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Every thinking person should watch Christopher Nolan's film Oppenheimer (2023). Tickets are expensive but they are cheaper than ignorance about the implications of our nuclear prowess.

The film is a disturbing narrative of the career of J. Robert Oppenheimer - the man who headed the U.S. Manhattan project which developed and detonated the first atomic bomb ‘’Trinity’ in 1945. Like Alfred Nobel who invented dynamite, Oppenheimer suffered postpartum qualms about the demon he spawned: 'Death - the Destroyer of Worlds'.

The atomic bombs dropped by the Americans first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki in August 1945 killed or permanently maimed 200,000 humans. They were followed between 1945 and 1980 by atmospheric nuclear tests conducted by various powerful countries across the globe. The impact of these has been the direct silent cause of cancer in about 2.4 million people.

In his film, Nolan spared his audience graphic images of the effect of the atom weapons on human beings – peeling flesh, blindness, loss of hair, leukemia, and incurable tumors. He avoided mention of the irreversible impact on the world’s atmosphere, contaminated water resources and genetic mutations.  

Nolan’s film concentrated instead on the political aftermath following the birth of Oppenheimer’s brainchild. Like Frankenstein’s unnatural monster, it destroyed its creator.

The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. – having fought as allies against Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy and Hirohito's Japan - turned on each other after the war ended in 1945. They entered an arms race that continues even today.  

Oppenheimer, as a member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, lobbied to minimise nuclear proliferation and advocated against an arms race with the Soviet Union. He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, alienating both the U.S. government and its military.

Dr. Oppenheimer’s security clearance was withdrawn and he found himself ostracised on the suspicion of being a closet communist. Eventually, in 2022, (55 years after his death), the U.S. government ‘ordered that the 1954 decision to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance be vacated’.

Had Oppenheimer been born in India, he would have been fêted like his scientific counterparts – the polymath Dr. Homi Bhabha, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, and Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam who became India’s 11th president.

Had Oppenheimer been a Pakistani, he would have shared the indignity suffered by the self-styled ‘father’ of our bomb, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan (a claim incidentally contested by his nemesis Dr. Munir Ahmad Khan). 

Since Oppenheimer’s time, many countries have amassed large nuclear arsenals, ostensibly to deter their enemies. None has been foolhardy enough to deploy them in actual combat. Neither the U.S., nor Russia, China, Israel, North Korea, India nor Pakistan. 

Prohibitively costly to produce, nuclear weapons are too dangerous ever to be used (even with a limited objective) without endangering the rest of humanity. Nuclear weapons have become the ultimate status symbol, like some gold-plated skeleton – a macabre talking point.

Earlier this year, Pakistan celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first nuclear tests. At a seminar organised by the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai (now advisor to National Command Authority) spoke on our nuclear doctrine options The NCA handles all policy matters concerning our nuclear weapons.

After discussing the ‘horizontal’ tri-services inventory of a variety of nuclear weapons … held on land with the Army Strategic Force Command, the ASFC; at sea with the Naval Strategic Force Command, the NSFC; and in the air with the Air Force Strategic Command, the AFSC’, he dilated on the ‘vertical’ aspect – the physical reach of our weaponry ranging from 0 meters to 2,750 kilometers’.

The former was construed as a hint that Pakistan could lay ‘nuclear land mines across the India-Pakistan border’ to deter Indian advances; the latter specified that the limit of 2,750 kilometers referred to the land-based surface-to-surface medium-range ballistic missile Shaheen-3 ‘with the stated aim to reach the Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar [in the far eastern Bay of Bengal], thereby denying New Delhi the strategic bases for a potential second-strike capability’.

Naive civilians ask whether either country has any strategy for escalation control, for civilian security, or for war termination. Their armed forces may survive long enough to unleash a second strike. Civilians will have but one choice: to be Hiroshima first or Nagasaki second.  

The 19th Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once said: ‘Three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty’.  A cynical observation, but one proven true by history. Take the invasions of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941, or the incursions into Afghanistan by Russia in 1979 and by the U.S.-led forces in 2001.

The fog of uncertainty cleared after those wars were over. Nuclear mushroom clouds, however, take centuries to clear.



[DAWN, 3 August 2023]

03 August 2023
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