Archives for posts with tag: nuclear war

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Starring

Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove

George C. Scott as General “Buck” Turgidson

Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong

Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper

I did not see this as a Sunday night ABC Movie of the Week. This had to be a Friday night movie, starting at 11:30 or 12:00. I watched it by myself. It is a black and white movie, but I was well used to that. Almost all the horror movies of my youth were the black and white movies of Universal, or American… Besides, the first television I remember was a black and white set, which made the Wizard of Oz only a little less magical.

Why does this movie make it onto a list of movies about love? There is only one woman in the cast, Tracy Reed as General Turgidon’s “secretary,” and her part reveals more about the men than it does her. And at the end of the film, Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again” over a montage of hydrogen bomb explosions. What I didn’t know when I first saw this movie was that “We’ll Meet Again” was a soldier’s anthem in World War II; it marked the hope for those (don’t know where, don’t know when) sunny days. To me it was just dark irony.

I grew up in the company of boys. I had two younger brothers. I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Almost all my playmates were boys. We played “tank” on the school playground, draping our arms over each other’s shoulders and marching pointedly across the field. I went to an all boys private boarding school from 9th-12th grade. Boys playing at being men was what I knew.

Already, by my teenage years, I could see the pitfalls. I was aware of the passionate intensity that could overwhelm sensibility—just as Buck Turgidson demonstrates the the guile of a B-52 pilot screaming over the countryside to deliver his payload. I had experienced the misbegotten “fairness” doctrine—just as President Muffley tries to be fair with his Russian counterpart over the hotline. I had witnessed the driven madness of conspiracy that illuminates General Ripper, and the dedication to duty that Colonel Guano defends. Dr. Strangelove’s and Major Kong’s maniacal genius and drive was often held out as a, more sanely but only just barely, goal. Only Mandrake’s befuddled competence stands out as a lone vision of something like sanity—and he is a stranger in a strange land.

Where is the place for love—strange or otherwise—in a world that totters toward Armageddon? Romantic love is the counterpoint to the well-meaning incompetence, or belligerent dedication of the world of men. Without it: self-destruction.

Thoreau wrote in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In the late sixties and through the seventies, I didn’t know Thoreau at all, but I was naggingly aware of another desperation: one borne of the recent history of perpetual war and nuclear weapons. Those bombs waited like an exclamation point at the end of every thought about war, from World War Two, through Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then the Vietnam War. I often wondered who the men who bore responsibility for the weapons were, and if they were anything like the all too human men in my life. There came a point—it had passed to my way of thinking—when our weapons outstripped our ability to know how to use them. Desperation—existential anxiety—was a low thrum beneath all the humor, all the politics, and all the intensity of my teen age years.

And love? Could love stand against destruction? Imagine that. Only some equally powerful, equally misbegotten, equally passionate, dedicated, driven, and genius form of love, which is to say a love that was truly strange. How long would I try to fly that banner? Years.

I had that dream again.

I grew up at a time when nuclear annihilation was more imminently possible.  It was an ongoing theme of movies, television shows, and books. My favorite movie Dr. Strangelove is, at its heart, a move about nuclear annihilation caused by a series of preposterous missteps. The main gist of Strangelove, or Fail Safe, or On the Beach, or The Planet of the Apes was not just how easily self-inflicted catastrophe could occur—there was no complex multi-layered process that led to disaster, because what’s more important in an emergency: expedience or caution? expedience and doom always win the battle—but how ill-conceived the consequences of nuclear war were, how little those in power understood the horror they could unleash.

That was the background noise of my childhood. My parents insulated me from the tumult of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the spirit of protest in the late 1960’s (news did not become a facet of our conversations until we reached late adolescence); and yet the horror of nuclear war was omnipresent. It permeated my dreams.

I dreamed of fireballs and explosions, desolate plains and skeletal cities. I was incinerated, eviscerated, desiccated, mutilated. I knew early on that “If you die in your sleep, then you die in real life,” was a lie. I died. Lots. What began as nightmares turned into storyscapes—choose your own post-apocalyptic adventures of the subconscious.  My journeys through strange charred landscapes became a nightly feature of my dreams. As I grew older and the threat of Nuclear War lessened, my dreamscape spread to other, less spare territory. My dreams flowered and matured until they included quantum physics, white rabbits, and characters that would inhabit my writing.

Two nights ago I dreamed that my daughter and I were outside when an ICBM was launched. It was launched from a silo in our city. It rose into the sky. I don’t know why I felt this way, but in the dream I knew that it was not intended for any target. I knew it was meant to explode in the air above us. I turned away, but my daughter could not help but watch. The blast seared the sky, it turned the blue cloudless sky into the white hot center of the sun. I knew she would be blinded. I knew the radiation would turn her skin—she wore an open backed dress—to a mass of burns. I knew we were all going to die, if not immediately, then soon from the awful lingering effects of the blast.

We walked into a destroyed structure. We walked through dust that washed over our shoes. Another man was in the structure. All our shoes began to disintegrate; the radioactive detritus eroded the leather of our shoes almost instantly.

I could not conceive why the bomb was detonated over the city. Why would our generals, our president, decide to destroy a part of our country?

I had that dream again.

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