I recently took part in ‘Barbenheimer’: the internet sensation of watching both Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s latest film about the children’s doll and Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s latest film about the father of the atomic bomb, back-to-back. I enjoyed both but ultimately preferred Barbie as Oppenheimer, at 180 minutes, was far too long for me — and Barbie was far more fun.

So What If The World Ends?

Reading reviews and interviews with Christopher Nolan afterwards — such as this one with The Telegraph — I became fascinated with the history of the atomic bomb. It occurred to me just how monumental an event that must have been; the largest single bomb ever dropped, and unleashing an entirely new force of nature. But it also occurred to me how normalised it has become that a handful of countries (nine, to be precise) have a stockpile of roughly 13,000 nuclear weapons. This is more than enough to end human life as we know it on Earth. In 1947 — the start of the Cold War — the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created a ‘Doomsday Clock’. This was essentially a metaphor to show how close we are at each moment to nuclear annihilation: the closer the clock is to midnight, the closer humanity is to its end. Currently, this clock stands at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever stood. It begs many questions. One is; How have we allowed it to get so close? Another; How can we get it to wind back? And, perhaps the most frightening; Why does this feel so normal?

The events shortly after ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki essentially created the situation we have today. Emperor Hirohito unconditionally surrendered as a result. His radio broadcast to the Japanese reveals a telling phrase: ‘The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable.’ The atomic bombs were a new and frightful force of nature. Shortly after, there was a concerted effort to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. The best-known and most coherent of these was the Baruch plan, put forward by the United States (primarily Bernard Baruch) to the Atomic Energy Commission at the time. The plan essentially proposed to share with other countries the information needed to make nuclear weapons, but only under the condition that they agree to certain controls and the elimination of all nuclear stockpiles. Baruch, when presenting his plan to the UN, made the ramifications of his report clear: ‘We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead’.

We’re All ‘MAD’ Here

There were other perspectives in the nuclear debate. At the time, some argued that the US should wage what was euphemistically termed a ‘preventative war.’ This meant giving the United States a free licence to bomb the USSR with nuclear weapons before the latter had time to develop its own.  This may now look like a heinous suggestion, but at the time, many in the West feared Communism and the rule of Stalin so the idea gained plenty of supporters — including the British philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell, who was rumoured to hold this view. By 1949, the notion of a ‘preventative war’ gave way to ‘mutually assured destruction’ and its apt acronym: ‘MAD.’

The Baruch plan failed. The Soviet Union developed its own nuclear weapons triggering the Cold War, the space race, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Wall. At their height in 1986, there were an estimated 70,000 nuclear weapons held by various countries around the globe. Currently, there are around 12,500 nuclear stockpiles worldwide and Russia holds the most at roughly 4,000. It’s unlikely, given the ongoing war in Ukraine and simmering tensions between China and Taiwan, that the number is going to decrease anytime soon. More importantly, most people have now grown up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. These weapons, the ‘Destroyer of Worlds’ as Oppenheimer memorably described them, have become frightfully familiar. The truth is that most of us cannot remember a world in which one country or one leader could not destroy the entire world at will.

This brings me back to the film, Oppenheimer. What concerned me most about it was its overt sexualisation of the bomb itself. In one particular scene, just before its detonation, Oppenheimer is shown caressing its metallic sides and it’s hard not to feel, well, power lust. Is it the unprecedented power the bomb brings that’s so sexy? This bomb, the object of our lust, should really be the subject of our disgust. Nuclear weapons have wrought nothing but anxiety and suffering — they are cruel, to use the emperor’s words. What’s more, they have not abolished war as Oppenheimer hoped.

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