Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony
Perhaps you have seen the ad currently running on TV for some insurance company – a man chainsaws a limb that falls on his neighbor’s car; a woman opens her car door, and someone plows the door off; then a voice says, “Humans. Even when we dot our “i’s” and dot our “t’s”, we still run into problems. Namely, other humans.”
Every August I remember August 6 and August 9: Little Boy and Fat Man destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Harry Truman made the decision. Truman was said to be a faithful Baptist. Jesus instructs us to love our enemies. Some six hundred years before Jesus, during what is called The Axial Age (coined by Karl Jaspers to describe that time period when people like Buddha, Confucius, Lao T’zu, Socrates, and the Hebrew Prophets were all roaming the Earth and changing the way we think about life and our lives), Isaiah wrote of beating swords into ploughshares and teaching war no more (Isaiah 2:4).
So here we are some 2,600 years later still armed to the teeth, nuclear warheads still loaded and coordinates set. More nations like India and Pakistan, and likely even North Korea and Israel have nuclear weapons, with others like Iran working overtime to build their own nuclear “devices.”
Devices sounds less threatening than “bombs” or “warheads.”
Devices sounds less threatening than “bombs” or “warheads.”
We know what happened in August 1945 because the survivors have given eyewitness accounts in books such as John Hersey’s Hiroshima, and Unforgettable Fire, a book of sketches and paintings by survivors. “The survived and made their drawings thirty years later. With one of today’s bombs they would all have been vaporized within a fraction of a second after the explosion. What they recall most vividly, and draw most heartrendingly, are the deaths all around them, the collapsed buildings, and above all the long black strips of skin hanging from the arms and torsos of those still alive. They remember the utter hopelessness, the inability of anyone to help anyone else, the loneliness of the injured alongside the dying. Reading their accounts and wincing at the pictures, one gains the sure sense that no society, no matter how intricately structured, could have coped with that event. No matter how many doctors and hospitals might have been in place and ready to help with medical technology before hand…at the moment of the fireball all of that help would have vanished in the new sun. As for the radioactivity, a single case of near-lethal radiation can occasionally be saved today by the full resources of a highly specialized, tertiary hospital unit, with endless transfusions and bone-marrow transplants. But what to do about a thousand such cases all at once, or a hundred thousand? Not to mention the more conventionally maimed and burned people, in the millions. Words like ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe” are too frivolous for the events that would inevitably follow a war with thermonuclear weapons. ‘Damage’ is not the real term; the language has no name for it. Individuals might survive, but ‘survival’ is itself the wrong word.” (The Unforgettable Fire, from Lewis Thomas, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: Viking Press, New York:1983) p. 5-6.
It was thought that Hiroshima was spared the regular fire-bombing which most other Japanese cities experienced because it was a known Buddhist religious center. After the bombing it became clear that it was spared conventional destruction so as to be able to measure and record the effects of the new weaponry – a human experiment that lives on in the lives of the survivors to this day.
Fifty years ago Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his I Have A Dream Speech. He gave others decrying our commitment to war while Americans go hungry every day living in poverty. After building a monument to King on the National Mall, the words inscribed on the base of the monument have been sandblasted off, so divided are we even about how to remember the individual who called us to settle our differences with non-violence.
Whenever anyone tries to bring the danger of all this to our attention, we are urged to allow ourselves to be distracted by insignificant issues, or they are simply censored from speaking out. Harry Belafonte on the Smothers Brothers TV Hour tried. CBS refused to broadcast the segment. Pete Seeger tried with Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, and with Joe Hickerson penned Where Have All The Flowers Gone. Not to mention The Kingston Trio and the Merry Minuet: “But we can be thankful, and tranquil and proud, for man’s been endowed with a mushroom shaped cloud/And we know for certain that some lovely day, someone will set the spark off – and we will all be blown away.”
It’s August again. Humans. Like in the insurance ad, humans make mistakes, commit errors. And yet, it is humans who are entrusted with the codes and decisions to use strategic and tactical thermonuclear weapons. Humans who even now appear to be using chemical weapons. Loaded in silos, loaded on submarines, humans are in place to “set the spark off.” We still laugh when Peter Sellers shouts out in Dr. Strangelove that “we must not have a mineshaft gap,” supposing that we could somehow sequester enough people underground to emerge from a nuclear attack and rebuild civilization – while deep down inside we know there would be no civilization to rebuild.
Every August we must remember. Again, Lewis Thomas concludes, “Carve in the stone of the cenotaph in Hiroshima are the words: REST IN PEACE, FOR THE MISTAKE WILL NOT BE REPEATED. The inscription has a life of its own. Intended first as a local prayer and promise, it has already changed its meaning into a warning, and is now turning into a threat.” p..11
It is August. August is a time to remember. And a time to ask ourselves once again, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn.”