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Ronlyn Domingue

How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Russians (Iraqis, North Koreans, and so on) and Hate War

October 1st, 2009
by Ronlyn Domingue

NEAR 91 DEGREES LONGITUDE-

I confronted eschatology too young. Although benign compared to some beliefs, my Catholic upbringing placed me at the sidelines of Armageddon—strange references to a kingdom come, the Second Coming, Judgment Day. I got queasy at the mention of the Book of Revelations. Sermons and syntactically-strained Bible readings led me to infer a tremendous destructive end to all life, human, animal, insect, plant. There were drawings in books, filled with fire, angels and demons, a sea of the damned. For a child, it’s impossible to reconcile a loving Father with one who will kill every one of his children with wanton violence. Children also don’t grasp metaphor.

When I was ten, a friend casually said she’d heard the world was going to end that Easter. Days away. She declared it was very important to go to church and to pray. She, too, was raised Catholic. One of us thought it might be a good idea to go to confession, just to clear things up. The other agreed. I half didn’t believe her. Still, I stepped warily through those purported last days, ears turned for the sound of trumpets. Nothing happened except a regular Easter Sunday with jellybeans and chocolate.

Two years later, my classmates and I worked quietly on an assignment in reading. The teacher sat at her desk with a newspaper. She began to speak aloud—something about planets aligning, earthquakes, the end of the world, on a specific date. My body congealed, and I struggled to breathe. She continued to speak, perhaps even finish class for the day, but all I heard was noise. In a panic, I managed to get on the bus, walk into my house, and find my mother.

I dragged her into her room, insisted she not tell my siblings what I was about to say, and streamed out the rest in hysterics. I wailed I wanted to be a veterinarian and probably lamented what ever else the writhing tectonic plates would thwart. I imagine my mother was stunned at my inconsolable terror.

I have no recollection of what she said to me or what she mentioned to whom. Although the next day at school, in a private moment, my teacher attempted an apology and ended with a statement that gave me no doubt a call had been placed, “I’d like to see you become a veterinarian, too.”          

The damage was done, though. I slept several nights on the floor of my parents’ room. As if those four walls were any haven from the cosmos. In those terrible days, I pretended to be myself. I didn’t hear another student remark on what had been said in class or behave as if doom orbited our way. I was embarrassed by my fear and said nothing either.

Then March 10, 1982 arrived. I went to school. I waited for darkening skies and lurching earth. Nothing. Whatever relief I felt was eclipsed by shame. I’d been fooled again.

* * * * *

So I was powerless against God and Nature. God awaited the day, or the hour, to punish and destroy His human race for its sins. (I was a child. What had I done?) The universe, the Earth, whirled and quivered, around and under my tenuous feet.

I was powerless, too, against the unique human chaos—war. I am a grandchild of the atomic age, a daughter of the Vietnam War.

Both grandfathers served in World War II, one in France, the other in Guam. I saw photos of them in official uniform. Only my grandfather who went to France ever spoke of his experience, and then only because I interviewed him for an eighth grade assignment. He didn’t share much.

My father served in Vietnam in the months before, during, and after I was born. His time was no mystery. His photographs weren’t hidden. I saw the Technicolor jungle base camp, the caged bear that was a mascot, painfully young men barebacked with smiles and smokes. I grew up with conscious awareness of that war.

Something within tells me I’ve always known about Kim Phuc Phan Thi. She ran from her village in June 1972, her naked nine-year-old body burned by napalm. No doubt I saw an image then, and in years that followed. I believe I watched with cursory glances the Fall of Saigon in our tiny living room on a small TV with a round channel changing dial. That was April 1975, and I was not yet six.

Amorphous yet omnipresent is my knowledge that World War II ended with a bang. Kim Phuc is fixed, but there’s a blur about how I learned of the thousands of human beings—and countless other creatures—vaporized, burned, and poisoned by The Bomb.

The Bomb. I paused after I wrote that. A euphemism. An understatement.

Coiled up with my eschatological fear of God and Nature, you’ll find my fear of nuclear war. The early distant warning began with tornado drills in elementary school. I am the descendant of floods and hurricanes. Where I lived, tornadoes were rare. Sometimes, an alarm rang, and the teacher prompted us under our desks. Curl up, hands over your head. There was another instance of everyone filing out into the long solid hallway. We crouched like turtles against the cold concrete blocks.

I suspected there was a more sinister reason for this occasional exercise. To claim this as a rational, conscious thought is impossible. I was six, seven, eight and had not yet heard—at least I think not—of the Duck and Cover film and civil defense drills that sent our teachers to the floor in their schooldays. I understood that weather could be dangerous, but my fear as I curled my tiny body was inordinate, disproportionate.

* * * * *

The Cold War, of course, never went away even if it did seem to quiet in the immediate years after Watergate and Vietnam. Yet historical information reveals an ongoing disagreement over how many nuclear weapons existed, where they could be located, and who might develop them next. NATO countries in Western Europe that had once feared Soviet invasion became less concerned by the 1960s. In the 1970s, the anti-nuclear movement continued to gain strength and influence, especially as the peaceful use of nuclear energy became increasingly controversial. Through the 70s and 80s, significant political shifts occurred in China, South Africa, and a number of countries in the Middle East. There was plenty of trouble to go around.

Had anyone asked my opinion of world affairs, even when I was very young, I’d have given it. Somehow, I understood that the 1978 Camp David Accords were significant. I watched President Jimmy Carter encourage peace between Israel and Egypt and recall feeling admiration for all leaders involved. Later, I followed the ERA’s ratification process, learned about the mysterious AIDS epidemic, and monitored the animosity between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

By then, I had acquired a steady, puzzling hatred for the Russians.

News articles alone weren’t responsible for it. Spies and n’er-do-wells skulked through pop culture in the 1970s. Foreign bad guy; nefarious temptress—Russian. They were all out to get us.

A new wave of anxiety rose up in the 1980s. In late 1981, President Ronald Reagan proposed to stop the intended effort to place U.S. missiles in Western Europe if the Soviet Union would dismantle their own missiles of the same type. Rhetoric reverberated, bubbling near the surface, about to flow fresh into popular culture.

For me, the worst year was 1983. Remember, I read the news. I knew what those terrible Russians were up to. Filmmakers, writers, musicians—they’d felt the stronger rumbles for a while and it was pouring out for our eyes and ears again.

Groovy as the song was, Donald Fagen’s video for “New Frontier” made me anxious. He was from the Duck and Cover generation, those who could consciously remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Obviously, he and his video collaborators had attained the coping mechanism of humor over time. I didn’t laugh or find the cartoon couple with their bomb shelter get-away at all charming or nostalgic.

Duran Duran’s video for “Is There Something I Should Know?” shows no mushroom clouds or shelters, and the song itself isn’t about war, but there is the line, “You’re about as easy as a nuclear war.” Those words—sung aloud—activated my fight or flight response, but I had no where to go. I was alone with my anxiety, complete with shallow breathing and racing heart. However, I wasn’t alone, entirely. No, when I saw this and other videos, I was babysitting. I was responsible for the care and safety of small children who needed their food cut up, supervision in the bathtub, tears occasionally dried. One was an infant. What about him? I thought one night. What about the little children and the animals?

As I thought this, I realized I’d begun a separation. I was no longer a child. Not quite an adult, but no longer an innocent. I knew things about the world, and I felt contaminated by the knowledge and awareness. Human nature and behavior were often reprehensible. There was no escape from the effects, even if I myself managed my own mean and dark impulses. I’d crossed a bleak threshold.

I observed that no one at home or school talked about potential nuclear annihilation. My assumption was that I worried far more than the realm of normalcy allowed. My intuition was that I had to learn to live with the threat, just like I lived with God’s wrath and Nature’s unpredictability. But this was different. The fear felt the same, but the cause was wholly within human control.

The summer of 1983 brought WarGames, an altogether contemporary PG story of a hacker who accidentally breaks into the U.S. government’s computer system and put the world on the brink of Global Thermonuclear War. The vintage Pong transfigured into a back and forth lobbing of missiles. Even now, the hair on my arms wants to rise up when I think of the electronic voice asking, “Shall we play a game?” I fed my stomach on popcorn and my fear with the movie. All’s well that end’s well. Annihilation averted. Wasn’t there a sweet teenage kiss at the end?

Months later, in November, ABC aired The Day After. It had its own firestorm of debate even before its broadcast. Even though I knew I shouldn’t watch, I did. I remember less of this movie than I do of WarGames because it addled me more. I remember mushroom clouds, blasts leveling buildings and bodies, and fire. Those who survived were doomed to illness and death, often slow and painful. I remember a table and a line of human beings, calmly waiting to acquire cyanide pills to kill themselves and their children, if necessary. I don’t remember anything else. I had to look up the plot to see it was about a nuclear bomb that hit Kansas City, Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas.

Around that time, I read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. No doubt I’d learned of the book from the entire hubbub regarding The Day After. Strangely, I didn’t even recall reading it until a few nights ago. I woke up from a dream and suddenly thought…on the beach…shute…and had the image of my former bedroom peripherally framing a book. I had to search for the plot for this, too. A nuclear war story in which survivors await radiation to reach Australia and finish off human life on earth.

Cheery stuff for a fourteen year old. A kid alone with the knowledge that a few dozen men could decide to obliterate their enemies with a few words and pushed buttons. And everyone could, or would, die.

*  * * * *

Bombing of Nagasaki, Japan. Source: Library of Congress

Damage and death and illness confined itself to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities on the Japanese mainland that were bombed by the U.S. on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.

The atomic age arrived and with it new dangers, another thing to fear. Civil defense efforts attempted to give people hope—or maybe a delusion—that they could survive an attack. There were pamphlets and books on how to build bomb shelters and what to stock: batteries, canned goods, bandages. Public buildings were marked as fallout shelters in case people were away from home. The Duck and Cover film in schools instructed young people—with cartoon images and a catchy jingle—how to protect themselves from an attack and live to bring forth the next generation. Assuming they weren’t sterilized, assuming they survived. 

Survival. Possible.

For those at ground zero, it’s instant death. A flash of light, and the bodies are gone. The heat wave, caused by the exploding bomb, creates fires.

For those further out (in one of the neat concentric circles you can see superimposed on aerial maps), there’s the pressure or blast wave. The pure force of the explosion spreads outward to shatter windows, damage or destroy buildings, and spread debris. As the dust settles, so does the radiation. Fallout. Many within the outer concentric rings—who didn’t die from the initial drop—get sick with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding from orifices, hair loss, skin burns, gastrointestinal ulcers, fever, and lethargy. If the initial exposure was strong enough, many will die because of damage to their bone marrow, gastrointestinal tracts, or central nervous systems. 

Those who survive may get cancers—leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid to list a few. Some may become sterile, unable to procreate. Some pregnant women miscarry or have children with malformations or developmental disorders. Those who can still bear children may conceive and have children with physical or mental disabilities or who are more likely to get cancer. The next generation is not immune.

But this is the case of a limited strike. There’s no guarantee of restraint if nuclear weapons are ever used again. How limited is limited in a closed system like Earth’s atmosphere, where volcanic ash and pollution spread far from their sources? An estimated 140,000 people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imagine if millions—billions—of people became sick within days of each other.

Those cyanide pills…the ones to bring on a quick end. After watching The Day After, I wanted the pills. I wondered how to get them. If the worst happened, would there be a table to go to in my city? How would I know? Was there some way to get them now, just in case? I thought this. I fucking thought this. A fourteen-year-old—who should have been merely angst-ridden because of her age—was worried about the end of the world and how to take her own life. I’d read enough in encyclopedias and news reports to deduce there was no realistic chance of a healthy survival after an all-out nuclear war. Why would anyone want to even try?

I could not fathom the psychological damage of survivors and their descendants, left to wastelands and to the knowledge of what human beings had done to themselves.

* * * * *

1983 was my peak shock. Early in the year, President Reagan had made a speech to the 41st annual convention of the National Association of Evangelists in which he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Surely, even though I didn’t remember when this was said, I had heard or read it then. No doubt this cartoonish comment wasn’t as preposterous to me at the time.

My gullibility was at work again, this time making me blame an entire nation for the threat of nuclear annihilation. If my country still had The Bomb, it was because they did, too.

Never mind that my country had it, and used it, first and, to date, last.

The year ended. The world didn’t.

Politically, the Cold War continued. Personally, numbness crept in. My fear was suppressed yet easily aroused. I couldn’t consciously live with it anymore. I doubt I chose my resignation because it felt inevitable, adult. This was not acceptance because I felt no peace. Even though I knew others were thinking about this, too, I observed no sustained or sincere discussion about the matter. Anti-nuclear activists were portrayed as fringy, at best, when they shared the dangers of allegedly safe nuclear use. Talk focused on politics, us versus them, the enemy. I was expected to fear and hate the Russians—that was crystal clear—yes, sir, I got the message. Now what? The presence of weapons was a deterrent? That was intended to be enough? I sensed something deeper than politics, even if I couldn’t define it. I wanted someone to speak what I could not—not sing it or show pictures.

Is it redundant to say I was afraid? Of course I was supposed to be afraid—that was normal. One demonstrated mental health to acknowledge the fear. I’d read Catch-22 and related to it far more than I think I should have. Perhaps it was normal to lie awake at night with mushroom clouds above your head and to jump at loud noises that rattled windows. It was normal, but was it healthy? How many people were like me—sick with fear? Fear that reorganized the cells of our bodies like radiation mutated DNA.

So I got that message, too. Don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about mortal terror. We don’t talk about unpopular or crazy things either, like unilateral disarmament or peace.

* * * * *

The numbing helped. I watched Red Dawn in 1984 without incident or marked anxiety. In 1985, Sting’s first solo album included a timely song with a lyric that came the closest I’d get to someone articulating what I felt: “I hope the Russians love their children, too.”

That was the year I stopped hating the Soviet people and transmuted some of the fear. I couldn’t muster full-scale animosity for people I didn’t know. I had never met them. If I saw photos, I realized, I was often seeing stereotypes—regimented, vodka-sotted, fur-hatted, babushkaed. These were human beings just like me, half a world away. What reason did I have to hate them, other than I was taught to?

Possibly, I sensed a shift coming, intuited after the Soviet Union’s leader Konstantin Chernenko died in March 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded him as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was the first leader born after the 1917 October Revolution. He didn’t retain, in his conscious memory, the fierce political struggles of those times. In other words, he was from a different generation, perhaps with different ideas. Then that summer, many nations acknowledged the 40th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

1985 was the year that a friend began to write a spoof advice column called “Ask Vlad” for our school newspaper. I went through an old stack of Newsweek magazines to clip photos of Russian men so that Robert to could choose the face of Vlad. One was taken from a Chernenko funeral procession. This is what Robert selected. Weeks later, we realized to our ironic glee that the mysterious man who had followed Chernenko’s exposed and coffined corpse and who looked askance and somewhat suspiciously at the camera was, in fact, Gorbachev, the new leader of the Soviet Union.

Around this time, a war of words broke out between Russia and Libya. Well, that is two factions of teenagers who paid some attention to the news and amused themselves with a game. “Russians” headquartered on the first floor of the English and math building, and the “Libyans” held the second floor. Some of us still have tiny notes scrawled as proof of a battle waged for fun. It was a heated exchange yet entirely without the threat of physical harm.

Hmm. It occurs to me now that I wasn’t the only young person trying to cope in a violent and threatening world. We had found humor in the horror.

* * * * *

I remember the last time I was not existentially, mortally afraid.

It is the only conscious memory I have of this freedom. The memory is both my last, and my first.

The feeling emerged and endured for approximately 36 hours. I had no idea what had happened until days later, the feeling sadly long gone.

Todd and I were in Milan, Italy. My publisher had invited me to launch its translation of my first novel. Neither Todd nor I had ever been outside the U.S. Although we’d been told that many people spoke English there, we quickly noticed this wasn’t so. We walked around with a pocket dictionary and managed to communicate our needs. I’m still surprised how quickly we adapted and how I found the sound of an unfamiliar language and place comforting, as if I belonged there.

During my first day without fear, we visited the open market on Via San Marco and then walked an hour across the city to the 800 year old working class neighborhood on the Naviglio Grande. We had our first and only genuine Italian gelato and looked for mid-century modern treasures. (We bought three small wooden Danish-style mice.) At least once, we were mistaken for locals until we pointed to our chests and said, “Americano.”

On the second day, we walked the exterior and courtyard of Castello Sforzesco, built between 1451 and 1466. (I was a medieval history fiend as an undergrad, so imagine my elation.)

There I am, in the castle courtyard.

Then we spent five hours at an exhibition on architecture at La Triennale di Milano. Our return to the hotel took us through a neighborhood we hadn’t visited before—stone, brick, wrought iron, flowers and ivy. The day was a holiday. The hotel referred us to a restaurant courted by tourists and some locals. We were seated in a back room full of Americans drinking Coke from cans and with music blaring from the recent pairing of Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris. I felt unsettled on the walk back to the hotel.

At the airport the next morning, I watched the heavily-armed security guards scan the growing crowds and flinched at the suddenly raucous sound of English as we waited to board the flight. Ten hours later, in Atlanta, I cringed at relentless noise—TVs, P.A. announcements, cell phone conversations.

What occurred to me a week later was revelation. I had not been afraid. For a few brief hours, the dull persistent membrane that surrounded my life had disappeared. There had been no terror alert levels mercurially rising and falling at the corner of TV news broadcasts—a disturbed rainbow that toggled on yellow and orange. I hadn’t heard a reference to the “axis of evil.” An ocean away, the connection to my frightened country had thinned like a dream.            

Understand that I didn’t have a false sense of security. I was still on Planet Earth in a post 9/11 world. But something ineffable allowed me a brief escape which I didn’t enjoy when it happened because it was so foreign, unfamiliar. When had I last felt unafraid like that?

I can’t tell you. I was too young at the time.

* * * * *

The first time I saw the Daisy ad, I was a college senior. Despite my staunchly news-ed journalism background, I took a public relations class because I liked the professor.    

By then, thanks to video, I’d seen Dr. Strangelove and Failsafe along with a number of thinly-veiled, anti-Communist 50s and 60s sci-fi movies. Somewhere, I had read about the controversial ad created for Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign. The campaign itself used it only once on September 7. Again, thanks to video, my professor could share the historical piece.

I sat near the TV screen that morning, close enough to watch the petals fall from a little four-year-old girl’s plucking fingers. Her image froze, a man’s voice counted backward from 10, and then the mushroom cloud fissioned into form. 

The old fight or flight feelings returned. My skin got cold, and my stomach soured.

LBJ’s voice emanated from the firestorm: “These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

Then the announcer: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

Ironic. Bizarre. Maddening.

I would bet that I thought of Kim Phuc and her frozen napalm-burned body. I’d wager an indiscriminate rush of archival images assaulted my limbic system. Surely, I thought of myself, and a fearless child I couldn’t remember.

* * * * *

“We are going to do something terrible to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.”

In late 2005, I read a paraphrase of that statement, attributed to Gorbachev. However, he didn’t say it. In 1988, Georgi Arbatov did. He was the director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Institute for U.S and Canada Studies and a top aide to Gorbachev.

Arbatov’s statement heralded an unexpected denouement to the Cold War. Since 1945, the U.S. and Soviet Union had lobbed words and threats but not one bomb, even though both nations came perilously close during the Cuban Missile Crisis. America’s enemy, alternatively its overt and unconscious source of fear, stopped fighting. My reaction when I first read the paraphrase was the same when I read the original quote: An adult decision had been made. A brave one.

At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union was trying to recreate itself. The politics and beliefs that had provided structure no longer held. Certainly, that nation’s Western adversaries had provided examples of a different way of life, some of them to enrich and empower. The Soviet Union didn’t have the energy to sustain the decades’ old animosity.

My country didn’t either, but I’m not sure it was prepared for what Arbatov’s comment intimated.

When something is gone, what replaces it? What fills the vacuum?

So little time passed before another nation, another group of people, rose to the top rank among public enemies.

I witnessed the shift happen as a young adult. When it did, my personal and historical knowledge fused together. The evening of January 17, 1991, I watched the bombs explode over Baghdad in real time. Operation Desert Storm was intended to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait during the First Gulf War. I wrote the editorial that appeared in my college newspaper the next day. I hadn’t read it in eighteen years, but I did again when this war memory resurfaced as I wrote this essay. The old piece is cogent, researched, strained for balance, somewhat sarcastic. I invoke both the nuclear bombing of Japan and the Vietnam War. History gave me just cause for concern.

Within days, I’d already begun to think about how I’d get my draft-age brother and boyfriend to Canada. Long before, I’d pondered how to get my hands on cyanide pills in the event of nuclear war. Then, I wondered if I could earn enough working two, three jobs to support them in exile, if —I had to remember—they chose to go.

History was not going to repeat itself in my family, that time in the Middle East, not if I could help it.

I believed that war was over oil, but another unconscious force was at work, perhaps stronger than the need for the black liquid under the Earth’s crust. My country was not yet ready to give up having an enemy. It was not prepared to break with tradition and discover another way to settle differences. Neither was the declared enemy, it seems. However, my gullibility wasn’t going to get me again. Despite all attempts to convince me—various forms of media colluded to repeat old patterns—I couldn’t find it in myself to hate the Iraqi people.

* * * * *

I have moments when my misanthropy gets piqued. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much—seeing a child slapped in public or watching a plastic bottle fly from the window of a moving vehicle. Usually, it’s when I make the mistake of watching too much TV or reading too much news. My tolerance for cruelty, neglect, and violence has withered. Yet, ironically, my darkest impulses rise up those times, more often than my sense of compassion. I think to myself, Get it over with. Put us out of our misery. Put me out of mine.

The milenialists, the End Timers, the 2012 doomsayers…on some level, I think I know where they’re coming from. Enough is enough. We’re so tired of the suffering inside and around us. We want peace—whatever that might ultimately mean—and it might take death to do it. For those devout to a faith, safe to assume they’re saved, well, there’s glory waiting.

So maybe that’s how the end will come. Three forces acting as one. God’s wrath unleashed in Nature’s act of fission through the human-built atomic bomb. Could be the other way around.

After a blast like that, I’d have no intention of hanging around for the afterparty. There are other means than cyanide. When I get like this, less often than I used to, thank goodness, I have to remind myself that’s the crazy talking. Insanity: vengeful, wounded, hateful. The stuff of chaos, the fuel of violence, the catalyst for war. Turn it inward, or turn it out—or transmute it.

* * * * *

“Peace, Little Girl.”

That’s the official title of the LBJ campaign ad.

I learned this while doing research for what you’re reading right now. I laughed out loud but not because I thought it was funny ha-ha. A preposterous statement will provoke such a reaction from me sometimes.

Peace, little girl.

Who, me?

The child I cannot remember. I must have regressed during those few hours in Milan. I entered a child-like state. Barely verbal—the language spoken unfamiliar, my knowledge limited to a few words. Surrounded by newness—food, sounds, sights. My time entirely my own—to explore, to look, to learn.

Or did a part of me return?

Perhaps she emerged from a primordial state when God was not the Father but the Wonder and Nature was Divine Form and War was unknown. It was so long ago, long before she recognized her own rage and grief at a world so pathologically confused, so emotionally and spiritually stunted. She was later convinced that war was an inevitable reality, yet deep down, she retained the knowledge that just because it seems so doesn’t mean it must be so.

The older I’ve become, the more difficult it has been to reconcile my inherited and learned insanity. I’ve been so good at bearing the standard of mature, rational adulthood. I have cloaked and masked my fear when deep down, my rage and grief makes me demand to know why war was ever-looming, why I thought and worried about it. Why did any of us have to confront this legacy? I’ve acquiesced to our collectively agreed upon resignation of this state of affairs. Of course, there is war. There always has been. There always will be.

Why? I ask. A child’s why. The wondering why that no adult can explain away because the reasons make no sense to him or her either.

On the other side of my dark misanthropy is the bright possibility that we can stop choosing the evil we do to each other. This is not naïve, and it is not as vague as hope. I speak beyond chilly tolerance and treaties. We have the wound of history to show us that humans as a species are terrible at learning from the past. We are stuck in the childish He started it! No, he did! Those who cling to a wrathful God might be surprised if it turns out the Being is merely disappointed it’s taking us so long to grow up.

To deprive ourselves of an enemy is to be forced to look within, to see what part we play in the animosity or to discover what we might do differently. We are, in fact, all perceived threats to each other. I suspect there was a Russian mirror of my fourteen-year-old self petrified that the U.S. would nuke her into oblivion, too. Those times I feel myself stoke worry over Iran’s attempt to have nuclear capabilities or another nation’s development of chemical and biological weapons, I strive to shift the fear—and this is extraordinarily hard sometimes. But I do it. Not only do I consider that people in those nations are afraid, too, but also that violence, destruction, and cruelty are not the only options. There are other answers and solutions, even if we don’t know what they are yet.

We have the power to destroy ourselves. J. Robert Oppenheimer, considered the father of the atomic bomb, knew it when it watched the first blast. In 1965, during a TV interview, he shared his thoughts when he witnessed the code-named Trinity explosion melt the New Mexico sand in July 1945: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” This references Vishnu in the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. At that moment, eschatology was not a metaphor. Annihilation by a human creation, not God, not Nature, attained possibility.

We have the power to choose, too. Beyond reaction, with discernment rather than judgment, I choose to believe in beginnings again, in the human capacity for cooperation, compassion, and kindness. I have to. It’s for my survival, now. Maybe for yours, too. Maybe for the children, creatures, and Earth, fragile and beautiful.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968. Source: NASA

 

 

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48 Comments »

Comment by Amy
2009-10-01 06:26:00

I grew up with the same Catholic end-of-the-world fears, lived on Air Force bases during the Vietnam war. Near the end of the war, we were shipped off to a base in Izmir, Turkey. It was the first time in my childhood I was not afraid. No one talked about Vietnam. There weren’t any English news sources to remind us. No TV and the radio was all in Turkish, and it was mostly songs of prayer.

Then we came back to the US at the tail end of Vietnam. Lived on base for another year, surrounded by families who had a father in Vietnam. It was a relief when that war ended. But then came the next conflict and the next.

There will always be wars going on somewhere. And so will peace and good and kindness of strangers. The yin and the yang. I like to think that I’m doing my part to keep it balanced. I don’t think one will ever wipe the other one out.

Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
2009-10-01 10:15:07

Thanks for sharing, Amy. I imagine that was an intense period of your life in many ways. How interesting that when you moved to Turkey, you got some relief. As I reflected on my experiences to write this essay, I realized how profoundly I have been affected by media.

I wonder if it’s possible to move from war to conflict. There’s room to disagree without killing others. And I absolutely agree about doing one’s part to keep a balance. Peace be with you.

 
 
Comment by Don Mitchell
2009-10-01 08:32:57

The way kids process news is infinitely interesting to me, so I found your piece fascinating.

In our elementary school (in the early fifties) we actually did duck and cover under our little desks, and I can remember being taken on some errand by some kid’s father, during which the other kid and I were play-fighting with wooden swords that we’d made, and the father said, “Say, do you boys know what to do in case of a nuclear attack?” And we did, although of course without understanding the utter futility of it.

Then there was the day that the newspaper announced that Stalin had died. I asked my mother, “Does this mean that there won’t be any more war?” I don’t remember what she said.

Finally, I have a clear memory of gathering a bunch of kids and driving to the other side of our island to watch an H-bomb go off. It was a carnival atmosphere but we were all sobered by the fireball, which was intense. This was test “Orange” on 11 August 1958; the military wanted to see what the effect of thermonuclear explosions in low space would be, so they used the Pacific between Johnson Island and Hawai’i as their test zone. This may sound like an urban legend, but it’s not. There are many internet references, of which this is a good example: http://glasstone.blogspot.com/2006/04/teak-and-orange-each-38-mt-50-fission.html

I wish you peace as an adult, Ronlyn.

 
Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
2009-10-01 10:25:02

The memory you shared of your friend’s father’s comment really struck me–juxtaposed with the image of those handmade wooden swords.

I visited the link. I can’t quite wrap my head around ‘At about a minute or so after the detonation, the Teak fireball had risen to a height of over 90 miles.’ It’s understandable why you remember that so well even today. When I researched this piece, I saw several full-color photos of tests done over the ocean. Nightmarish.

Thanks for your wishes, Don. To you as well.

 
Comment by Zara
2009-10-01 11:36:36

Great piece, Ronlyn. You manage to capture the Gen X angst very well. You are definitely not alone in your fear and anxiety, I sometimes think it is the hallmark of our generation.
Living in NZ, it always filled me with great pride that we banned nuclear ships from our ports and declared ourselves ‘Nuclear Free’ in 1984. We thought it would somehow protect us from terror and war, but we woke up when French terrorists snuck into our harbour and bombed our Greenpeace ships. Nuculear bombs have left a terrible legacy in our country. Many of our World War II soldiers were sent to Hiroshima immediately after the bomb and came back broken and sick and passed on the deadly radiation effects to their children and grandchildren. We also had nuclear testing in the Pacific for many many years which I hate to think what damage has been caused that we don’t yet know about it.
Anyway, I’ll stop now, or this could go on forever!
Once again, great piece.

 
Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
2009-10-01 11:46:46

Thanks, Zara. We Gen Xers are coming into our time of leadership. What will we choose to do with it?

I read about the testing in the Pacific (I, too, wondered about the effects at the time and now), but I didn’t run across information about the New Zealand soldiers being sent to Japan after the bombing. Yet another piece of history’s puzzle that makes the whole thing seem even more insane to me. I’m glad you acknowledged their story.

Looking forward to your next piece!

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-10-01 12:39:55

Thanks Ronlyn. Yeah, my grandfather actually went into Hiroshima as part of the peacekeeping force. I wrote a little bit about in my piece called ‘The Silk Parachute’ if you want to have a look!
and I too, look forward to your next piece!

 
 
Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-10-01 15:46:16

I’ve only had one experience with the mortal fear of the world ending; I remember being a kid and seeing a news piece about nuclear bombs. And that was it. I figured that we were all doomed, and that before too long, everyone would be killing everyone else and we’d all be gone to dust.

Maybe it’s the Gen Y in me, but these days, it’s a fear that’s just not there.

Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
2009-10-02 04:21:51

A while back, I read someting about how human beings were never meant to handle the world’s bad news all the time. Maybe that desensitizes some people–and traumatizes others.

I’m not glad you had that experience, Simon, but I am that you didn’t endure it many, many times over. Keep up that peace and continue sharing your droll, wonderful stories.

 
 
Comment by Becky
2009-10-01 19:02:01

Yeah, but Russians actually are assholes.

As a child of the cold war, I fear nothing but the frenetic stupidity of the human race, however it is applied.

Panic is not virtue.

That’s my motto.

My general feeling is that humans are arrogant; humans talk about the end of their species like it’s the end of the world. But of course, there have been plenty of extinctions, after which plenty of organisms kept right on.

And Armageddon is likely to be that way.

WE go, but the earth keeps going. For at least another 5 billion years. That’s almost enough for a whole new human race.

Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
2009-10-02 04:26:02

As far as we know, we’re the only creatures with painful self-awareness and–yeah, to some degree–arrogance. Just a guess, but I suspect our species would like a bit more time to explore its brighter aspects.

 
Comment by Don Mitchell
2009-10-02 05:33:18

Becky - I totally agree. The “long run” in which we’re all dead is short in comparison to the planet’s long run. We’re not about to destroy the planet itself, though I’d say that destroying the planet-as-one-that-supports-Homo sapiens is more likely.

 
 
Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-01 20:24:44

Funny you mention that Donald Fagen video. That used to get heavy rotation on HBO’s between-movie shorts, and it unsettled me greatly. That warm little keyboard melody almost angered me juxtaposed with The Awful Thing the images were implying.

Like you, I couldn’t be as playful as Donald was about it, and resented anybody who was.

Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
2009-10-02 04:30:40

No kidding…I thought something was wrong with me that Fagen’s video disturbed me so much. Thanks for letting me know someone else was unsettled, too. Gives me some perspective.

Last night, my partner Todd watched it on line. I stood there, too, and realized the spell was broken. I could appreciate the artistry that went into it. Phew. http://music.aol.com/video/new-frontier/donald-fagen/1459490

 
 
Comment by Marni Grossman
2009-10-02 22:18:04

I think it’s indicative of your intelligence that you feared the end of the world. When you think about it, shouldn’t we all be terrified?

I, of course, never was.

I grew up in the ’90s and, though things were arguably no less dangerous, it felt safe. Clinton’s campaign song was “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” after all.

When the Iraq war started, I remember watching it on television and being not so much petrified, but resigned. This is it, I thought. War again. It was incredibly depressing but not really frightening.

I think I’ve always been too afraid of myself and my own small world to have time to fear the bigger things. Self-absorbed on a very large scale.

In any event, this was incredibly compelling and lovely.

 
Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
2009-10-03 12:47:36

Yes, I remember a bit of a breeze during the early 90s with the Clinton years.

Fear is fear, regardless of its scale and source. It’s a draining way to go through life.

Thanks for your kudos. (A while back, you wrote a piece that I didn’t comment on because I was deeply affected beyond words. It was one involving a photo. I’ll leave it at that. You’re truly gifted.)

 
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