Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Unforgettable Fire

Sixty-four years ago today, the last wartime use of nuclear weapons took place - three days after the first.

At least, this is true in the sense of fusion or fission weapons used in time of war. Lots of other nuclear weapons have been detonated in "tests", many of which were primarily demonstrations of power, but these were never used as part of an actual shooting war. Depleted-uranium shells are radioactive, but their primary use is as a very dense, massive projectile. The radioactivity of depleted uranium shells will be an ongoing problem at least as deadly as the problems of unexploded land mines and other unexploded ordnance.

We have never seen nuclear weapons used in war since an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, three days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. We have come close, closer than anyone would like to realize. Nuclear weapons advanced from using fission to release energy through the breakdown of unstable elements to using much more powerful atomic fusion to merge hydrogen into helium, releasing vast quantities of energy as a side effect. More horrifying weapons were conceived and designed - Cobalt bombs, which could salt the entire biosphere with enough radioactive material for a long enough time to essentially wipe out all life on Earth; Neutron bombs, which would release a pulse of neutrons capable of killing vast numbers of people while doing only Hiroshima-sized damage; bombs that could fit in a suitcase, bombs that could pollute a relatively small, targeted area. Heck, a Boy Scout once built his own nuclear reactor using material from smoke detectors and luminescent clocks - effectively building a "dirty bomb" in his mother's garden shed.

I grew up during the Cold War. From my earliest childhood through relatively recent times, the greatest threat to the United States was - or was perceived to be - the use of tactical nuclear weapons by hostile powers, meaning the Soviet Union or China. Any day the birds could have been flying, and we as individuals wouldn't have been able to do very much about it but die.

Rightly or wrongly, that fear has faded. Many of the nuclear weapons are still out there, and not all of their whereabouts are known. I still believe that the long-range goal of the attacks on September 11, 2001 was to draw Pakistan as America's nominal ally into a conflict that would result in the destabilization and overthrow of the nation's secular government by forces more sympathetic to Al Qaeda's goal - an overthrow that would result in Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terroristic Muslim extremists.

That hasn't happened. Yet.

Nuclear weapons are still out there. They are still a threat, though the nature of that threat has changed. But I believe that the victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the people who died immediately and over the next few days and weeks and months and those who carried lingering effects for years, were martyrs whose deaths presented the world with the horrific consequences of the use of these terrible new weapons, martyrs whose deaths may have helped forestall the later use of nuclear weapons.

Remember them.

The title of U2's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire was a reference to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here is the video for the song of the same title. It's a non-embeddable video, so right-click the image to open the video in a new window or tab.

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