The Korea Herald


[Ward Hayes Wilson] ‘Oppenheimer’ overhypes nuclear weapons

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 14, 2023 - 05:31

    • Link copied

The movie “Oppenheimer” hypes a serious issue of national survival, and in the process makes matters much, much worse. By mythologizing J. Robert Oppenheimer (and in the process ascribing godlike powers to nuclear weapons), the movie sets back efforts to control these dangerous devices.

True, people who watch the movie will emerge frightened about nuclear war. But decades of terrifying pictures of ash, rubble and burned bodies have not, apparently, stifled governments’ desire for these weapons. All nine nuclear-armed states are currently increasing their arsenals or upgrading them. Fear, in other words, has not worked. Hyping the danger has the unintended consequence of hyping the weapons.

Nuclear weapons have always been overhyped. All this “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” stuff (the phrase that Oppenheimer said came to his mind as he watched the first atomic test) is great showmanship, but it’s hardly realistic.

Oppenheimer didn’t become Death: His security clearance was revoked, and he was put out to pasture in Princeton. And nuclear weapons, although they are appallingly destructive, are unlikely to be the Destroyer of Worlds. There are about 800 million people living in the Southern Hemisphere, where there are no nuclear weapons and no likely targets.

The risks of playing the danger card are neatly summed up by what happens when you substitute the word “apocalypse” for “nuclear war.” Apocalypse narratives are mythological stories about the end of the world. What’s easy to overlook about these narratives is the way they disempower. War, catastrophe, plague or whatever brings about divine retribution is always far beyond human control. Applying apocalypse mythology to nuclear weapons takes agency and control out of our hands. Framing nuclear war as apocalypse subconsciously insists that we are powerless.

“Oppenheimer” goes all-out to reinforce the godlike power of nuclear weapons. The ear-numbing soundtrack, the explosions and flashing lights, the boiling clouds of fire -- all of it is designed to overawe us with almighty power.

And not only does hyping the weapons make us feel hopeless, it fills the power-mad with burning desire. Do you imagine that someone like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un could watch this movie and come away with any other conclusion than that nuclear weapons give him godlike power?

Which is nonsense.

Nuclear weapons are dangerous, sure, but the truth is they are too big to be practically useful. They’re so big they’re clumsy. You cannot use them on the battlefield because if you bomb your adversary’s front-line troops the explosion is so big it kills some of your own. And the radiation makes it hard to use the weapons even 30 kilometers behind the lines.

There’s a reason no military officers came forward to angrily denounce President George H.W. Bush when he declared that the United States was unilaterally removing all but a handful of its nuclear weapons from Europe. The military had done the simulations, they’d studied the data, and they apparently concluded -- just as President Eisenhower had in Korea, the French did in Vietnam and Colin Powell did in the Gulf War -- that nuclear weapons are too clumsy to use in battle. Why do you think the average yield of nuclear weapons warheads in the US arsenal is roughly five times smaller today than it was in the 1960s? They’re smaller because practically speaking, the weapons are just too big to be useful.

Think about it: If nuclear weapons are so decisive why don’t they get used more often? War is a remorselessly pragmatic business. If a weapon can help you win a war, then it likely will be used. The notion that nuclear weapons have not been used for the better part of a century because of scruples or some sort of taboo underestimates the human capacity for brutality.

What seems far more likely is that nuclear weapons haven’t been used because it’s hard to find a practical use for them. If a tool stays in the drawer year after year after year, that’s probably not a sign that you’re reverentially holding back from using it. It’s probably a sign that it has limited utility.

“Oppenheimer” breeds fatalism. It puts the weapons in charge and casts humans as walk-ons. The truth, however, is the opposite. As President Kennedy said: “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” We decide what happens, not the machinery of war. The more we hype the machinery, and treat weapons like gods, the less we live in reality.

If nuclear weapons are a problem, we need to take sensible, pragmatic action. Want to watch a movie that scares you into throwing your hands in the air and admitting you’re helpless? See “Oppenheimer.” Want to step up and actually do something useful about the danger nuclear weapons pose? All right, then. Let’s get to it.

Ward Hayes Wilson

Ward Hayes Wilson is the executive director of RealistRevolt and the author of the forthcoming “It Is Possible: A Future Without Nuclear Weapons.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)