News & Politics

The Comforts of the Atomic Bomb


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September 10, 1958, Vol. III, No. 46

If We Go, Senator, So Do You

By Marc D. Schleifer

For the past few months I have been bombarded (an apt word) by various Committees and Councils urging me to sign petitions, attend cocktail parties, listen to I.F. Stone, bid for a Feiffer Original, and thus demonstrate my belief in a sane nuclear policy. What a sane nuclear policy exactly consists of has varied from destruction of all existing atomic weapons and pledging never to use the bomb in the event of war, to banning all future testing and development. I’m never quite sure whether these policies are to be pursued by our nation alone or only if Russia obliges and makes it bilateral.

Not that I want to be rude and insist on drawing impolite fine lines that ruin everybody’s fun; it’s just that the whole thing looks somewhat absurd from a different perspective. The perspective I’m speaking of is a hole in the ground–one that I sat in last month during two weeks’ Infantry (Reserve) maneuvers upstate.

I thought of all my friends raising chilled martinis to the cause of international peace and of their tales about the horrors of atomic fission. Suddenly knew–satori in a foxhole. Suddenly I couldn’t quite care about the “increase in mutation rate and leukemia.” The thought that we had reached the point “where civilization can be destroyed in a push-button missile war” did not add further discomfort to my cramped sleep that night.

But do not think I am callous. On the contrary, I relish my moments of mental terror for other horrors far more personal. Because I know that the noble-hearted citizen repulsed by push buttons will cheer bravely at the docks when my unit is called up for “police action.” Korea-style police actions or “brush-fire actions” or “invited occupations” (no one has the poor taste to use the word “war” any more) are the only substitutes we have for the threat of missiles in an insane world that will not renounce war.

It is terror to think of being bayoneted in the stomach; it is terror to think of jellied-gasoline bombs that spill into trenches burning and suffocating all in their path; it is terror to think of a white-phosphorous shell that eats through flesh unless you dig each particle out; it is terror to think of the broken backs, castrations, and cripples left in the wake of anti-personnel mines, grenades, and mortar shells. It is terror to conceive of brainwashing for those who are captured, and the suffering and deprivation of those who survive. Compared to these deaths, these agonies, there is an almost sweet swiftness to atomic destruction. Von Moltke said over a half century ago that, in war, humanitarianism exists in the brevity of the operation.

And yet I am asked to “endorse…Senator Humphrey’s belief” that the United States should separate “the problem of nuclear bomb testing from other disarmament problems.” No on your life will I endorse. Instead, I’ve a new motto for the Infantrymen of the World: “If We Go, Senator, So Do You.” Why bother worrying about whether your child gets leukemia from fall-out if you’re only raising him to be castrated at 21?

I can respect the pacifist; he renounces all war as a means and is prepared to suffer the consequences of his decision. But the sane-nuclear crowd isn’t pacifist. They’ve been willing to fight “Fascism,” “aggression,” and “Communist domination”—up to a point. Well, we’ve passed that point; it was too damn comfortable while it lasted. I hope the days of the Stage Door Canteen, Bundles for Britain, Write to Your Loved Ones Overseas Every Day, Do Your Bit in Civil Defense and send a souvenir from the front for the kid brother, are gone forever. I’d rather we swallow our daily dose of fall-out cheerfully, if that’s the price of my avoiding combat.

No, I’m not disturbed that civilization “can be destroyed in a push-button missile war.” In fact, it’s rather comforting. Things would be even better defined if J.F. Dulles would go over that brink of his and promise to push the button if another conflict breaks out.

If you’ve got any Sane Nuclear petitions to be signed, don’t say it to the Infantry. I know the men I trained with for six months. They don’t dig Rilke or Rupert Brooke, they don’t dig “restoring international order,” and they don’t dig dying for democracy: they just dig foxholes.

If civilization sends its young men out to be killed once more, then civilization deserves to be destroyed.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 19, 2008


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