June 17, 2002
How prophecy sometimes turns in a circle and comes true in unexpected forms.
At the test of the first nuclear 'device' (not bomb; they were very careful not to call it a bomb at the time) in Nevada, one of the fathers of the atomic weapon, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, was heard to murmur eight words: "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds."
Words from a Hindu holy text, describing Shiva the Destroyer.
In the first real test of the device, in a city called Hiroshima whose name echoes down the years as a testament to the extent of human arrogance and lust for power, those words were amply borne out. But it is now, fifty years down the pike, that Shiva has come home again. Two quarrelsome nations, both rattling their nuclear armouries, neither keen to be observed to have taken the first step back and thus (theoretically) yielded to its rival, are squaring off on the Indian subcontinent, for what might be the first nuclear holocaust since Hiroshima.
Indian writer Arundhati Roy, winner of international literary awards and outspoken activist on issues which should be important in this world (but are too often swept under the carpet), is asked by panicked and/or curious Westerners, fleeing from Delhi or arriving there for ringside seats at the circus, why she is staying. Why hasn't she left the city? Isn't Delhi a prime target if a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan becomes a reality?
Her poignant reply, in an essay entitled "War Talk: Summer Games With Nuclear Bombs," is "But where should we go?"
And who will we be, all of us, all of humanity, if all that has wrought us is vaporized into dust and ashes?
This is what the powers that be are apparently incapable of understanding. There is nowhere to run to in a nuclear exchange. When one party does not have the wherewithal to strike back, as was the case in Japan in World War II when America lobbed Fat Boy at Hiroshima, it's merely mass murder. When the other party does have the ability for a return strike, it becomes a murder-suicide pact. In a nuclear aftermath, especially in the aftermath of modern nukes -- so much more powerful and deadly than the ones used fifty years ago, which now seem relatively innocuous in comparison -- there is no traditional "rebuilding." Cities are not merely bombed into rubble, they are incinerated. Neighborhoods that sheltered generations of kids, trees, crops, soil, the very rocks on which the civilisation stands become contaminated and inimical to human life. There will be no returning to Delhi to sift the rubble for bodies or lost possessions if a nuclear 'device' is ever detonated there.
This is the same mentality that refuses to understand the word "extinct" when it is applied to some ill-fated animal or plant species which happened to get in the human beings' way. Extinct means gone, vanished, disappeared, lost for evermore. Every one of those lost species is a wound to the ecosystem, to the planet. Arundhati Roy addresses this subject too -- "...My husband's writing a book on trees. He has a section on how figs are pollinated. Each fig only by its own specialized fig wasp. There are nearly a thousand different species of fig wasps, each a precise, exquisite, synchrony, the product of millions of years of evolution. All the fig wasps will be nuked. Zzzz. Ash. And my husband. And his book."
A fig wasp, whole serried ranks of fig wasps, seem to be a ridiculous thing to worry about, the last thing that should be on anyone's mind right now -- not when millions of people (some estimates have put it as high as 12 million) are at risk from this insane confrontation. But without fig wasps, no pollination of fig flowers. Without pollination, no figs. Without figs, no fig seeds. Without fig seeds, no more fig trees. No more. Not ever. Not EVER. This is a hard concept to get one's mind around. If no figs today, then no apples tomorrow, no corn, no wheat, no rice.
Kill a fig-pollinating wasp, and court global famine down the line. It's the old story about a butterfly batting its wings and a hurricane blowing up somewhere across the globe. It is no longer just your country or my country or my-land-your-land squabbles. If you have to quarrel about dirt, send your young men in their multitudes and let them whack at each other and attack and defend and die -- it will be their deaths, their land, their dirt.
Nuclear war affects the wasps, the worms, the butterflies... the hurricanes... and me.
"It's not just the one million soldiers on the border who are living on hair-trigger alert. It's all of us," Arundhati Roy writes. "That's what nuclear bombs do. Whether they're used or not, they violate everything that is humane. They alter the meaning of life itself. Why do we tolerate them? Why do we tolerate these men who use nuclear weapons to blackmail the entire human race?"
This toleration hides a deeper and darker secret. The science behind the nuclear weaponry, the missiles now brooding on the borders of India and Pakistan, they were not homegrown. Neither was the rest of the martial array with which the two countries are now keeping each other at bay. These things were sold to India and Pakistan, by the very Western nations whose biggest businesses rely on wars for their livelihood. Britain, the one-time Imperial Power of the subcontinent, has been busily arming both India and Pakistan in recent times; a recent goodwill trip by Prime Minister Tony Blair included a billion-pound deal concerning the sale of a number of Hawk fighter-bomber aircraft to India. For India's teeming millions, who spend every moment of their lives fighting to a greater or lesser extent for edible food, clean water, a shelter against the elements -- first survival, and then simple human dignity -- the price of a single one of those fighter aircraft would have meant access to clean drinking water. For life.
But war is a much more lucrative game to play. And the ignorance in which struggles for bare survival leaves the poor and the downtrodden means that the government has a mass of people whose basest instincts are easy to stir, and who thus shout their approval of the war to the skies without having the faintest idea what a nuclear war would actually mean.
Roy describes it graphically: "Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fireball. The dead bodies choking the river. The living stripped of skin and hair. The singed, bald children, still alive, their clothes burned into their bodies. The thick, black, toxic water. The scorched, burning air. The cancers, implanted genetically, a malignant letter to the unborn. We remember especially the man who just melted into the steps of a building. We imagine ourselves like that. As stains on staircases. I imagine future generations of hushed schoolchildren pointing at my stain...that was a writer. Not She or He. That."
She is frequently asked, as an award-winning internationally known author, if she is "writing another book." What kind of book should she write, she asks in return, when everything - the art, the architecture, the music, and, yes, the literature of an ancient and proud people -- appears to mean nothing to the powers who hold the fate of the world in their hands?
In answer to Arundhati Roy, sometimes I think that William Butler Yeats has already written the ultimate apocalyptic epitaph to the human civilisation -- somehow, whisked through time by a Wellsian time machine, Yeats came to this turbulent century, looked around, returned to his own time and published the dark prophecy he called "The Second Coming:"
The Second Coming (1921) -- W. B. Yeats [1865 - 1939]
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
· · · · · ·
"War Talk: Summer Games With Nuclear Bombs," by Arundhati Roy, Frontline, Volume 19 - Issue 12, June 8-21, 2002 (India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU), http://www.flonnet.com/fl1912/19120040.htm
The Associated Press, "Nuclear History In India, Pakistan," New York Times, May 28, 1998 (Mount Holyoke College, International Program)
Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans.
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