops were withdrawing from Kosovo, NATO sought to occupy key positions in the country, including the airport in Pristina (which is the capital of Kosovo, and which Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize as a word). As the Serbian war effort fell apart, they called upon their Russian allies to assist them. The Russians already had a peace-keeping unit in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they transferred two hundred soldiers to Kosovo; these soldiers occupied the Pristina airport before NATO forces could do so. NATO forces, under the command of American General Wesley Clark (who ran for president in 2004, received an endorsement from Madonna, failed miserably, and now occasionally pops up to offer commentary on CNN), told the Russians to—in the modern parlance—GTFO. The Russians said NFW (no fucking way; that’s my own coinage). Wesley Clark decided that he wanted to drive the Russians out by force, and directed a unit of British and French soldiers, under the command of Captain James Blunt, to attack the Russians. James Blunt—that guy who sang “You’re Beautiful”—realizing that a NATO attack on Russian soldiers was a psychotically stupid decision and could easily spark World War III and a nuclear holocaust (my phrasing, not his), refused to carry out the order. Instead, he called up British General Mike Jackson and told him what Clarke had ordered his unit to do, and Jackson said something to the effect of, “Good call, chap, good call,” and ordered Blunt’s unit to encircle the airport rather than attacking it. A period of tense negotiations ensued, the end result of which was that NATO and the Russians were each given their own sections of Kosovo to “peace-keep” and we didn’t have World War III. So James Blunt saved the human race. That sure was thoughtful of him. So next time you hear “You’re Beautiful” and you’re about to come out with some snide and cutting joke at James Blunt’s expense, just remember that you owe him your life.
Now, this whole “avoiding-a-nuclear-war-thanks-to-James-Blunt” thing got me thinking about nuclear war. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I oppose nuclear war. Nuclear weapons in general, in fact. I am downright indignant about nuclear weapons. What a catastrophic failure of the imagination, on the part of Oppenheimer and his crew; did they not realize what nuclear weapons would mean for humanity? (Yes, I’m aware of Oppenheimer’s “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” shtick). Did they not realize that they were ushering in an era in which human civilization could be obliterated in a matter of seconds? And what that would do to people? That it might be rather upsetting?
India tested a long range intercontinental ballistic missile yesterday, so now they can fire nuclear weapons at Shanghai and Beijing. Manmohan Singh’s government isn’t saying that they’re going to do that, but they could. That’s the implicit message in the launch. I cannot conceive of a situation in which they would be justified in doing so.
But James, what if China launched a nuclear attack on India? A. Why would they do that? B. Even if they did—and it would be a great crime—an Indian counterattack with nuclear weapons would be just as criminal. Dead civilians are dead civilians regardless of their nationality. That’s why the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be forever unjustifiable; the same goes for the non-nuclear but still devastating bombing of German and Japanese cities.
But James, it was necessary to end the war!
And the Holocaust!
And Unit 731!
And the Holocaust!
And Unit 731!
Yes, please, tell that to the mothers of the incinerated children of Dresden and Hiroshima, tell that to the young women whose faces were mutilated with keloid scars, tell that to the old people whose hair was falling out, whose skin was falling off. Tell that to the young people who would live in fear for decades with the knowledge that leukemia could strike them down at any moment.
In John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, he recounts the anecdote of a woman who refused to part with the charred corpse of her dead infant. She could not be made to believe that it was dead. And whenever I hear someone defending the dropping of the atomic bomb, for political or strategic or even humanitarian reasons (“The Japanese wouldn’t have surrendered otherwise! Getting nuked was actually in their interests too!”), I always want to ask them, “Could you say that to the woman with the dead infant? Could you convince her?”
In W. G. Sebald’s essay Air War and Literature, he narrates a similarly affecting anecdote. Following the destruction of a German city (I don’t remember if it was Hamburg or Dresden) a flood of refugees arrive by train in a city that has been comparatively less damaged. A woman gets out of the train lugging a heavy suitcase behind her. She trips on the platform and drops the suitcase, which springs open to reveal—you guessed it—the charred corpse of her child. Again, could you justify this to her? Was the child guilty for the crimes of the Nazis? Was the child guilty for the Holocaust? Of course not. It’s a child; it was as innocent as Anne Frank, if I may put it provocatively.
Again, dead civilians are dead civilians. If your military response to an attack that killed (your) civilians is going to kill more civilians (albeit their civilians), then your response probably isn’t justified. You are killing civilians in response to the killing of civilians. Not only is that immoral, it’s illogical.
Now, as this is supposed to be primarily a film blog (“first and foremost,” I said) I want to offer a few cinematic examples of the effect of the existence of nuclear weapons on the human psyche.
There is Akira Kurosawa’s underrated 1954 drama I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being, in which Toshiro Mifune plays an aging industrialist who becomes so overwhelmingly afraid of nuclear war (and in a country that just nine years before had suffered a nuclear attack, this isn’t entirely irrational) that he wants to sell of his factory and uproot his family, resettling them in the Brazilian jungle, where he thinks they’d be safer in the event of WWIII. His family thinks he’s insane, and they go to court to try to get him declared incompetent so he won’t be able to mismanage their money. The subtitle is great: Record of a Living Being. Because this is not just a Japanese story, it’s a universal story about the reality inflicted upon us—all of humanity—by the architects of nuclear weaponry.
(Kurosawa would directly confront the legacy of the bombing of Nagasaki in his 1991 film Rhapsody in August. Apparently some American critics at the time were perplexed that Kurosawa, who depicted the atomic bombing in a negative light, didn’t understand why it was necessary).
Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 The Communicants (released in the US as Winter Light, but Nattvardsgästerna means The Communicants) is principally about a pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand) who has lost his faith in God, but it features a subplot in which Max von Sydow (maybe you saw him in Rush Hour 3) suffers a mental breakdown as a result of nuclear dread.
Peter Watkins’ 45 minute The War Game (1965), sometimes called a “mockumentary” but which could be more accurately described as a speculative documentary, seeks to depict realistically, through enactments, what would happen in the United Kingdom in the event of nuclear war. It shows devastated British cities, charred corpses, mutilated children, radiation sickness, the whole panoply of nuclear horror. The most effective aspect of the movie is that the narrator will sometimes describe something nightmarish (like a bucketful of wedding rings, which civil defense authorities will sift through to try to identify the disfigured corpses from which they came) and then tell us, “This really happened in [Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki].” The movie was originally made for the BBC, but they ended up not airing it because it was—and I’m paraphrasing—“disturbing as all fuck.” It won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 1966. I generally don’t put much stock in Oscars, but I’m surprised that a movie like this could win one, so I thought it worth noting.
I want to conclude with a comment on Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, 1985’s Bergmanesque The Sacrifice. In the film, an intellectual (played by Erland Josephson, who died just a few months ago) gathers his family and a few friends at his house on a Swedish island to celebrate his birthday. Midway through the gathering—wouldn’t you know it!—WWIII breaks out. There’s a scene where the revelers sit paralyzed before a flickering TV screen as someone from the local government explains the situation. He tells them that because their island hosts a military installation, they will likely be a prime target for nuclear attack. This government official, even in this moment of final catastrophe, takes the time to point out the irony of this. I paraphrase: “The rationale for having a military installation was that it would provide for our defense. We would be safer as a result of its presence here. But look: its presence will actually prove to be our undoing.”
The Sacrifice was originally supposed to be filmed on the Swedish island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman lived and where he had made a number of his films. But just like in the movie, it hosted a Swedish military installation, and it was off-limits to foreigners. This meant that Tarkovsky, a Soviet citizen at the time, was unable to film there, and the movie was made instead on the island of Gotland, which still conveys the Bergmanesque flavor of Fårö (austerely beautiful, bleak, cold, “island-y”).
I have digressed and meandered through this essay as it suited me. I said in a previous post that I didn’t have a central thesis, but here I did: nuclear weapons are an unjustifiable threat to all mankind and we should be indignant that they exist. With the end of the Cold War, we are somewhat less likely to get annihilated (in the US, anyway) but the James-Blunt-saves-the-world incident should be enough to remind us that the threat is still very real.
I’ll try to make my next post about something more cheerful.