That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday Machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible and convincing.”
Reading the news these days, I can hear the doctor…
In 1964 Stanley Kubrick released possibly the most pointed film ever made on mankind’s personal relationship to global military conflict. It was a legendary black and white reel centered around the uncontrollable actions of a lunatic renegade general who takes it upon himself to launch an unprovoked nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. The coal-black comedy unfolds around the aftermath of the general’s decision. At it’s core lies an examination of man’s inability to exercise control over the technology he has designed and come to completely rely on, and the ruthless truth of cold war nuclear conflict: assured mutual destruction.
While the film is rightly recognized for it’s anti-war polemic and is peppered with fantastic performances by George C. Scott, Slim Pickens and Peter Sellers (in a triple-character onslaught); it is in the end Sellers’ mind boggling portrayal of the brilliant yet insane character the film draws it’s name from that lingers as though a grinning apparition evolved from some ethereal horrorscape.
Dr. Strangelove is an ex-patriot German scientist and wheelchair bound presidential advisor rumored to have been modeled after the prominent cold war nuclear strategist Herman Khan – a man who believed the United States could successfully engage in, and win, a war involving a major exchange of nuclear firepower with Russia. (Khan went so far as to meticulously map out the variants involving potential nuclear engagement in a document known as the Escalation Ladder.) It’s clear that the young Kubrick and an upstart writer named Terry Southern (who co-scripted the screenplay) found compelling this volatile mix of scientific genius coupled with an academically measured disregard for a violent nuclear solution’s effect on the overall health of humanity .
To say that Sellers nailed this role would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. His Dr. Strangelove was simultaneously an intellectual giant and a spastic, vitriol spewing madman. Behind his shaded spectacles lay retinas blazing with diabolical menace. Sellers ability to communicate complex emotions with his eyes was legendary, and here he’s positively transcendent. In spite of the fact that Dr. Strangelove is only featured in a very brief segment of the film towards the end, Sellers throws so much muscle into his every facial gesture and fragmented snippet of dialogue that he manages to physically channel the full intensity of the multifaceted narrative. The eye’s of Dr. Strangelove will disguise none of the films cruel ironies.
And the eyes, as we all know, are the mirror to the soul.
“I would not rule out the chance to preserve a nucleus of human specimens. It would be quite easy…heh,heh…at the bottom of ah…some of our deeper mineshafts.”
— Dr. Strangelove
It is an interesting premise the obviously excited Dr. Strangelove puts forth as the assembled generals and dignitaries realized that the renegade assault on the Soviet’s will result in the automatic retaliatory triggering of the Russian “Doomsday Machine.” What’s equally noteworthy is the intrigue of this notion in light of recent military engagements.
Mineshafts? Human specimens?
The key word is survival in the new frontier.
You may remember that many of our elected leaders headed for heavily fortified underground bunkers as fast as their legs or servants could get them there on that fateful September day last year.
The enemy we’re now at war with in the attack’s aftermath has taking to hiding in caves and tunnels deep underground.
Many of our current nuclear missiles are buried in cement silos underground. Great portions of our critical communications network is fed by cables buried in the earth.
It seems a hole in the ground isn’t just a place you rot in when you’re dead anymore…
So what then are we to make of Strangelove’s twisted mineshaft theorem? That the smart real estate money is invested in spelunking ventures? Even in 1964 it seemed conventional wisdom held that the orchestration of global conflict,as well as the survival of both our government and species could hinge on successfully protected, secret underground dwellings.
Of course, the bad guys have this figured out also. Hence, one of the most well-researched themes in modern warfare would prove to be how to attack an enemy’s fortified underground dwelling.
Perhaps even then the visionary Dr. Strangelove dreamed of more streamlined hydrogen weapons designed for such specialized applications.
Wouldn’t he be delighted to see these dreams come to fruition. You have no doubt discerned by now that a particular graft of the hydrogen explosive device (known as a “bunker buster” or B61-11) was developed just for this very purpose. Bypassing non-proliferation treaties proved a mere formality to military strategists seeking a different type of nuke to facilitate success in those troublesome modern cave skirmishes.
It only stands to reason that when you have such convenient and powerful devices, albeit with some awfully unpleasant byproducts (like say, gamma radiation) it’s hard resist the impulse to uncork one in times of trouble. Listen to the logic of Dr. Strangelove, “The… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret!”
Sadly it seems increasingly apparent that just discussing and building the sporty new hydro bombs isn’t enough anymore. Political fat cats are getting itchy trigger fingers these days when it comes to the actual usage of tactical nukes.
On October 18, 2001 Indiana’s Republican Senator Steve Buyer opined publicly that the US should unleash the power of tactical nuclear devices to kill the hidden members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. “Don’t send special forces in there to sweep. We’d be very naïve to believe that biotoxins and chemical agents were not in these caves. Put a tactical nuclear device in, and close these caves for a thousand years…I just want the administration to know that I think the United States needs to send a message to the world that we are prepared to do that.”
The disturbing theme inherent this rationale has been well documented, but bears repeating incessantly. It should give us all pause to think any time we watch Donald Rumsfeld’s curmudgeonly linguistic gymnastics as he tiptoes around media questions pertaining to the deployment of tactical nukes in the Middle East. (The Old Coot’s likely already hand picked a juicy B61-11 to drop on Saddam’s bunker.) The specter of 40 megaton nuclear devices aimed at our vegetable gardens and grade schools was scary enough during the Cold War. But this new breed should scare the hell out of everyone everywhere. If we blur the line between weapons of mass destruction (The ‘Doomsday Machines’ of Dr. Strangelove) and smaller, dare I say more user-friendly tactical nukes we set a frightening precedent – that use of limited nuclear force is an acceptable strategy in conventional warfare. At that point the clock is ticking. Talk about jumping a rung or two on the escalation ladder…
What’s then to stop Israel from rationalizing the use of tactical nukes on their Palestinian foes? Common sense? Perhaps they want to “send a message” to the world as well. Come to think of it North Korea probably has a pretty big “message” it wants to personally deliver to South Korea. Pakistan is fairly certain India would greatly benefit from a good mini-nuke to the chops. Good lord, think of the potential game of micro-nuke hot-potato possible among blood-sworn enemies peppered throughout the Baltic Republic.
There are no easy answers here. War poses a formidable dilemma on many levels. Socially violent and disruptive, financially and environmentally destructive and emotionally, spiritually and physically devastating, a country or nation under siege is crippled on nearly every conceivable level. For these reasons, Dr. Strangelove’s dire message remains as potent and as powerful today as it was upon it’s release 38 years ago – even without the evil Red Menace. In all honesty the identity of the warring countries in the film served little purpose other than to help set the stage for man’s ultimate transgression against himself. If we are to learn anything from Dr. Strangelove it is that regardless of the color of the uniform, humankind’s most dangerous weapon – the perpetually ticking doomsday machine — is it’s own ignorant arrogance.
Until next month, duck and cover.
(above photos © Columbia Pictures)