Releasing the Kraken

I was not alive seventy-two years ago this month, but my father was, serving as a B-29 bomber ground crew chief on Kwajalein when planes of the 509th bomb group passed through, en route to Tinian.

Unlike all other bombers, they were parked in a segregated corner of the field, serviced by their own mechanics, and guarded by their own armed sentries. Clearly something was up, and he along with the rest of the world discovered what a few days later when the atomic age bloomed into malign reality in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I did grow up in the enormous fallout of those epochal events, kneeling in darkened elementary school halls practicing for a Soviet hydrogen bomb many times more deadly than those that obliterated two Japanese cities in the blink of an eye. Since my midwestern industrial city was high on the list of Soviet targets, we children were not so foolish as to suppose we would survive by covering our heads.

We grew up with TV and movies incessantly showing mushroom clouds, documentary footage of incinerated cities and tests of atom blasts first blowing buildings, trees and lifeforms to smithereens and then igniting them by hellfire. Our Cub Scout troop took a field trip to the local Nike base to see the missiles that were supposed to shoot down the incoming nukes. Perhaps worst of all were the silent, unseen, unfelt lingering radiation that killed long after the fighting ended. The enemy within our own bodies.

We built plastic models of delivery systems, each more potent than the one before — long range bombers, long range ballistic missiles in silos under the prairie, and nuclear submarines, each armed with 14 to 24 missiles, each missile tipped with up to 14 individually targeted warheads yielding 475 kilotons of TNT compared to Hiroshima’s 18 kt.

Thus, one Ohio Class boomer cruising silent and undetected beneath the sea can drop destruction 25 times as great as the World War II bombs on up to 336 individual cities or military targets. The dead would be counted in the tens of millions, not to mention fallout poisoning the genes of survivors and of the earth, air, water and the plants and animals we depend on to survive. And then there’s the prospect of climate-changing nuclear winter, created by the amount of particulate matter injected into the atmosphere which could reduce sunlight, truncate growing seasons and decimate crop yields. Armageddon, indeed.

Sentient people of my generation watched as we came to the brink during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and essentially abandoned all hope of living our three score and ten. Surely we would all die in a bright millisecond when the forty-year-long Cold War turned terminally hot. Or, even worse, survive to experience what Nikita Khrushchev predicted, an aftermath where “the living will envy the dead.”

Yet, seventy-two years after Nagasaki, no further use of nuclear arms has taken place, perhaps because even implacable enemies like the Soviet Union and the United States, Iran and Israel, India and Pakistan understood in their bones that Khrushchev was right. And when China began to do business with the world and the Berlin Wall came down, we breathed a sign of relief after waiting for the end for forty years. Perhaps the balance of terror, mutually assured destruction had actually worked and the world had been scared straight by the atom.

Yet, here we are — approaching another brink and, unlike Khrushchev, neither Kim Jong Un nor Donald J. Trump seem to understand the kind of fire they are playing with. Kim is alleged to have about 20 missiles and four warheads of a yield half that of Hiroshima. We have about 4,670 warheads dozens of times more powerful. Whether Kim’s weapons could reach their targets and detonate is unclear.

We might also be able to shoot down some fraction of them. And clearly we would run out of targets in the small, densely populated country of North Korea long before we ran out of warheads. It would cease to be not just an adversary, but an entity, a viable habitat. A substantial percentage of its population of 25 million would pay the price for their reckless dictator.

Such an event would likely make us, not the extinct North Korean regime a pariah. It would be an ugly holocaust that would change the rules forever. This might be the first use of nuclear arms in 70 years, but would probably not be the last. Using nuclear arms would no longer be unthinkable. Rather than being deterred, other bad actors might be inclined to strike first, or to stack their nukes ever higher.

Trump, like Kim, seems to believe we’re playing a game of mine’s bigger than yours. Instead, the game may be scorpions in a bottle, but instead of the power merely to sting each other to death they have the power to kill millions and degrade the environment for billions.

It would be nice to conclude that cooler heads will prevail, but does either of these men listen to good advice? Likewise, it would be encouraging to suppose that stealth rather than brute force might be applied to encourage North Koreans who want to survive to eliminate their Dear Leader, or that advanced capabilities like electromagnetic pulse weapons or cyber-sabotage might render Kim’s nuclear threat impotent.

But, as John Webster said, “Death hath ten thousand several doors for men to take their exits.” As long as nuclear weapons exist in huge numbers in the hands of fallible humans like Kim Jong Un, Ayatollah Khamenei, Bibi Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Mamnoon Hussain, or Donald Trump what the nuclear scientist Leo Szilard said in 1942 holds true.

Szilard formulated the idea of a chain reaction which would make nuclear energy and weapons possible and was part of the team that devised a pile at the University of Chicago‘s Stagg Field. It produced the world’s first controlled nuclear reaction. This successful experiment served as proof of concept that such weapons could be built.

Szilard said of this historic event, “We turned the switch, saw the flashes, watched for ten minutes, then switched everything off and went home. That night I knew the world was headed for sorrow.” He was right then, and he’s still right today.

Summer Fun — Or Not

Man does not live by Trump alone, so here’s a reap of some of my recent attempts to remember that there’s a lot more to life than incompetent politics, ire and fake drama. Real drama, for instance.

First, the bad news. Some reviewers thought “Beatriz at Dinner” was worth a look. They were wrong. Salma Hayak stars s a Mexican immigrant turned California faith-healing masseuse whose car breaks down at a wealthy client’s mansion.

She is invited to dinner, much to her plutocratic husband’s dismay because the guest of honor is a billionaire real estate developer and he doesn’t want an alien bacillus infecting the proceedings. Which she promptly does.

Mr. Big, played with likable, amoral verve by John Lithgow is an endangered-species shooting, employee exploiting, nature despoiling nightmare to the new age Hayak who tells him so. Alas, the potential for an actual debate or dramatic conflict is squandered by a script that is painted in stark black and white and an implausible ending that manages to make the villain look less unhinged than the heroine.

“Dunkirk” has won raves which sucked me into wasting the price of admission. I should have been forewarned since the critical community seems to believe director Christopher Nolan can do no wrong. By contrast, I have always thought he makes rather heartless, too-clever-by-half movies that are more mathematical puzzles to solve than dramas to be felt. His Dark Knight Batman trilogy was dark but endurable, but “Inception,” “Interstellar,” “Memento” and others seemed more about him showing off than us being moved.

In “Dunkirk,” Nolan tackles the story of the miraculous escape of a third of a million ill-prepared troops about to be pushed into the sea by a superior Nazi war machine. They were saved, of course, by the knick of time arrival of an armada of small ships that snatched them off the beach.

Nolan has tried to do justice to the scope of the operation by following a few soldiers on the ground, one fighter pilot in the air and one small, private boat at sea. Unfortunately, this makes the story rather diffuse, and it is also marred by Nolan’s habitual and unnecessary messing with chronology.

Worse, almost to a man, the soldiers are portrayed as weak, timorous, defeatist, corrupt and unreliable. The only heroes are Tom Hardy as the pilot, hidden behind an oxygen mask for the entire picture, and the matchless Mark Rylance as the small boat skipper, but they are only on stage fleetingly. As usual wth Nolan, I was unmoved.

At the other extreme, a film with a lot of heart that deserves its fine reviews is the endearing autobiographical comedy “The Big Sick” starring Kumail Nanjani and co-written by he and his wife, Emily Gordon, whose story it tells.

He is a Pakistani-American stand-up comic whose parents are intent on arranging a marriage wth a nice Muslim girl. They keep having pre-vetted candidates drop in at family dinners. He is uninterested and instead falls for Emily, a nice American girl (Zoe Kazan), who dumps hm when she discovers he has flinched from declaring his feelings to his parents or shutting down their matchmaking bazaar.

The big sick of the title is a mysterious virus that first puts her into the hospital and next into an induced coma. He is at the hospital when her parents arrive (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) who know all about their relationship and initially view him as worse for their daughter than the disease she has contracted.

But he joins their vigil, misery loves company, and by the time she awakens all is forgiven. Except by her. She has been unconscious to witness his steadfastness. Cleverly plotted and nicely performed, “The Big Sick” is a welcome relief from the summer glut of superheroes and exploding ordnance.

I also recently saw the latest National Theater Live presentation, this one of “Twelfth Night” which I recommend if it comes around again. It stars a show-stealing Tamsin Greig as a female Malvolio who falls in love with the Countess Olivia that she serves.

National Theater’s live streaming to movie palaces around the world of some of Britain’s best stage productions is a treasure. Broadway should do the same, and we should be able to watch these and many other cultural goodies on a pay-per-view basis in our own homes. Surely, this is the future.

Until then, the next show coming to a theater near me is on Sunday the 13th, a 50th Anniversary production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the play that made him famous. This version stars Daniel Radcliffe. For a list of coming attractions and a theater near you, check out ntlive.nationaltheatre.org/uk.

Finally, the doldrums of summer TV are mitigated by the final season of “Orphan Black” on BBC America, one of he best series ever contrived with an astonishing tour de force performance by Tatiana Maslany playing 12 different cloned siblings who answer once and for all the Nature vs. Nurture question.

The new version of “The Last Tycoon” on Amazon isn’t perfect, but it has a workmanlike cast and cashes in on the glittering mystique of Golden Age Hollywood in the late 1930s. Like Fitzgerald himself, the show fails to make the ingenue role of Cecelia Brady anything but annoying, in the immortal words of Oscar Hammerstein’s Soliloquy for “Carousel,” “a skinny lipped virgin wth blood like water.” And since F. Scott died before finishing the book, we shall have to see how the screenwriters decide it should end.

“Will” is a dramatization of Shakespeare’s life which tries to have it both ways. It takes full advantage of gaps and ambiguities in the historical record ti embroider. Some of its suppositions, such as a secret adherence to the ousted Catholic faith by the Shakespeare and Arden clans, are at last plausible. Others are wildly fanciful, and some completely anachronistic, such as the presence of female actors on stage, one of whom is actually portrayed as Shakespeare’s writing coach and collaborator. There’s also a pandering attempt to appeal to post modern sensibilities with a pop chart musical score and a rock and roll Christopher Marlowe who is played as if the actor were trying to channel Russell Brand. But if you check your knowledge of history at the door, “Will” can be an amusing fantasia on the Elizabethan stage.

Commander Queeg

Aging fanboys who yearn to hang out with professional athletes are sometimes known by the unflattering term of “jock sniffers.” President Trump would have to be described as a brass rubber. As his appointments have shown, he can’t resist military men.

There was the ill-fated choice of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at NSC. Gen. James Mattis at Defense, which is supposed to be a civilian job, had to get a waiver for not having been retired for the necessary seven years.

Trump also had Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security until moving him to chief of staff. There’s Adm. Mike Rogers at NSA and Gen. H.R. McMaster at NSC. There are surely several more I’m overlooking.

Retired or active duty generals and admirals serving in the White House or in executive branch positions is hardly unprecedented. We have elected several generals president, of course. And one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, Gen. George Marshall, served as both Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State after being “the organizer of victory” in World War II, according to no less an eyewitness than Winston Churchill.

There have been lots of brass in charge of various parts of the defense and security apparatus of the county, especially the National Security Council and the eavesdropping cyberspooks at NSA, which makes sense. They have included Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Gen. Michael Hayden, Gen. Jim Jones and Gen. Colin Powell. Powell, of course, went on to become Secretary of State. And Gen. Al Haig was chief of staff for Nixon before also serving as Secretary of State for Reagan.

Some of these men were great public servants, others less so. Most were hired for their security or geopolitical expertise, for their discipline and dedication to service. That’s fine, but is there a downside to having military men in governmental positions of great consequence?

When a president is weak, embattled, or nefarious, perhaps. It is widely believed that Al Haig was, in fact, the acting president as Nixon became more isolated and erratic the closer the Watergate denouement approached. Haig is credited with helping to keep the train on the rails which was necessary. But Haig may also have been an enabler. He apparently advised the president to destroy the incriminating tapes, for example.

Military officers are schooled to respect the chain of command without question, to salute those above them and say, yessir. They do not answer to voters or constituents. That may not make them the ideal people to be at a president’s elbow when he starts issuing illegal or lunatic commands.

It is not far-fetched to suppose that it is just this kind of unswerving, unquestioning loyalty that appeals to Trump, a man who sees enemies everywhere, believes in alternative realities, and can’t bear to be questioned or contradicted.

The case of Colin Powell is instructive. When the White House of George W. Bush needed someone to make the case for the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Powell was sent out to vouch for a narrative concocted using questionable evidence produced by George Tenet’s CIA acting under immense pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney and his acolytes .

As we all know to our sorrow, the connection of Islamic terrorists to secular tyrant Saddam Hussein was fanciful, and the WMD that provided the casus belli did not exist. The good soldier, Powell, saluted and did his duty. He lent his sterling reputation to this faulty case, but he wound up tarnishing himself and enabling the Bush administration to commit a colossal historical blunder whose price we are still paying.

Have Mattis, Kelly, McMaster and the rest of Trump’s brass taken this lesson to heart? When Commander-In-Chief Queeg sets off on a witch hunt to find the missing strawberries, will they salute smartly and say yessir? Or do their duty to follow the law and not the man, despite the chain of command?