Nuclear Testing

Recently, The New York Times published a collection of mid-detonation photographs of a few of the 200 odd nuclear test bombs detonated by the United States military between 1945 and 1962. The explosions are not only awe-inspiring but also eerily beautiful.

There is something eerily familiar about the photographs. Once, my mother and I came home to find my older brother preparing to ignite a bottle rocket (to which four of my favorite Barbie dolls had been duct taped). My 35-year-old uncle was crouched behind the picnic table smiling maniacally behind a video camera.

Boys like to blow stuff up. All manner of “stuff”. Over his career as my obnoxious older brother, Bobby blew up Barbie dolls, army men, a feather pillow, a pile of leaves, and probably countless other victims that were more easily cleaned up by the time the women of the house got back home. I’m pretty sure he’s one of the reasons why ice cream trucks stopped selling fireworks.

One picture in the Atom Bomb slide show a bomb being detonated underwater, just before it obliterated the dozens of floating warships right next to it, a few pictures after that, they do it again. They also blow up a jeep, a house, and then a house with a fake plastic family, some fake plastic pigs, a bus and an air ship. In one picture, depicting a detonation 30 miles into the stratosphere, it seems like they’re trying to figure out how best to set the clouds on fire. By the time you get to the end of the reel, you can almost hear the maniacal giggling in the background.

I love my brother, and he is now a responsible corporate lawyer. But even now, several decades later, I would be a little nervous to hear that he had a job blowing up school buses on a megaton scale. And I’m sure that at least one sister of at least a few of the military officials had the same uncomfortable feeling.

And a bit of the unease was probably warranted. Mark Sugg, film producer at the World Security Institute who filmed some of the footage comments that the pictures “… have this very odd voice…You and I would be appalled that some hydrogen bomb vaporized a corner of what used to be paradise. But they’ve got a guy bragging about it.”

Once you get over your vicarious identification with just how cool it might be to have a job where you would get to blow up school buses on a megaton scale, you should probably take a little time out to be worried about the implications of these explosion happy teenagers (most military men) in charge of the really big explosives.

And if they didn’t blow up the bombs with little boy glee (surely you know what will happen to a jeep when you blow it up with an atomic bomb…certainly by the second jeep), they certainly blew them up with little boy carelessness. Most of the photographers died of radiation-related cancer despite the fact that its detrimental effects have been known to effect genetic structure and cause cancer since 1927 (when Joseph Muller won the Nobel Prize for his paper on the phenomenon), and certainly by 1945 after the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But they continued to detonate bombs and play around the blast site wearing just paper suits and respirators to protect themselves from dust.

We live with the reassuring myth that people in charge must necessarily know what they’re doing just by virtue of their being in charge. Anyone who’s ever had an incompetent boss knows that this is not necessarily true. Military men are people too; brothers who blow things up in the back yard and grow up to graduate to bigger yards.

My brother didn’t learn his explosives lesson until one crisp fall morning before school when he snuck out to the back yard and blew the tip of his pinky finger clean off. Perhaps, if he had had more supervision than his man-child uncle, a tragedy could have been avoided. I know that I might feel better knowing that the U.S. Military had a few civilians watching over them as they fiddle with their new toys and get itchy to test them out.

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