America’s Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – not the two leaders to inspire confidence in a safe future for the earth. Their baring of teeth at each other in recent months reminds Hans Pienaar of the bombing of Hiroshima, the anniversary of which is on 6 August. He looks at the insanity of bombing civilians, in the four most powerful single attacks in history, adding Nagasaki, Amiriyah and the Twin Towers.
They were like terrible twins, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, examples of the binary code that has dominated American consciousness: Laurel and Hardy, Coke and Pepsi, Ford and Chevrolet, Microsoft and Apple.
Except that Nagasaki has always seemed to be the lesser sibling: everything that could be said about it had already been said about Hiroshima.
Whereas, in fact, the differences between the two were substantial. Not least because the bomb dropped on Nagasaki packed twice the firepower and was meant to kill more than 200 000 people, far more than the 80 000 who eventually perished, and far more than the 140 000 claimed by the Hiroshima bomb.
Hiroshima may have changed the world, but Nagasaki was the trendsetter in Cold War paranoia and aerial bombing ideology. It created a logic that has determined events up to 9/11, in which the planes-turned-bombs that simulated the Japanese Ground Zeros were the second most powerful ever to hit a civilian target.
In polls, Americans overwhelmingly believed that the Hiroshima bomb stopped the war. On Nagasaki, the question will always remain: Was it really necessary? This doubt was starkly demonstrated in the letters of US naval officer Thomas O Paine, only published just before the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima in 2005.
Paine was a member of the close observation team assembled for both bombings. After Hiroshima, he was still awed, writing, "It is beyond belief almost." After Nagasaki, doubt had set in. "Perhaps you wouldn't like to hear about it," he wrote on 7 October 1945, "but I think more people should know about it." He underlined the word "should".
The unprecedented destruction was enough to force the Japanese to surrender six days after Nagasaki. But Paine also mentioned something else. "I have been told that the Nagasaki bomb is now obsolete, and that a third, more powerful bomb has been produced. The fight was all knocked out of the [Japanese] in that area, and none of the expected resentment was found, only wonder that the Americans, who had beaten them already, should have done that."
The quickly outdated plutonium bomb used on Nagasaki triggered the ever-escalating arms race and the bravado of technological advancement – wondrous even for its victims – that became the Cold War. That this bravado is far from dead speaks from President Donald Trump’s utterances, things like, “We’ll beat their ass,” with reference to his vague ideas about a new arms race.
Driving the Cold War’s arms race was the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Crucial for the success of MAD avoidance was the need to constantly develop and maintain a system that was error-free and would not – literally – backfire.
In terms of efficiency, Nagasaki compared poorly to Hiroshima. Whereas Hiroshima went exactly according to plan, almost to the second, Nagasaki was a tragicomedy of errors. Its awkwardly named bomb, Fat Man, was meant for another city altogether, Kokura. But an extraordinary number of mishaps forced the task force command to change the target at the last minute.
First, a pump malfunctioned and trapped thousands of litres of fuel in one of the B-29 Superfortress's wings. A rendezvous with the two observation aircraft was miss-timed, and the ”Bockscar” – as it was tellingly named – had to circle Kokura like a latter-day jumbo above a crowded airport in holding pattern.
By the time they met up, the weather had worsened, against the forecasts. When ten enemy fighter planes suddenly appeared, the Bockscar turned tail and headed for the next target on the list, Nagasaki. It had to be assisted by radar. Only a sudden break in the smog and haze allowed the aimer to sight the city.
In the event, he was off-target, and the bomb had a less lethal effect than Hiroshima. The fuel-starved Bockscar had to make an emergency landing at Okinawa, the newly occupied American base in northern Japan.
Since then, the do-or-die bomber pilot has become a stock figure in American culture, and also its foreign policy. Stanley Kubrick filmed Dr Strangelove, or How I came to love the bomb, in which an obstinate pilot overrides numerous glitches and political machinations to carry out his job of dropping the bomb that he knows will set off a nuclear Armageddon.
Joseph Heller made the term “catch-22” one of the quintessential bits of slang of the 20th century in the novel of the same name. The bomber pilot's dilemma of only being able to get off bombing missions by pleading insanity, but only being able to be classified crazy if he had flown enough missions, encapsulated the dangerous absurdities of the nuclear war system – and any other technological system run by humans, for that matter.
The more that weapons designers tried to eliminate error, the more fragile the system became. No matter how closely monitored, or how far the backup systems stretched, there was always the chance of some small "butterfly effect” defect setting off man's destruction. And when all the computers in the world had done their bit, the dedicated bomber who fanatically tried to do the job he was trained for at the cost of millions remained the system's Achilles heel.
The red telephone was created partly to allay this fear. A perspiring leader would be able to phone his counterpart, and in the half-hour window left by the inadvertent launch of computerised attacks, plead his innocence.
For Americans, endless nuclear attack drills followed, with air-raid bunkers built in innocent suburban gardens. Civilians were soothed by demonstrations of hyper-complex safety procedures, computers making accurate split-second decisions, and an atmosphere of calm and restraint pervading nuclear high commands.
The collective simulations of discipline also served to reinforce the belief that anybody else interested in nuclear power, other than the nuclear club of "civilised nations", had to be mad. In popular culture, the figure of the mad bomber pilot melded with that of the aspirant world dictator. Kim Il-sung, the North Korean quasi-communist who taught his people he was a supernatural being, joined devilish Middle Eastern terrorists who killed athletes in European cities.
These supposedly uncontrollable types eventually became the ones on which to focus one’s fear in the public mind. A kind of balance in the paranoia only returned when the world's worst nuclear disasters happened at home, at the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear power stations. Relief re-entered the equation when the unstable states emerging from the collapse of the supposedly rational Russian empire reinforced the stereotypes by becoming host to power-hungry and egomaniacal dictators.
When America won the Cold War in the 1990s after the fall of the Iron Curtain in eastern Europe, it became the only superpower. MAD was followed by an integrated strategy encompassing total media awareness and tactics like "multi-pronged" and "asymmetrical" assaults. Nuclear bombs were replaced with ultra-accurate smart bombs, able to limit civilian deaths to "collateral damage" and simultaneously impress US superiority upon the world.
Smart bombs were used for the first time in the first Gulf War in Iraq, and again in Kosovo. But the susceptibility of any system to error led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia, and chaotic riots in Beijing that killed three. And the more Western forces tried to manipulate the media and turn it into a weapon, the more the weapon backfired.
The congenital insanity of aerial bombings could not be kept from the public mind. The lawyers who guided the aimer's hand through the advanced monitoring technology, and who were supposed to ensure the legality of engagements, came across as bizarre; they could have been extras in Doctor Strangelove.
In both wars, press freedom was simulated by embedding the successors of journalists like Thomas Paine at the front. To show their consideration for the public, the military released footage of smart bombs exploding on Baghdad and Belgrade. Only a few moments of vetting by censors and lawyers withheld the recording from publication all over the TV-saturated world. But it was the callous destruction of a train full of civilians in Serbia that was repeated over and over on TV.
Not only did the propaganda backfire, but the propagandistic dimension opened up in post-modern warfare by the new bombing ideology allowed the potential victims to strike back. Saddam Hussein's strategists understood the psychology of erroneous bombings well. In fact, the truth was that it was not difficult at all to turn it on its head.
In the years before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Saddam’s propaganda machine focused on Amiriyah, a bomb shelter in Baghdad, going to great lengths to present a picture of sanity violated by insane Americans. It became a compulsory stop for visitors. A composed woman in a demure black scarf, clearly selected for her serene beauty, would lead you into a waiting room suffused with peace. She would offer Iraq's best quality dates, brought there by donkey, four-by-four or sanctions-hobbled truck.
Sunk into restful armchairs, visitors would listen to her lay the clutch of stark and simple facts on the sandalwood table before them. In March 1991, a smart bomb drilled through the roofs and floors of the shelter, incinerating 400 innocent people, or ”non-combatants”, as the Americans call them.
As effective as the bomb was in penetrating such a massively reinforced edifice, just as effective was the scene that greeted one when one strolled across to the shelter, stepping over the marble coffins being hewn for the children who had died (I visited it in 2002). Outwardly, there was no damage, but inside it was all there in a single snapshot: the girders in the metres-thick cement had been bent open; the roundness of the hole was perfect; splotches on the floor and walls were all that remained of the civilians huddled there.
The scene, repeated over and over in the media of the Middle East, instilled in Iraqis an almost hysterical fear of Americans. Millions of photographs of that scene were distributed all over the Muslim world. On the streets of Baghdad, everybody claimed they had a relative who had died in Amiriyah. The few Iraqis who were prepared to admit their hatred of Saddam would add in the same breath, "But please, don't send the Americans to save us. Anybody else, just not them."
The Americans declared that it was an error, which played into Saddam's hands, because it disproved their claims that they were able to target crazy leaders only. And because no sane person, no matter how much he loathed Saddam, could believe that it really was an error – it was in an open suburb, far from any industrial site or any strategic facility.
It was like a flying carpet version of Catch-22. Either you believed that the Americans were randomly fallible, or you believed that they were evil enough to deliberately bomb a civilian shelter, in order to leave the message: See what we can do to you. In either case, the spectre of the bomb kept hovering above Baghdad and the Muslim world like Damocles's sword for years and years.
Many nauseated critics suspected the motivation for Amiriyah was similar to that advanced in 2005 by then Nagasaki mayor Iccho Ito for the bombing of his city in 1945: "That was just a living-body test, wasn't it?" He argued that the United States wanted to collect data on the new type of bomb that Fat Man was, and knew they would have only one chance to do so.
It is entirely possible that Amiriyah was a similar "living-body test" of the new "shock and awe" strategy; the mindset of the US military is still the same, as taught at Westpoint, after all these years.
What’s more, one has to seriously consider the possibility that Amiriyah directly inspired the 9/11 bombings. The fears and logic in Iraq and the wider Muslim world were similar to those instilled in American policy and pop culture after Nagasaki. Osama bin Laden’s genius lay in grasping this similarity, and finding a way to revive America’s national paranoia – which had become submerged by the euphoric post-Cold War globalisation – in one vivid burst that would never be erased again.
Skyscrapers and jumbo jets were emergency machines even before they entered the design stage. Impossible buildings and impossible aircraft, enabled only by an indoctrinated trust in engineering theory, could only become economically viable and legally acceptable by designing and planning them as disasters waiting to happen and persuading consumers that all had been foreseen.
The World Trade Centre was more like a finely tuned, gyroscope-run ultra-machine for which every scenario had to be devised and catered for. An airplane flying into it accidentally was a possibility from the start. Likewise, the crews of jumbo jets act like paramedics or intensive care unit nurses, pretending they would be able to save passengers in the event of a range of mishaps.
Carefully hidden from the public, the scenarios were just waiting to be activated. Perhaps it was inevitable that such activation would be done by people brought up in an environment diametrically opposite to that of the average Westerner: of mistrust in technology, parts of which their leaders, Muslim clerics, could declare as evil and forbidden.
In this environment, it was entirely rational and logical to want to show up the evils of such technology by turning it against itself; in fact, it was so obvious that failure to realise this could even be seen as the ultimate blindness, akin to a form of insanity.
Almost exactly 56 years and a month after Nagasaki, the supposedly mad bombers plunged their makeshift 747 missiles into the World Trade Centre, supposedly thinking of virgins waiting for them in heaven as they prayed out loud to Allah. It was the most insane of missions, but also the smartest, most rational bomb ever made.
Part and parcel of the attack was the fullest exploitation of the media ever, in a mockery of America's new military doctrines that makes the media a key part of war management – rather than mockery, one should describe it as self-activated prewritten parody.
After Nagasaki, American journalist George Weller's reports on the devastated city were censored, to be published only in June 2005 by the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun.
By contrast, the damage wrought by 9/11 was broadcast instantaneously to millions across the world and continued for days, weeks and months, and will continue to be broadcast for years and decades.
An artist called it the greatest work of art of all time. That was callous, but what is sure is that no disaster movie will ever be the same again. Several such movies had to be cancelled at the eleventh hour, and the motivation did not have only to do with sparing audiences’ feelings. It was to hide the truth of technology’s shaky foundations.
What was also sure was that George W Bush's own show, Operation Shock and Awe, during the invasion of Baghdad, did not come near to packing the same power, despite also being planned for and produced on prime-time TV.
Also sure is that the World Trade Centre's two edifices, the North and South Towers, are now as indelibly part of America's binary code as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Let’s hope the latest addition won’t be Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
- Cover photo: Left: The picture was taken by Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. Right: Personel aboard Necessary Evilderivative work: Binksternet, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12204929