October 16th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

A M.A.D., M.A.D. World

I am not always a comfortable person to see movies with. I need to remember, more often, that not everybody shares my ability to laugh at things that would terrify any sane person. I am, alas, perfectly capable of enjoying a pleasant joke or two about the prospects of the United States sliding into fascism, or of permanent collapse of the economy, or of global airborne human-species-threatening diseases, or even of my own death in macabre, unpleasant, and/or ridiculous ways. And, even as someone who grew up during the height of the Cold War, and who was 2 years old when President Kennedy's bluster almost did destroy almost all life in the northern hemisphere including myself, even as someone who grew up obsessed with nuclear war and who had an obsessive collection of civil defense pamphlets and books on nuclear war ... there is almost nothing in this world more inherently funny, beyond any need to even satirize it, than the series of narrow escapes this species had from global thermonuclear war.

When I read about each of the at least three times that sane people who actually had their fingers on the button decided, "oh, hell no," and go over the circumstances that would have caused most people to (by their standards) quite reasonably conclude that the War was already in progress and that all that remained was to make sure that our few survivors weren't enslaved by an unscathed enemy (and then backed away), I get a warm chuckle. But the real thigh-slappers are about the "near misses" that were only not near misses because the ground-level troops on both sides thought that their senior officers and civilian authorities were deranged paranoid madmen who might actually blow the world up. There were several military contingencies, throughout the 1950s through the 1970s, where both sides had warned, "If any of your troops do fill-in-the-blank, we will have no alternative but to assume that you intend nuclear war and to launch our entire arsenal rather than lose it on the ground." Those contingencies all happened, of course. So how did we survive? When I think about that, in particular when I think about some of the specific examples of that, I laugh myself silly. That's the absolute best in thigh-slapping rollicking high humor to me.

I need to remember, more often than I do, that not everybody thinks the same way that I do, and that most sane people who knew some of the stuff I know would have nightmares about it for years or for the rest of their life.

Take, for example (I can't help myself) the Cold War truism that the one thing that must never, ever happen was that never, ever, ever must US military forces and Soviet military forces engage in direct combat with each other. Even casual firearms accidents that resulted in stray bullets crossing the Berlin Wall were considered species-threatening diplomatic incidents, with the side accidentally fired upon supposedly having every right to wonder if that shot was the opening shot of an all out invasion, if the bombs to protect that invasion were already in the air. And yet .... Well, there was this thing called the Vietnam War. And before anybody in the US even really thought of it as a war-war, as a real war, as a war per se, rather than as some tiny little Cold War symbolic action, the South Vietnamese were supposedly using warplanes they purchased from us and the French to attack North Vietnamese military positions, and the North Vietnamese were supposedly using Russian MIGs to intercept those planes and try to shoot them down. I say "supposedly" because the military advisors for both sides concluded early on that there was no meaningful way to teach their own proxy side how to engage in any kind of meaningful air-to-air dogfight in time. So, in violation of all US law, all USSR law, and standing orders from both sides, the Russian flight trainers went ahead and flew the missions to intercept the South Vietnamese bombers that were being flown, in reality, by US flight trainers. To preserve this secret, both sides maintained all of their radio contact in Vietnamese. But here's the funny thing about combat ... people swear in their own language, when under pressure. And both sides could, at short range, hear each other's radio traffic very early on. So when Russian pilots shot down "South Vietnamese" planes and heard the pilots swearing in US-accented English, and when American pilots shot down "North Vietnamese" planes and heard the pilots swearing in fluent Russian, both sides' pilots knew that they'd crossed the threshold that was supposed to lead to nuclear war. So why didn't it? Because without a word being exchanged, both sides' pilots knew, better than their own officers knew, not to tell anyone this until after the Cold War was over and there was no more USSR. That's right, all it would have taken in theory for the whole northern hemisphere to have been rendered uninhabitably radioactive would have been for one Russian or American pilot to accidentally mention this when a senior officer was in the room, but everybody who knew, knew better. That human survival hung by such a slender thread may give some of you nightmares. I think it's hysterically, delightfully, refreshingly funny as all get out.

But not everybody has my broad sense of humor about the human race's brush with nuclear annihiliation. So I probably shouldn't have taken phierma up on his offer to be my ride to go see Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb on the big screen at the Tivoli Theater Sunday night. I enjoyed the holy heck out of it. The B-52 interior sequences are just a stunning, amazing technical achievement that's even more impressive on the big screen, all the more so for the fact that the Air Force (understandably) refused to help somebody make a parody from the same book that was the inspiration for the serious, Air Force approved movie Fail Safe. I only just read, from somebody who's seen the making-of feature, that the only reason they were able to get Slim Pickens to play the pilot of the B-52, Major "King" Kong, was that they didn't tell him it was a parody; that he thought he was playing a convincing B-52 nuclear bomber pilot in a serious pro-America propaganda film and it came out like that is part of the gem of the storytelling. Peter Sellers played three different roles in this; recognizable as the kinds of characters he'd played many times before in the broad comedy of the British liaison officer to the general who launched the war, and as the parody of Rand Corporation analyst (and favorite of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and best selling author) Herman Kahn "Dr. Strangelove," but so thoroughly disappears into to the deliciously underplayed role of President Merkin Mufflin that I kept forgetting it was him. Sterling Hayden (as the parody of Strategic Air Command general Curtis LeMay "Jack D. Ripper") and George C. Scott (as Air Force chief of staff "Buck Turgidson") simply command every scene they're in; Hayden, in particular, broods and disintegrates so well that the performance that is so compelling on the small screen is just riveting on the big screen. And while I won't say that I laughed my way all the way through it (the more nuclear war history you know, the less funny some of this movie is), I laughed often enough that even though I was watching a documentary, it was a really fun good time.

Phierma may have nightmares. I noticed this in particular when I brought up, by way of admiration for Kubrick's work in this, one scene. Major Kong's plane has a near miss with a Russian nuclear-tipped interceptor missile. He doesn't know that the Russians have been told exactly where to find him, nor does he know that if he drops even one of his bombs it will trigger an automated, tamper-proof response from the Russian Doomsday Machine that will exterminate all surface life on earth -- but we know. And even knowing this, when the electromagnetic pulse sparks electrical fires and the shockwave knocks chunks off of that B-52 and its crew is left fighting the on-board fires while the pilot and co-pilot try desperately to restart the engines and get enough control to keep from plunging into the Arctic Sea, while the soundtrack plays a marching-band version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" ... well, I asked Phierma later, "You were rooting for them to save the plane, weren't you?" Yes, and it wasn't just him - I sense that the whole theater was. "Even knowing that if they did, they would kill the whole human race?" Yes ... and unlike me, who can admire the artistry in that and have a good laugh at the incongruity, he may be ashamed enough of having fallen for that manipulation of our natural "support our troops" button that it may bug him for days.

The point of the movie is that all it would have taken for Mutually Assured Destruction to have failed would have been for a couple of people to have been really crazy or really stupid or really drunk or even briefly short-sighted or any combination of the above. And yet our leaders on both sides were crazy stupid short-sighted drunks. And yet we muddled through anyhow. Isn't that hilarious?
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