August 08, 2007

Our President and His Loyal Guard

I saw Mort Sahl the other night, the second time in five years or so I've been able to catch his act. I'm a lifelong fan, as you might expect. I think one of the funniest lines I ever heard was Mort's drollery during the Formosa crisis of the Eisenhower Administration regarding the disputed islands of Quemoy and Matsu. I must have been only 9 or 10 at the time, but I recall that one never heard Quemoy without hearing Matsu. Should mainland (Red) China have Quemoy and Matsu, or should Formosa have Quemoy and Matsu? Where was the United States on this issue? In those days we were staunchly in the corner of Formosa, of course, since everything Commie was evil, and there was no Wal-Mart to soften our hostility. Quemoy & Matsu were like Huntley & Brinkley or Procter & Gamble; it was unthinkable to uncouple them. So Mort had the answer: "I think we should give them Quemoy but not Matsu." I don't know why that's so funny, but funny it is.

Mort is cynical about all politics, so often the case with satirical thinkers, and five years ago he was a little contrarian where anti-Bush sentiment was concerned. The years between then and now, however, have won him over. He's become a superb Bush-basher. Bush has that uncanny knack; even the apolitical learn to despise him. Mort told a story about being invited by Alexander Haig, an old West Point buddy (yep, Mort Sahl went to West Point for a couple of years), to a fund raiser for Bush in Palm Beach. Bush's caravan arrived at the estate, a long dark phalanx of heavily armored SUVs, and behind Bush's own ride were a car full of doctors and another emergency vehicle rigged for onsite medical care. Mort didn't say much about it, he just reported the spectacle. But you know what he was thinking, along with the rest of the liberal crowd in attendance at his concert. All these extraordinary precautions, all this meticulous planning and preparation, all this government expense, so that the United States of America minimizes its chances of being deprived of the peerless leadership of that smirking specimen in the photos above. Because without that man and his incomparable intellect and character, where would we be?

August 07, 2007

Between Little Boy and Fat Man

The convention is to recite the names of the bombs in reverse order: Fat Man and Little Boy. It rolls off the tongue more smoothly that way. Nevertheless, Little Boy was dropped first, on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, 62 years ago yesterday. Two days from now will mark the 62nd anniversary of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. That atomic bomb was nicknamed Fat Man. They differed somewhat in design and materials. Fat Man was designed along the lines of the Trinity shot at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July, 1945, the only nuclear detonation in history before the Hiroshima bomb. So that means when the bomb doors were opened on the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945, that fateful morning above Hiroshima, the bomb that fell was of a design never before exploded. Little Boy was a "gun" device in which a subcritical mass of U-235 was accelerated by high explosives down a barrel toward another subcritical mass of U-235 and a neutron initiator. The chain reactions blow the bomb apart and, of course, anything and anybody anywhere near it. So you would be tempted to think that the Japanese citizens in Hiroshima that bright summer day had a fair chance the bomb would fizzle; I mean, you drop a cylindrical thingamajig out of a plane, you've never tested it before, it might just fall all the way to earth and smash a trolley or a couple of cars or someone's roof, right? It was heavy enough to do that kind of damage; about 8,900 pounds, and it was ten feet long and about 28" in diameter.

Nah, there was no real chance of a dud. The physicists were confident Little Boy would work, and work it did. It exploded about 1,800 feet above Hiroshima with the force of 13 thousand tons of dynamite, and it killed somewhere between 70,000 and 130,000 people with its immediate effects. Reconnaissance flights were flown over Hiroshima to review the damage, which must have been very impressive. So now, let us imagine that it is exactly 62 years ago. Yesterday we killed, to use a reasonable average of the guesses, about 100,000 human beings, and because of radioactive sickness and genetic damage, the carnage is really just getting started. The Japanese haven't surrendered yet, however. We've still got an awful lot of American soldiers out there in the Pacific, scattered all over the jungle islands, waiting for the fateful order to advance past Iwo Jima and attack the Japanese mainland. As bad as Guadalcanal and Iwo and Okinawa and Bataan and the rest of the Hells on Earth have been, maybe those assault troops haven't seen anything yet. Wait till you try to take Japan away from the Japanese.

On August 9, 1945, a different B-29 with a different pilot with a different target, Nagasaki this time, took off from the airfield at Tinian, armed with Fat Man. Fat Man was a bruiser, an ugly, inelegant spherical thing, 5 feet in diameter, over 10 feet long and weighing more than half a ton. It was a plutonium implosion device, just like Trinity. And man, that sucker could put out. 21 kilotons of TNT from the detonation, and the mushroom cloud rose 60,000 feet into the air. The immediate death toll is in dispute, although there is general agreement the bomb detonated away from its intended target, and the main part of Nagasaki was protected by intervening hills. Still, at least 45,000 people died instantly. No one is sure, really, of the exact number. There are estimates all over the place. In Nagasaki Peace Park the estimate is given as 75,000.

What do we do with this knowledge? J. Robert Oppenheimer suffered from remorse, of course; as the "father" of the atomic bomb, he knew what kind of monster he had sired and unleashed on the world. One thing I decided a long time ago is that I will not try to figure out the correct moral position on the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. I don't think it's my place, and I've never felt it was my job to have a definite opinion about everything. I wasn't a Marine corporal in a landing boat going ashore at Iwo Jima against enemy machine gun nests. If I were, and I could honestly have said I'll take my chances against another machine gun on the Japanese mainland to spare the world the use of nuclear weapons, then my opinion would have some weight. Or how about the argument in favor of a "demonstration" drop of a nuclear weapon to convince the Japanese (and probably the Russians) that resistance was futile? I don't know. I wasn't there. Japanese resistance in the closing months of the war was fanatical. Maybe, in the macabre calculus of war death, the sacrifice of two cities ultimately saved lives, both Japanese and American. I think it's presumptuous, at this great remove from the events, to wave away all context of the most horrible war the world has ever seen and make calm judgments about "obvious" courses of action which would have been morally superior to those actually made by Americans at the time.

So Oppenheimer, a much brighter man than I, expressed this idea: "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." Such interesting language; they have known sin. Not that they committed it, not that they are ultimately responsible for it. But that they have known it. How could they not? That's why we should remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to remember this pause between Little Boy and Fat Man. To know mass annihilation, whatever the reason or justification for it, is to know sin and the darkness at the core of the human heart.

August 05, 2007

Missing Richard Feynman

Q There is this general concern after this disaster that the nation's infrastructure is crumbling. Do you think that's an overly-broad characterization, or do you think that this in general is a very serious problem nationwide?

SECRETARY PETERS: Well, we certainly have aging infrastructure here in the United States. Most of our infrastructure came about as long as 50 years ago, as the interstate highway system was being built. I do believe that America's highways and bridges are safe.

The peerless Richard Feynman, brilliant Cal Tech physicist and bon vivant, served on the Rogers Commission that figured out the Challenger disaster of 1986. Actually, with a little legwork from unlikely sources, Feynman found the reasons for the "O-ring" failure pretty much by himself. But in the course of his report, he took issue with many claims that NASA made about the safety of the shuttle program, and in his usual insightful and funny way, he dismissed the NASA notion of a robust "margin of error" in the faulty O-ring design by comparing it, tellingly, as similar to claiming that a bridge supported by a beam that is rotted halfway through has a "50% margin of error." William Rogers, who liked appearing important and reassuring more than actually finding out what happened, called Feynman a "real pain," maybe because Feynman insisted on noting that "[f}or a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." The peculiarity in language pointed out by Feynman resonates today as we consider Mary Peters, Secretary of Transportation, and her determination, in the classic Bushian way, to overcome the clear evidence of reality, and to give precedence always to public relations, by attempting to fool Mother Nature.

A better way to have concluded her remarks would have been to state: "I do believe that America's highways and bridges are unsafe." Coming from a Bush bureaucrat, this would have been shocking, to be sure, but it would have given precedence to reality. If it is true, as reports now have it, that 77,000 bridges in the United States are "structurally deficient," the last grade given to the W-135 Bridge in Minneapolis, then on what basis would someone whose job it is to oversee the state of American transportation infrastructure blithely conclude that the bridge's collapse was an anomaly? Rather, the logical conclusion to reach is that all the deferred maintenance on all the "structurally deficient" bridges, and the excess loads being carried by another 80,000 or so bridges that are graded "obsolete," is that crossing an American bridge at this point is a crapshoot. Again, that would have followed more logically from the Secretary's premise. She might have said in a way that gave precedence to reality over public relations, "I do believe that crossing an American bridge at this point is pretty much a crapshoot."

It's another subject entirely, but I'm continually amazed at the jarring, discordant nonsense that passes for public declaration from the Bushians. On an everyday basis they make statements which they know that we know make absolutely no sense whatsoever, and they make them anyway, and they are reported as if a sane person had just said something which made sense. And now there's no Richard Feynman around to remind us how nuts it all is.