Weapons of mass destruction," grumbles Wesley Creel, administrator of programs at the Pink Palace Museum. He is setting up the television for a screening of I Am Become Death: They Made the Bomb, a French documentary about the Manhattan Project and its role in ushering in the atomic age. Without provocation, Creel begins a monologue about the invention of the crossbow and how it led the pope to declare that such a terrible WMD would surely bring about the end of everything that ever happened. "Any idiot could learn to use a crossbow in three hours," Creel continues, explaining that the first armor-piercing weapon, the English longbow, could take years to master. "There's the Gatling gun, machine guns," Creel says, as his list of doomsday devices goes on and on. It would appear from his comments that to Creel doom is in the eye of the beholder.
"People don't understand chemical weapons, and they don't understand biological weapons, but they understand hot lead ripping the flesh," Creel says, suggesting that we most fear the things we least understand. A mushroom cloud explodes on the television screen.
Arthur MacCaig's film I Am Become Death begins with theoretical physicist and father of the H-bomb Edward Teller discussing his pacifism and his desire to not become involved in warfare or politics. But Teller, along with a number of other top scientists, including Albert Einstein, was summoned to a meeting with President Roosevelt in which Roosevelt spilled the beans about a secret German plan to build an atomic bomb. At that point, pacifism didn't matter. Politics didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was getting the bomb before the Nazis did. And while some of the original Manhattan Project scientists, especially Bob Wilson, have expressed a certain amount of guilt about the 200,000 dead in Nagasaki and better than half that number dead in Hiroshima, not one regretted his role in the project. It was something that, at the time, had to be done to stop the original Axis of Evil. Still, it doesn't make the images of flesh-free skeletons lining the streets of Japan any less upsetting.
"I never lost one night of sleep over this," says the man who dropped the bomb, Brigadier General Paul Tibbets Jr., in one of the documentary's more disturbing moments. Tibbets talks about looking down and seeing the ground bubbling like molten tar where he had dropped the bomb. No matter what the alternatives were, it's more than a little stunning that such a terrible image wouldn't give a man pause, that the ghosts of half a million dead Japanese men, women, and children would not occasionally haunt the dreams of the man responsible for their sudden dispatch.
I Am Become Death also considers the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the wafer-thin American scientist who headed the Manhattan Project and who is largely credited for its success. Oppenheimer was a Communist, and the U.S. military knew this. They also knew he was the best man for the job, and they were not about to let politics stand between them and the development of the bomb. It stands in sharp contrast to the paranoia that reigns in post-9/11 America. After all, can anyone imagine an Islamic fundamentalist being tapped to lead a top-secret U.S. military project today? Probably not. Of course, it was politics that ultimately brought Oppenheimer down, after he voiced his disapproval of the H-bomb, which was 500 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. He called it an agent of genocide, noting that there were no targets large enough for its awesome power. But this was in the 1950s, and Senator Joe McCarthy was poised to aim his anti-Communist fury at Oppenheimer and by doing so turn a national hero into a despicable, America-hating villain.
Between its focus on using fear to create peace, the development of WMDs, and the politics of paranoia, there are any number of points in I Am Become Death that reflect contemporary concerns. And while the organizers of this event, the U of M's library system and the Pink Palace Museum, hope to stimulate discussion, their goals seem curiously unrelated to the film's content. U of M physics professor Don Franceschetti, who has been working in an advisory role on the "Research Revolution: Science and the Shaping of Modern Life" film series, of which I Am Become Death is a part, hopes the discussion will be of a more ecological nature. Franceschetti notes that many species are endangered because of the burning of fossil fuels. He hopes the film may get people considering the positive uses of nuclear energy, which, barring accidents, is cleaner than some alternatives. Of course, if life on planet Earth is what you hope to discuss, a film called I Am Become Death, which never once considers the use of nuclear power outside the context of its military applications, might not be the best springboard.
At one point in the film, Oppenheimer expresses his greatest fear: Once the race to create the better doomsday device was begun, it could not be stopped. As U.S. troops scour the Iraqi desert looking for chemical and biological weapons and diplomats prepare to discuss North Korea's nuclear capabilities, it's obvious that Oppenheimer was terrifyingly correct.
A screening of I Am Become Death and a public forum will be held at the Pink Palace Museum on Saturday, April 26th, from 2 to 4 p.m.