Michael Davis has created an original game based on my recent series of articles on Trinity. To say too much more about it would be to spoil it, so I’ll just tell you that it’s well worth a play — if perhaps not quite in the way you might expect. My thanks to Michael!
Tag Archives: trinity
Like A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity seemed destined to become a casualty of an industry that just wasn’t equipped to appreciate what it was trying to do. Traditional game-review metrics like “fun” or “value for money” only cheapened it, while reviewers lacked the vocabulary to even begin to really address its themes. Most were content to simply mention, in passing and often with an obvious unease, that those themes were present. In Computer Gaming World, for instance, Scorpia said that it was “not for the squeamish,” would require of the player “some unpleasant actions,” that it was “overall a serious game, not a light-hearted one,” and then on to the firmer ground of puzzle hints. And that was downright thoughtful in comparison to Shay Addams’s review for Questbusters, which tried in a weird and clunky way to be funny in all the ways that Trinity doesn’t: “It blowed up real good!” runs the review’s tagline, which goes on to ask if they’ll be eating “fission chips” in the Kensington Gardens after the missiles drop. (Okay, that one’s dumb enough to be worth a giggle…) But the review’s most important point is that Trinity is “mainly a game” again after the first Interactive Fiction Plus title, A Mind Forever Voyaging, so disappointed: “The puzzles are back!”
Even Infocom themselves weren’t entirely sure how to sell or even how to talk about Trinity. The company’s creative management had been unstintingly supportive of Brian Moriarty while he was making the game, but “marketing,” as he said later, “was a little more concerned/disturbed. They didn’t quite know what to make of it.” The matrix of genres didn’t have a slot for “Historical Tragedy.” In the end they slapped a “Fantasy” label on it, although it doesn’t take a long look at Trinity and the previous games to wear that label — the Zork and Enchanter series — to realize that one of these things is not quite like the others.
Moriarty admits to “a few tiffs” with marketing over Trinity, but he was a reasonable guy who also understood that Infocom needed to sell their games and that, while the occasional highbrow press from the likes of The New York Times Book Review had been nice and all, the traditional adventure-game market was the only place they had yet succeeded in consistently doing that. Thus in interviews and other promotions for Trinity he did an uncomfortable dance, trying to talk seriously about the game and the reasons he wrote it while also trying not to scare away people just looking for a fun text adventure. The triangulations can be a bit excruciating: “It isn’t a gloomy game, but it does have a dark undertone to it. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.” (Actually, it is.) Or: “It’s kind of a dark game, but it’s also, I like to think, kind of a fun game too.” (With a ringing endorsement like “I like to think it’s kind of a fun game,” how could anyone resist?)
Trinity‘s commercial saving grace proved to be a stroke of serendipity having nothing to do with any of its literary qualities. The previous year Commodore had released what would prove to be their last 8-bit computer, the Commodore 128. Despite selling quite well, the machine had attracted very little software support. The cause, ironically, was also the reason it had done so well in comparison to the Plus/4, Commodore’s previous 8-bit machine. The 128, you see, came equipped with a “64 Mode” in which it was 99.9 percent compatible with the Commodore 64. Forced to choose between a modest if growing 128 user base and the massive 64 user base through which they could also rope in all those 128 users, almost all publishers, with too many incompatible machines to support already, made the obvious choice.
Infocom’s Interactive Fiction Plus system was, however, almost unique in the entertainment-software industry in running on the 128 in its seldom-used (at least for games) native mode. And all those new 128 owners were positively drooling for a game that actually took advantage of the capabilities of their shiny new machines. A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity arrived simultaneously on the Commodore 128 when the Interactive Fiction Plus interpreter was ported to that platform in mid-1986. But the puzzleless A Mind Forever Voyaging was a bit too outré for most gamers’ tastes. Plus it was older, and thus not getting the press or the shelf space that Trinity was. Trinity, on the other hand, fit the bill of “game I can use to show off my 128” just well enough, even for 128 users who might otherwise have had little interest in an all-text adventure game. Infocom’s sales were normally quite evenly distributed across the large range of machines they supported, but Trinity‘s were decidedly lopsided in favor of the Commodore 128. Those users’ numbers were enough to push Trinity to the vicinity of 40,000 in sales, not a blockbuster — especially by the standards of Infocom’s glory years — but enough to handily outdo not just A Mind Forever Voyaging but even more traditional recent games like Spellbreaker. Like the Cold War Trinity chronicles, it could have been much, much worse.
‘Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom’s Tomb –
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb –
Than this smart Misery.
— Emily Dickinson
And so, as another Infocom game once put it, it’s all come down to this. We have indeed come a long way, looked at a lot of history. But now it’s time to refocus on the game of Trinity. Fair warning, then: massive spoilers ahead.
Throughout its considerable length Trinity has constantly implicated the Wabewalker, and through him we who pull his strings, in the tragic history of the atomic age, refusing to allow us the comfort of abstraction. We’ve been forced to cold-bloodedly kill a couple of cute, innocent little would-be pets to show us that killing is ugly and heartbreaking, not a mere matter of shifting columns and figures around on a spreadsheet showing projected death counts. We’ve met the same woman in two different times, once as a happy little girl in Nagasaki just before the bomb dropped and again as an old woman still bearing the visible scars of her suffering there many years later. We’ve frolicked with a dolphin who’s about to be stupidly, senselessly cooked alive by a hydrogen bomb in the name of some ephemeral geopolitical advantage, bringing home to us what these terrible weapons do to the fragile ecosystems of our one and only home. We’ve made a bomb of our own and experienced some of the heady rush that comes with harnessing such elemental forces of nature — the same rush that captured and possibly consumed both Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, each in his own way. We’ve watched history being written down before our eyes into a permanent and remorseless Book of Hours. And we’ve located the fulcrum of history in that fateful moment on the morning of July 16, 1945, way out in the New Mexican desert.
It eventually becomes apparent that the overriding objective of Trinity the game is to sabotage Trinity the first test of an atomic bomb. All of our hopscotching through time has been to set us up for that goal. At last, we achieve it. We expect something triumphant. Surely this means that humanity has been steered away from this senseless course, that all this tragic history we’ve been experiencing has been averted.
Well, what we get is this:
You slide the blade of the steak knife under the striped wire and pull back on it as hard as you can. The thick insulation cracks under the strain, stretches, frays and splits...
Snap! A shower of sparks erupts from the enclosure. You lose your balance and fall backwards to the floor.
"X-unit just went out again," shouts a voice.
"Which line is it, Baker?"
"Kid's board says it's the informer. The others look okay. We're lettin' it go, Able. The sequencer's running."
The walkie-talkie hisses quietly.
You turn, but see no one.
"Zero minus fifteen seconds," crackles the walkie-talkie.
"You should be proud of yourself." Where is that voice coming from? "This gadget would've blown New Mexico right off the map if you hadn't stopped it. Imagine the embarrassment."
A burst of static. "Minus ten seconds."
The space around you articulates. It's not as scary the second time.
"Of course, there's the problem of causality," continues the voice. "If Harry doesn't get his A-bomb, the future that created you cannot occur. And you can't sabotage the test if you're never born, can you?"
The walkie-talkie is fading away. "Five seconds. Four."
The voice chuckles amiably. "Not to worry, though. Nature doesn't know the word 'paradox.' Gotta bleed off that quantum steam somehow. Why, I wouldn't be surprised to see a good-sized bang every time they shoot off one of these gizmos. Just enough fireworks to keep the historians happy."
And then we’re stuck right back where we started, in the Kensington Gardens on the eve of World War III, to do everything we’ve already done all over again… ad infinitum.
There are two levels on which to wrestle with this strange, bitter ending: on the physical, as realistic storyworld plot logic; and on the symbolic or poetic. Let’s start with the first.
While it’s hardly crystal clear, we can best surmise that Trinity portrays an alternate reality whose laws of physics dictate that that first atomic bomb — and presumably all the ones to follow, should anyone have been able to create them — should have blown up vastly bigger than the scientists who created it expected — and bigger also than the bombs we know from our own reality. Thus the gadget of this subtly different universe “would’ve blown New Mexico right off the map.” Like so much else in Trinity, it’s an idea with an historical basis, which is discussed at some length in The Day the Sun Rose Twice by Ferenc Morton Szasz. This book, published only shortly before Moriarty started working on Trinity, became his bible for the details of the Trinity test; Szasz himself became an informal personal adviser.
As early as 1922 Nobel Lauerate Francis William Aston warned against “tinkering with angry atoms,” voicing concerns that a physicist might accidentally start a chain reaction that would fuse hydrogen in the earth’s atmosphere into helium, the same process that powers the sun — and the hydrogen bomb. The question of whether a human-induced chain reaction taking place inside a bomb could start a runaway chain reaction in the atmosphere at large would continue to nag in the background for a long time, right up through the Trinity test and even well beyond it. In July of 1942, when the Manhattan Project was just getting started in earnest, Edward Teller of all people produced a series of calculations that seemed to show that a fission bomb could in fact create enough heat to ignite the atmosphere. All work came to a halt for several panicked days while the other scientists checked his numbers. It was decided that a probability of better than 1 in 3 million of such an apocalypse actually occurring would be enough to scuttle the Manhattan Project entirely. In the end some of Teller’s numbers were proved to be in error, the probability judged to be somewhat less than 1 in 3 million, and work resumed.
Yet even after they had checked and rechecked their calculations a certain nervousness persisted amongst the scientist preparing for the Trinity test. Enrico Fermi dealt with the question with his typical black humor, offering wagers on whether the bomb would cause a runaway chain reaction at all and, if so, whether it would take out just New Mexico or the whole world. (In either of the latter cases, the winner was likely to be sadly unable to collect…) When the bomb finally exploded, a number of scientists recall an instant of panic at its sheer scale, an instant of wondering if the runaway chain reaction they had all shoved into the backs of their minds was happening before their eyes. Their relief as it became clear that the explosion had reached its limit was perhaps even greater than their relief and sense of triumph that the Manhattan Project had succeeded in its mission.
So, that’s one important part of Trinity‘s ending. But if we can feel ourselves on firm ground with a supersized version of the Trinity bomb absent the Wabewalker’s interference, the rest of what’s happened is rather less clear. Rather than causing the Trinity bomb to simply not work at all, our act of sabotage has merely reduced the scale of its explosion to the Trinity test we know from our own reality — i.e., to the scale the scientists were expecting all along. It seems very hard to believe that cutting a wire would really have allowed the Trinity bomb to blow up nevertheless, only not as big as it otherwise would. Still, we may have to accept the Wabewalker’s act as having had just that outcome. If we do, we must then assume that “bleeding off that quantum steam” entails that all future nuclear explosions will also be reduced in power to correspond with the one that’s just been sabotaged, as a result of some sort of heretofore undiscovered self-correcting quality of the universe. The Wabewalker, whom we might better name Sisyphus, must cycle again and again through time, (partially) sabotaging the Trinity bomb over and over to prevent that paradox that nature “doesn’t know” — the paradox that must be if he doesn’t perform the actions that give birth to the world he knew when he took his $599 London Getaway Package. We might consider him a hero, except that it’s not at all clear that his actions are a net positive. If “blowing New Mexico right off the map” would have led humanity to stop this madness and thus averted the nuclear apocalypse that comes in the Kensington Gardens, then according to the terrible logic of war in the nuclear age the lives of all those New Mexicans would better have been sacrificed in the name of saving billions more all over the world. Our victory in Trinity is the very definition of Pyrrhic.
This chain of conjecture is a sometimes flimsy one, some of its logic a bit wobbly. Yet one feels that trying to parse Trinity‘s ending any more closely gets us into the fan-fiction territory of, say, hardcore Ultima fans trying to reconcile with itself Richard Garriott’s ever-changing world of Britannia, of frantic ret-conning to make sense of things that just, well, don’t make sense. As Andrew Plotkin once said of Trinity‘s ending, “I’ve always been uncertain about how well it hangs together. But just uncertain enough that I think it might be cooler than I am capable of grasping.” It’s Trinity‘s ability to evoke the doubt expressed in that second sentence that may just be its saving grace as a time-travel fiction.
But you know what? I’m not sure how much I care about the real-world logic behind Trinity‘s ending, simply because it’s so powerful on a poetic and philosophical level. Taken as just the culmination of a time-travel puzzle, it’s very clever, yes, if not quite clever enough to feel entirely bulletproof. (Where did the umbrella actually come from? If, as would seem to be implied, that’s your corpse you meet in the magical land, how to reconcile that with the apparently eternal loop you’re stuck in?) It’s clever in a way that any science-fiction fan has seen many times before, clever in the way of that cool twist at the end of a great thriller. Taken more abstractly, however, it becomes much more than merely clever. And it’s on that more abstract level that I find I really want to discuss it.
Before I do that, though, I should take a moment to talk a bit more about why I’m so willing to forgive Trinity its faults as realistic fiction. It’s a question I’ve spent quite some time considering, using as a point of comparison Trinity‘s perpetual point of comparison, Infocom’s other unabashed striving for the mantle of Literature A Mind Forever Voyaging. As many of you doubtless remember, I dinged that game pretty hard for its own various failings as realistic fiction. I therefore owe it to you to explain why I’m so blasé about this aspect of Trinity. One possibility is of course that I simply like Trinity better, and am thus more willing to excuse its failings. However, while the first part of that statement is certainly true, I’m not so sure about the second. Roger Ebert (every gamer’s favorite critic, right?) often used to say that every movie deserves to be reviewed on its own terms — i.e., on the terms of what it’s trying to be. If a movie wants to be a moody art-house character study, how much insight does it give into the proverbial human condition? If it’s a fast-paced action flick, how well does it get the adrenalin pumping? If it’s a porno… well, you get the idea. Unless I’ve misjudged its intent entirely, A Mind Forever Voyaging wants to be a compelling piece of hard science fiction, a realistic extrapolation of current trends in the spirit of the fictions it references on its back cover, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Trinity, though, wants to be something quite different, more poetic than realistic, more a philosophical meditation than a plot-driven story. Particularly when we’re in the magical land that serves as the hub of our historical explorations, we’re literally wandering through a landscape of symbolism, of ideas cast into physical reality. Trinity is a philosophical meditation given the superficial form of a story, like Gulliver’s Travels or Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
I think it’s fair to judge its ending in particular on those terms. I consider Trinity‘s ending to be both the bleakest and the most profound in the Infocom catalog, much more so than that of Infidel in that Moriarty’s ending serves as the essential culmination of his game’s message, not as a mere experiment to see whether a tragic ending could “work” in an interactive medium. Indeed, one could use the word “experiment” to describe most of Infocom’s pre-Trinity nods toward Literature. The ending of Infidel, the friendship and sad fate of Floyd in Planetfall, arguably even the political message and puzzleless structure of A Mind Forever Voyaging were treated almost as technical challenges: “Can we use interactive fiction to do XXX?” Trinity alone feels like a mature, holistic statement rather than an experiment. It doesn’t even bother wasting time on the question: “Of course we can, and now here’s an historical tragedy for ya.”
I want to come back to the idea of Trinity as a tragedy, but first I want to look more closely at another phrase I’ve thrown out there from time to time in this series of articles: this idea of Trinity as a “meditation on history.” Ridiculously simplified, there are two ways of viewing history, of viewing time itself: as a ladder or as a wheel.
History as a ladder is an ongoing process of improvement and perfection. Wars and other terrible things sometimes happen that knock us a notch or two back down the ladder, but we always pick ourselves up and start to climb again. As long as we keep working at it, the lives of most of the people on earth will most of the time continue to get better. It’s an idea that by this point seems intertwined into the very DNA of most Western societies. You can find it in the Christianity — particularly Protestant Christianity — whose moral precepts are still at the root of our systems of laws: a Christian, born into a heritage of sin, spends her life striving to overcome that heritage and improve both herself and the world around her, after which she’s rewarded with the ultimate perfection of Heaven. You can find it in our economic systems: capitalism is based on the assumption that we can always make more money than we did the previous year (an assumption which, as Karl Marx among others have pointed out, may not be sustainable in the long term). The United States, amongst the most Christian and the most unabashedly capitalist of Western societies, hews to the idea particularly closely: what else is the American Dream but an idealized narrative of personal improvement and eventual perfection, a secular version of Christianity’s spiritual journey? In the euphoric aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, American historians started enthusiastically writing about “the end of history,” declaring the world to have reached the top of the ladder and attained perfection at last — in, naturally, the image of the United States. But I’m not here to condemn the notion of history as progress. Far from it. As an American myself, it’s largely the way I too see the world — and, I would even say, with good reason. Still, we should give due weight to the other point of view.
Circumstances come and go, says the circular view of history, but through it all there is the Eternal Now. As the Book of Ecclesiastes, one of the most beloved and most theologically problematic books of the Old Testament, says: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” It’s a view that’s actually even older than Ecclesiastes, stretching back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers whose works often survive only as fragments. Since then it’s tended to be most prevalent in non-Western societies. Certainly we can see it in Hinduism and Buddhism with their nearly perpetual reincarnation of the soul rather than the single life as a journey toward perfection (or damnation). It was resurrected in the West only in the last few hundred years by the school of European continental philosophy, whose tolerance for ambiguity and subjectivity tends to stand it in opposition to the analytic tradition that dominates in Britain and the United States, with its emphasis on rationalism and empiricism. Thus you can find it in Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Recurrence. You can find it in our old friend Robert Pinsky’s metaphor of the Figured Wheel. You can find it in its most nihilistic incarnation in many apocalyptic fictions of the Cold War, such as Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which posits a humanity destined to pull itself out of the Dark Ages only to destroy its civilization as soon as nuclear weapons are (re)invented, over and over again in a futile cycle of stupidity spanning endless millennia. And of course you can find it in Trinity, which posits your grand adventure to be a perpetual loop — or, to choose another symbol from the game itself, a Klein bottle with no beginning, no end, and no measurable property of progress in between.
Trinity‘s despairing nihilism is a result of Brian Moriarty’s own conviction as of 1986 that nuclear war was inevitable, that it was only a question of “when” and “how,” never “whether.” Any thoughtful person studying the history of atomic weapons and the Cold War as of 1986 could experience the same sense of predestination, the sense of the futility of the individual, that permeates Trinity. Time and time again the reasonable men had been battered down by the paranoid and the power-mad. Robert Oppenheimer’s case is just one example. Another, perhaps more immediate one for Moriarty would have been the story of President Carter, who entered office determined to reduce the United States’s nuclear arsenal to a “minimal deterrence” level of just 100 to 200 missiles and reach reasonable accommodations with the Soviet Union on a host of issues; he exited four years later amidst boycotts and spiking tensions, and having initiated the arms buildup that would go on to become the most extreme in the peacetime history of the country under Ronald Reagan. Against the forces of history, it seemed that even a good and powerful man like Carter was ultimately powerless.
Can I, the individual, alter the course of history? My answer must first depend on whether I believe in free will. Trinity would seem to tell us that we do have free will on an individual, granular level. The Book of Hours we discover in the magical land shows the Wabewalker’s actions in its pages only as he performs them, not before. Yet on the other hand, virtually everything else in the game is set up to make us feel, as Moriarty put it in an interview published immediately after Trinity, “the weight of all this history, crushing you.” There’s not a lot of individual agency allowed by that description, is there? The magical land of metaphor that serves as the spine of the game would certainly seem to represent a view of time that’s mechanistic and eternally recurring. The sun sweeps around and around its perimeter under the control of the mechanical sundial at its center — literally a wheel of time — its shadow falling again and again on the same set of historical events. “No new thing under the sun” indeed. This is the tragic view of history.
And now, having stumbled upon that word yet again, I think it’s time for us to really think about it. Like so many words, it has at least a couple of valid usages. In everyday speech we use it pretty much any time something really sad or really unjust happens to anyone. So, yes, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen were tragic. But they weren’t tragedies in the philosophical or literary sense that Trinity is a tragedy.
Most of us were inculcated as schoolchildren in another version of tragedy: it’s all about the “tragic flaw.” A noble, virtuous, and capable man is utterly undone by a single failing in his character: perhaps Lust, perhaps Greed, perhaps Ambition, perhaps Jealousy. The tragic hero must of course die for his failing, but in the process of doing so he will be redeemed and restored to at least a measure of his former greatness through self-discovery and acknowledgement of his sins. Originating with Aristotle in roughly 350 BC, it proved to be a conception very well-suited to later Christian societies, for the cycle forms a neat allegory of the central narrative of Christianity: the Creation, the Fall, and Redemption in the after-life. How appropriate then that the earliest great tragedy of the Elizabethan era, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, not only follows this outline perfectly but has its protagonist directly interacting with metaphysical specters of Christian good and evil.
Still, despite lots of hammering and prodding over the centuries, the tragic flaw actually sits rather uncomfortably upon lots of tragic heroes. What’s the tragic flaw of Oedipus? He quite sensibly did everything he reasonably could to derail the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, only to have the universe screw him over anyway. What’s the tragic flaw of Hamlet? Some critics have tried to say it’s indecisiveness, but one can’t help but feel that wishy-washyness lacks a certain moral grandeur. What’s next? Messiness as a tragic flaw? (If so, and as anyone who’s ever seen my office will attest, I’m screwed.)
Aristotle’s word that is generally translated as “tragic flaw” is “hamartia.” It’s a term with its origins in archery, where it’s used to refer to a “missing of the mark.” It was removed from this context by Aristotle, and extended to mean any general mistake or failing. Later, Christian translators may have anachronistically inserted the concept into their own worldview, giving it a moral, even spiritual dimension it does not generally possess in Greek tragedy. There is no grand Christian narrative of guilt, punishment, and redemption to be found here, but rather a sort of cosmic joke and an illustration of the powerlessness of even the mightiest in the face of a universe determined to have its way with us no matter what we do. This is the conception of tragedy hinted at in the works of the philosophers who lived during and before the time of Sophocles, well before the time of Aristotle. It’s the conception of tragedy that Nietzsche would rescue and begin to expound in the nineteenth century after centuries of neglect. Trinity also connects itself to these classical currents, not least via another in its arsenal of symbols: the ferryman Charon. In Greek mythology, he carries souls from the land of the living to that of the dead. In Trinity, he carries the Wabewalker to the Trinity site, the beginning of the end.
The ancient Greeks called the elemental, irresistible force of the universe, the “what will be must be” of existence, “physis.” Some people prefer to call it God; some prefer to call it science — or, more specifically and interestingly, physics. Whatever you call it, it can be a bitch sometimes. The real key to Trinity the tragedy may lie in those lines from Hamlet quoted on the back of its box:
The time is out of joint;
O cursed spite, That ever I was
born to set it right!
Hamlet is arrogant enough to believe he’s some sort of Aristotelian tragic hero, destined to “set it right” through his redemptive, sacrificial heroism. What he fails to understand is that the universe is destined to kick his ass no matter what he does. The Wabewalker is arrogant enough to believe in his sweet, clueless American way that he can “fix” history and make everything better. He’s likewise about to get a swift kick in the ass to disabuse him of that notion. Oedipus the King, Hamlet, and Trinity all in fact share a protagonist who’s deluded enough to believe he can prevent or correct a monstrosity that should not be: a son married to his mother in Oedipus; a brother who has committed fratricide and married his sister-in-law in Hamlet; the atomic bomb in Trinity. The joke’s on them. The universe is, as Trinity‘s climactic text implies and as a little game called Zork once stated outright, “self-contained and self-maintaining.”
So, are we left with nothing more than a sick cosmic joke? An essential component of the Aristotelian conception of tragedy is the hero who is redeemed at last through his suffering. Where is the Wabewalker’s redemption? Those of us who play Trinity today can of course take comfort in the fact that what Moriarty saw as inevitable did not come to pass. Instead a hero emerged named Mikhail Gorbachev who, it turned out, actually was capable of breaking the tragic cycle and just possibly saving the world in the way that Oppenheimer, Carter, the Wabewalker, and so many others were not. Because of him life did not imitate Trinity‘s art.
But playing the Gorbachev card is kind of cheating, isn’t it? Is there redemption to be found within Trinity without recourse to external events? I’m not sure I know how to answer this question, how to describe or explain the way that Trinity makes me feel, but I’ll try.
The ancient Greeks talked about something called the “kairos moment,” the orgiastic instance when physis wells up and Great Change happens. Call it God time if you prefer; call it the ineffable transcendence. At that moment we’re at one with the universe, at one with time. The time is no longer out of joint; we’re living in time, oblivious to it. Those scientists in the New Mexico desert experienced a kairos moment when they saw their gadget explode — so awful and so awe-full. Somehow, in a way nobody has ever adequately described and that I certainly can’t begin to, we can also experience a vicarious kairos time at the culminating moment of tragedy, stare into the abyss and come away redeemed. It’s not about seeking redemption for Oedipus or Hamlet or the Wabewalker. It’s redemption for us.
When Nietzsche wrote of a wheel of time, of the Eternal Recurrence, it wasn’t an exercise in nihilism. Just the opposite. He was looking for a way to escape from the tyranny of linear chronology, from the eternal tragedy of the human condition, which is to live out of joint with time, always casting our mental gaze forward or backward, almost never living in the Eternal Now that is Life. If you’re like me, maybe you feel a bit wistful from time to time when you watch your pets play or eat or love, completely in the moment. They have something we can only touch occasionally, unpredictably. And yet it’s important to try. Because even if the world is headed to hell, even if the missiles are going to fly tomorrow, we have the Now. Because even if our individual Books of Hours are already completely written and we can’t do a damn thing about any of it, we still have the Now. Inside Trinity, we wind up after the supreme futility of the sabotage that wasn’t quite the sabotage we thought it was back in the Kensington Gardens. Okay, fair enough. Let’s take a stroll, feel the sun on our skin, enjoy the happy babble of life around us. Who cares if this is the last moment ever? It’s a moment, isn’t it? Pity to waste it. Anyway, last I checked there was a soccer ball and a perambulator and an umbrella to be gathered…
We’re interdimensional travelers of time and space, Wabewalkers on the go. We’re going to visit a nondescript spot way out in the New Mexico desert between Socorro and Alamogordo, approximately latitude 33 degrees north, longitude 106 degrees west, late in the evening of July 15, 1945.
If you were a novelist scripting a place to unleash an elemental force of nature, you hardly could have done better than the place we stand now. There’s something different about New Mexico; not for nothing do they call it the Land of Enchantment. It’s a quality of the air, of the light, of the harsh, otherworldly landscape itself which is in no way conventionally beautiful but beautiful all the same. New Mexico captures dreamers for reasons no one can fully articulate. Dreamers like Georgie O’Keeffe, who fled her circle of New York City sophisticates to roam the desert alone and obsessively paint, paint, paint not just the stuff around her but the light that baked her skin brown as a nut. Dreamers like D.H. Lawrence, who wandered to New Mexico as part of his “savage exile” from Britain and stayed long enough to write several books here; he declared New Mexico “the greatest experience I ever had,” one that “changed me forever.”
I know what he meant. When I was young and at loose ends, I took a solitary road trip around the state in my old 280Z, staying at hostels at night and roaming the dunes during the day. I still remember the dust and the sweat and the light, and how good a beer and a dive into a watering hole felt at the end of the day. New Mexico still calls to me. I’ve gone back several times with various companions since, and I suspect I’ll continue to look for excuses to do so for the rest of my life. Still, it’s never been quite the same as it was that first time. I think the desert is best experienced alone.
The part of the desert we’re visiting today was once part of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro — “The Royal Road of the Interior” — that ran all the way from Mexico City to San Juan Pueblo near the northern border of the present-day state of New Mexico. This stretch of the Camino Real was and is known as Jornada del Muerto — “Journey of the Dead.” It’s so-called because this basin, stretching 100 miles north to south, is bereft of food and water throughout its length. Only yucca and scattered scrub grows here. Native Americans knew from time immemorial to avoid it at all costs, while the Spaniards who died trying to make their way across it became the source of the ominous name it has held since before 1700. The Spaniards named the town they built at its northern tip Socorro — “succor” or “sustenance” — because that’s exactly what it represented to weary travelers from El Paso del Norte heading north toward Santa Fe. Various settlers over the centuries have tried to make a go of life in the Jornada del Muerto, digging wells and bringing in sheep and cattle; we’ll meet in a bit a part of what they left behind. But it’s always a hardscrabble existence, their numbers always few.
This particular night in the Jornada del Muerto is an unusual one for two reasons. First of all, it’s raining, something that happens very seldom here. In fact, it’s raining hard, a violent thunderstorm of the sort that visits the desert only once or so per year. The storm will dump four inches of rain in a few hours onto a region that normally only gets about eight per year. That the rain gods should choose this of all nights to have their frolic seems poetically portentous. Because, you see, perched incongruously in the middle of nothing is a 100-foot-tall tower, Ground Zero of a new era in human history.
Base of Tower
A steel tower rises overhead, black against the cloudy sky. Your eyes follow the tapered frame up the ladder, past dangling ropes and cables, to the platform at its summit.
Paved roads and instrument lines lead off into the surrounding desert.
Let’s travel up the tower’s length and peek inside the flimsy metal shed perched at its top (what barrier is height to an interdimensional traveler?). Inside we see the “gadget,” the world’s first atomic bomb, an ungainly contraption of steel and cabling. We’ve arrived at Trinity.
You're in a metal shack, barely twelve feet square. The oak floor is littered with discarded bits of rope, pulleys and other hardware. A dark light bulb hangs from the ceiling. You can see an exit in the west wall.
A five-foot sphere rests on a bracket in the middle of the floor. Its surface is studded with bolts and crossed with electrical cables, all converging in a boxlike enclosure nearby.
Sitting in the corner (luckily, we interdimensional travelers are also invisible) is a young man flipping nervously through a cheap paperback. His name is Donald Hornig, and he’s 25 years old. He’s a prodigious chemist who’s already earned his PhD, an expert on explosives who was plucked out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute by James Conant, President of Harvard, to join the Manhattan Project. He did important work on the implosion process that will, if all goes well, start in a matter of a few hours a nuclear chain reaction in the gadget with which he now shares the shed. He will go on to a long career as a professor and administrator in some of the pinnacles of academia: Brown, Princeton, Harvard.
Right now, however, Hornig is just a glorified babysitter, perched up here because General Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer are paranoid about sabotage and don’t trust any ordinary guard to get too close to the gadget. He must know at some level that, brilliant as he is, he’s no Oppenheimer or Edward Teller; he’s up here at the top of a 100-foot tower babysitting a cobbled-together nuclear bomb in the middle of a violent thunderstorm because he’s expendable. That’s the way it always is; when the Oppenheimers and Groves of the world start their grand projects, there always have to be lots of Hornigs to see that they get done. He tries to forget his predicament, tries to read his book — The Desert Island Decameron, a collection of light essays and stories written by popular authors and sold cheap to keep the troops entertained — under the light of the single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling, trying to ignore the flashing lightning and howling wind. At last, at midnight, with the storm still raging, his telephone rings: “Come down!” Hornig climbs carefully down the side of the tower, then gets into a jeep and heads off to the canteen at the base camp for a cup of coffee. He will be the last person to see the gadget.
As the hours pass and the bomb sits alone up there in its shed, the temporary bunkers and camps that surround it are buzzing with activity. The plan was to explode the gadget at 4:00 this morning, but the weather causes a delay and much uncertainty. It’s considered urgently important to do the test this morning if at all possible, as President Truman is now in Potsdam and awaiting word of the Manhattan Project’s success — or failure — to know how he should conduct himself with Soviet General Secretary Stalin; as a whole raft of dignitaries and representatives have made the trip down to New Mexico to see the blast; as everyone is so damn tired — most of the people working onsite haven’t slept for two days — that they’d need a week or two just to rest and recuperate and prepare everything again for a rescheduled test.
Thankfully, the rain stops at dawn.
At 5:10, a physicist named Samuel King Allison begins intoning the final twenty-minute countdown over loudspeakers mounted all over the complex. His voice booms out for our ears only from the base of the tower itself. Countdowns sounding much like this one will later become familiar to everyone who watches the NASA space launches on television. This one, though, is like the gadget itself the first of its kind in the history of the world. A local radio station is broadcasting on a similar wavelength; Allison’s dulcet tones are occasionally overlaid with snatches of The Nutcracker Suite. Indeed, radio interference has been a constant problem at the Trinity site. The frequency chosen for short-wave communication among the scientists is the same as that used by a railway freight yard in San Antonio, Texas. Throughout the last weeks of frenzied preparation, the scientists could occasional hear the train dispatchers — and the train dispatchers could presumably occasionally hear the scientists. Even more alarmingly for security, Trinity also occasionally gets its bandwidth crossed with shortwave transmissions from the Voice of America. Hopefully their dialogs are esoteric enough that no one is likely to make sense of them.
At 5:25 we see a signal rocket flash into the sky, at 5:29 another; there was supposed to be one at 5:28 as well, but it was a dud. Let’s freeze time now (we interdimensional travelers do have many powers, don’t we?) and look around to see what else these men have wrought out here in the desert.
If we begin to streak outward from the tower in concentric circles — like, say, a hyperactive roadrunner — the first interesting thing we come to is an enormous metal non sequitur perched about half a mile west of the tower.
West of Tower
A tall framework of steel has been erected here, cousin to the larger tower visible not far to the east. Suspended within the frame is an enormous metal barrel, at least twenty feet long and ten wide, with rounded end caps. It looks like a king-sized cold capsule.
Why would anyone hang a giant barrel in the middle of nowhere like this? There don't seem to be any openings, windows or markings of any kind; as far as you can tell, the thing is utterly useless.
The cold capsule, known colloquially as “Jumbo,” is a sign of the sheer urgency of the Manhattan Project and its associated willingness to expend resources lavishly on things that may actually prove pointless. (This is, you may remember, the same Manhattan Project that designed and built not one but two completely different atomic bombs, one using uranium and the other — the sort being tested this morning — using plutonium, in the hope that at least one of the things would turn out to work.) For a time plans for the Trinity test called for the gadget to be completely enclosed within Jumbo, which was designed to be strong enough that if the explosives mounted around the bomb’s plutonium core fired but failed to trigger the expected nuclear chain reaction its walls would not be breached. Thus it would be easy to collect and reuse the precious plutonium. Manufactured in Ohio, the heart of steel country, to exacting specifications, just getting its 214-ton bulk to the test site turned into a major effort of logistics. A railroad car had to be specially modified to carry this, the largest item ever shipped by rail. Because many sections of track simply couldn’t support something of this weight, the train had to take a circuitous route, from Barberton, Ohio, down to New Orleans, and then west across Texas. A special spur had to be constructed south of Socorro to unload it. Jumbo was then loaded onto a specially constructed 64-wheel trailer and pulled to the Trinity site by nine tractors along a 25-mile road that also had to be constructed from scratch.
And by the time it arrived here at last, two months ago, it was already superfluous. The scientists were feeling more and more confident that the test would be a success, plutonium was beginning to come out of the Manhattan Project’s complex of nuclear reactors in Hanford, Washington, in relatively good quantities, and it would make for a better, easier-to-monitor test if the bomb was exploded in the open air rather than inside a giant steel tube. And so after all that effort Jumbo has ended up here; the scientists lamely explain that they can use it to see what effect an atomic bomb has on… well, on a giant, pointless 214-ton metal tube sitting half a mile away from it. The answer will turn out to be, unsurprisingly, pretty much none at all, although the tower in which it’s mounted will be blown down. Jumbo will eventually end up sitting in the Trinity memorial parking lot for the benefit of the tourists who will be allowed to visit on one or two days out of every year, while scientists will later realize what a blessing it was that Jumbo wasn’t used: it would have been vaporized by the gadget, spewing 214 tons of radioactive particles into the atmosphere.
Continuing to circle outward, we come now to a strange artifact of another type not quite a mile southeast of the shot tower.
You're standing at the edge of a shallow depression in the desert floor, a few hundred feet across. The ground within is gray and pulverized, as if by a powerful explosion.
This is indeed the remnant of a powerful explosion, of a dress rehearsal of sorts for Trinity that was conducted two months ago. A rather staggering 110 tons of TNT were stacked atop a 20-foot tower, along with a sprinkling of radioactive plutonium for realism’s sake. Then the whole thing was blown up remotely from the control bunker destined to be used for the main test. The plutonium was scattered widely by the explosion, giving the scientists a way to check and calibrate their instruments.
Moving along brings us to something more interesting about two miles southeast of the shot tower: an everyday-looking if somewhat worse-for-wear house sitting alone in the desert.
The ranch house is squat and ugly, with adobe walls and a cheap tin roof. A deck is attached to the front.
The ranch house was built in 1913 by Franz Schmidt, a German immigrant and homesteader who lived a lonely existence here with his family for about ten years, raising sheep and cattle on land which he leased from the New Mexico government; the state owns most of the Jornada del Muerto. The Schmidts eventually sold the house and their lease on the land to another family, the McDonalds. But in 1942 the McDonalds were forced off their land by the federal government, who needed a wide open space for the testing of artillery and bombs.
When this part of the Jornada del Muerto was selected for the Trinity test in 1944, the house was a convenient bonus. It became a headquarters of sorts for the scientists. The interior was largely stripped, workbenches, maps, and equipment moved in, generators set up just outside for electricity. The doors and windows were weather-stripped as part of an oft-futile battle against the gales of dust and sand that constantly blow over the desert plains. The walls were tar-papered and the roof painted with aluminum paint in a truly futile battle against the searing heat of summer. The scientists found a more effective remedy to be the reservoir out back, perfect for spirit-renewing afternoon dips when the work became exhausting and the heat unbearable.
Let’s peek inside the house, see what they were up to in there…
Whoever used this room was paranoid about dirt. The floor is swept spotless, and the edges of both windows are carefully sealed with tape. A closed front door leads east, and there's an open closet door in the north wall. Other exits lead south and west.
A workbench covered with loose sheets of brown paper runs along the north wall. You see bits of wire and other debris scattered across the paper.
Just a few days ago, on the evening of July 12, the two halves of the gadget’s plutonium core arrived at the ranch house under the stewardship of a young Army sergeant named Herbert Lehr, having ridden down from Los Alamos in the backseat of a sedan. The next day Louis Slotin arrived at the house’s “clean room” — the doors and windows had been sealed with tape and plastic against the ever-present dust and sand — to assemble the core. He placed a beryllium/polonium neutron initiator inside one half of the plutonium core, then gently lowered the other half into place to produce an apparatus about the size of a tennis ball but about the weight of a bowling ball. The scientists call these operations “tickling the dragon’s tail,” as one slip can send the core supercritical, irradiating the surrounding area and anyone within it. In the future such things will be done by machines inside shielded real clean rooms, attended by radiation-suited operators. But in 1945 the scientists place all of their faith in Slotin’s steady hand and steely nerves, and in the jeeps waiting outside with their engines running — as if radiation could be outrun. Luckily, Slotin was an experienced hand at this. The assembly went off without a hitch, the assembled core delivered to the shot tower to be placed inside the gadget the next day. Slotin’s luck, however, won’t hold out forever. Less than a year from now, he’ll make a mistake when performing a similar operation, absorbing a huge dose of radiation and dying agonizingly a week later.
The ranch house, judged too close for safety to the shot tower and thus empty now, will weather the blast none the worse for wear, apart from some blown-out windows. The ravages of time and weather will not be so kind. It will sit, abandoned and ignored, for decades after the Trinity test while David McDonald, patriarch of the family that once owned it, burns with outrage. The McDonalds, David will later claim, had been promised that the lease and the land would be returned to them once the war was over and the need for such large-scale artillery testing disappeared. But after the war that need will be replaced by another: the artillery range will become the White Sands Proving Grounds, where captured V-2 rockets are tinkered with to inaugurate the United States’s missile program. And then the White Sands Proving Grounds will become the modern White Sands Missile Range. Meanwhile David McDonald will continue to insist that the land was “stolen” from his family. The story will take a bizarre turn in 1982 when David McDonald, now 81 years old, will take possession along with his niece Mary of what’s left of the house — by then it will be little more than a ruin — armed with two rifles and a pistol. They will post signs about the property: “Deeded Land — No Trespassing” and “Road Closed to U.S. Army.” Eventually, with the aid of one of New Mexico’s Senators and the district’s Congressmen, they will be talked into leaving the property peacefully.
Whether as a result of David McDonald’s actions or just coincidence, the military will at last decide at about that time to do something with the house. It will be restored to its 1945 condition by the National Park Service and, beginning in 1984, opened to tourists who come to the Trinity site.
Continuing our circles, we come at last to some people. Three bunkers are set up about six miles northwest, southwest, and south of the shot tower, each with a handful of inhabitants. Let’s stop at the largest and most interesting of these, the “Baker” bunker south of the tower, from which the explosion is to be actually controlled and monitored.
The square shelter is built of heavy timber, covered with a thick layer of earth on the north side. Bright light spills across the desert from the open south entrance.
A thin man steps into view, standing just inside the shelter's entrance.
The thin man near the shelter is drawn and haggard; it looks as if he hasn't slept in days.
Pushing back his porkpie hat, the thin man peers up at the overcast sky.
The thin man is Robert Oppenheimer. Others out of our sight inside the bunker include Enrico Fermi, the first man to institute a nuclear chain reaction; George Kistiakowsky, head of the group that designed the high-explosive lenses that will collapse the gadget’s plutonium core; Kenneth Bainbridge, who has supervised the practical details of this test on behalf of the Los Alamos scientists; meteorologist Jack Hubbard, who was for most of the previous night the most anxiously consulted man on the site; and Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, General Groves’s right-hand man. Groves himself tore off from the control bunker in a jeep twenty minutes ago, toward the base camp further south, in accordance with a rule that he and Farrell should never place themselves into danger at the same time. All of the people I’ve just mentioned are worthy of articles in their own right. But now, for today, what of Oppenheimer?
Yes, what of Robert Oppenheimer? That’s a question that family, friends, and colleagues have been asking and will continue to ask all his life. As enigmatic a man as you’re ever likely to meet, he seems almost uniquely capable of inspiring either the most fervent admiration or the most contemptuous dislike — and sometimes, as in the case of Edward Teller, both in the same person. Perhaps an old story might help me to begin to explain.
Shortly after a young Oppenheimer accepted a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, he went on a date with a graduate student. They apparently didn’t hit it off very well, and she fell asleep in the car on what should have been a romantic drive up into the Berkeley hills. Oppenheimer simply parked the car and walked away, leaving the girl to wake up alone in a car to which she had no key several miles from home. To his admirers, this became another amusing story about the Oppie the great eccentric, doubtless walking home mulling some fundamental property of the universe, the dull girl long forgotten. To his detractors, it was just a story about a jerk who left a girl stranded in the middle of nowhere for the crime of failing to be his dream date. Far from being natural, they claimed, Oppenheimer’s whole eccentric-intellectual schtick was carefully calculated; he knew exactly the effect he was trying to create when he said, for instance, that he hadn’t been aware of the 1929 stock-market crash until six months after it happened.
Oppenheimer’s famous cultural omnivorism is similarly polarizing. He cooks exotic Indonesian cuisine, studies ethical philosophy, and speaks several languages fluently; when in the Netherlands many years before the war, he would give his physics lectures in Dutch. He collects Renoir, Picasso, Vuillard, Rembrandt, and van Gogh for his walls. He loves classical music, the thorny later works by Beethoven being a particular favorite. He once read the entirety of Das Kapital on a single cross-country train trip. He’s fascinated by Eastern spiritualism, particularly Hinduism, and has learned Sanskrit so as to read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. And yet, while his range of accomplishments is certainly impressive, even Oppenheimer’s friends can sometimes get exasperated with his insistence on working convoluted classical allusions into a discussion on where to eat lunch today. He is, some say, at bottom a poseur.
Yes, for every Oppenheimer admirer there’s a detractor who senses that all of his almost frantic erudition and epicurianism is mere artifice — or part of a striving to fill some basic emptiness at the center of his personality. One of his Dutch colleagues spoke to this impression when Oppenheimer was still in his twenties: “Robert, the reason you know so much about ethics is that you have no character.” While still an undergraduate, Oppenheimer once expressed to some friends the unbearably adolescent sentiment that “the kind of person I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but still maintains a tear-stained countenance.” One might say that Oppenheimer has spent the last twenty years trying to create just that persona from whole cloth, Byron and Darwin all rolled into one, with all the pretension that implies. The sense so many have that there’s something just not quite honest about Oppenheimer, and the almost visceral loathing this impression can create in them, perhaps does much to explain, if by no means to excuse, the persecution he will suffer in the years to come.
Oppenheimer’s life before the war was a rather shockingly bohemian one by the straitlaced standards of the American physics community, involving flashy cars, a flashy pad in the hills, and, prior to and even after his marriage in 1940, rumors of sexual dalliances. His wife is three-time divorcée Kitty Harrison, a well-known Berkeley radical and former Communist Party member who became pregnant with Oppenheimer’s child while still married to her previous husband.
What many of his supporters will later label mere “flirtations” with communism are in reality much more than that. While he apparently never officially joined the Communist Party himself, Oppenheimer met regularly with most of its prominent members in Berkeley, organized rallies with them for manifold causes, and in 1940 personally edited and wrote much of the content for two pamphlets that hewed very closely indeed to the Communist Party line about the war in Europe:
Europe is in the throes of a war. It is a common thought, and a likely one, that when the war is over Europe will be socialist, and the British Empire gone. We think that Roosevelt is assuming the role of preserving the old order in Europe and that he plans, if need be, to use the wealth and the lives of this country to carry it out. We think, that is, that Roosevelt is not only a “war-monger” but a counter-revolutionary war-monger. We think it is this that has turned him from something of a progressive to very much of a reactionary.
The FBI opened its first file on Oppenheimer in March of 1941.
Still, even many of those who will go on to condemn him would have to admit today that his handling of the Manhattan Project has been spectacular. Placed in charge of the most brilliant single collection of scientific minds of the twentieth century, Oppenheimer has found ways to bend virtually every one of them to his will, despite the fact that lots of them have international reputations that far exceed his own; tellingly, Oppenheimer was chosen by General Groves for his position precisely because he wasn’t already engaged in any other research that looked to be vital to the making of the atomic bomb or any other aspect of the war effort. This gifted scientist has risen to the occasion, proving, at least for these few years, to be an if anything even more gifted politician, leader, and administrator. His charges, even those who didn’t have much use for him a few years ago, have gradually come to love him for always making the sensible choice when a big decision comes to his desk and otherwise keeping the nonsense to a minimum. He gives them clear directives and all the resources they need and then trusts them to see their projects through with minimal interference.
But Oppenheimer has also done something else for the Manhattan Project: as the most notable aesthete amongst its ranks, he’s given it its aesthetic character. Oppenheimer first came to New Mexico as a sickly teenager, sent there by his wealthy New York City family to recover from colitis in the clean air of the high desert. Like so many others with artistic souls, he fell in love with the place. As an adult, he bought a little log cabin east of Santa Fe, and spent time there every summer, sometimes alone, sometimes with his closest friends. Many remarked how free and unaffected Oppenheimer became there. Physics and the desert, he remarked on one of these unguarded occasions, were his only real loves. Oppenheimer must have been thinking what a perfect match the Land of Enchantment made for the elemental power of the atomic bomb when he convinced Groves to buy the Los Alamos Ranch School, a boarding school for boys perched atop a 7200-foot mesa 175 miles north of the place where he now stands, to become the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The name for this test is also classic Oppenheimer. One’s first assumption upon seeing the name is that “Trinity” must be a Christian allusion, one that might seem vaguely disrespectful or even blasphemous except for the fact that it really doesn’t make any sense at all in that context. Another possibility that will be mooted by later scholars is that the name refers not to the Christian Trinity but to a Hindu concept that would be very appealing to a physicist like Oppenheimer. According to Hinduism, all of the universe is under the sway of three gods: Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. Nothing in the universe is ever created or destroyed; it merely changes form at the behest of one of this trinity of gods. It’s the First Law of Thermodynamics as religion.
The likely true story, however, is a much more personal one. Prior to his marriage, Oppenheimer had a passionate, turbulent romantic relationship with a young woman named Jean Tatlock. It was in fact Tatlock, an ardent member of the Communist Party, who introduced Oppenheimer to left-wing politics and to many of the associations he will come to bitterly regret after the war. She also introduced him to the great English metaphysical poet John Donne. One sonnet in particular may have become indelibly linked with Tatlock in Oppenheimer’s mind:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
The relationship apparently didn’t die even with Oppenheimer’s being “betroth’d unto” another. He met and spent the night with Tatlock on at least one occasion after assuming control of the Manhattan Project; we know this because a pair of government agents tailed them to her apartment and sat outside the entire night. Six months later, in January of 1944, Tatlock committed suicide. Oppenheimer broke down and wept upon hearing the news. It seems very likely that he named the first American test of an atomic bomb after this noted communist with whom he had conducted an extramarital affair. Yes, that’s a horrible, unfairly moralizing reduction of a woman’s life, of a relationship that clearly affected — scarred? — both parties deeply. But, sentiment aside, there’s a part of Robert Oppenheimer that would have slyly enjoyed putting one over on the military command, would have enjoyed hearing all the rampant speculation around him while he just sat enigmatically and cherished his knowledge of what Trinity really meant. This is the old Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer the polarizer.
Whatever else he is, Robert Oppenheimer is right now very near a nervous breakdown as the moment of Trinity, destined to be either the great achievement or the great fiasco of his life, draws near. Always of a nervous disposition, he’s now at the ragged edge. For the last couple of hours General Groves has been periodically leading him out of the bunker on walks to try to calm his nerves. Groves, Oppenheimer’s opposite in every way — rotund where Oppenheimer appears almost emaciated, a blunt personality as devoid of Oppenheimer’s melancholy as he is of his intellectualism — is nevertheless oddly sympatico with the man he hand-picked to lead the scientists. It’s a strange, unlikely bond, but a bond nevertheless. Groves greatly admires Oppenheimer, pronouncing him a “genius”: “Oppenheimer knows about everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up. Well, not exactly. I guess there are a few things he doesn’t know about. He doesn’t know anything about sports.” His betrayal will thus hurt Oppenheimer even more than that of Edward Teller when, almost nine years from now, he will state at Oppenheimer’s security hearing that he feels that Oppenheimer’s security clearances should be revoked.
In the here and now, Groves left Oppenheimer to manage as best he can about 20 minutes ago. Now he’s at the Trinity base camp, a makeshift little town for several hundred scientists, engineers, soldiers, and workers about 10 miles from the shot tower.
There are lots of other people around the site that we could talk about. There is, for instance, Klaus Fuchs, the quiet German exile who has been passing vital secrets of the Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union for months now and will continue to do so for years to come. And look, there’s our old friend Edward Teller. He’s standing on Compañía Hill, a good observation point about twenty miles northwest of the shot tower, along with dozens of other scientists and dignitaries who have just arrived to view the test. Like others all around the site, they’ve been smearing themselves with suntan lotion for protection against the blast. Now most of them are lying, as they’ve been instructed, with their feet facing the blast and their eyes looking away from the direction of the shot tower. One or two, like physicist Richard Feynman, will ignore the instructions and suffer temporary blindness as a result.
Yes, we could say so much more about these people standing at the fulcrum of history, but it’s time to end Oppenheimer’s torment. Let’s return to the shot tower and restart time.
At 5:29:45, a spark leaps from the control bunker to the gadget, jumping across the 32 detonators attached to the 32 lensed explosive charges spaced about the inside of the sphere. The sphere implodes with tremendous force, crushing the plutonium core into a supercritical mass. Its atoms begin to fission, releasing energy and freeing neutrons. The free neutrons strike more atoms of plutonium, causing them to fission in turn; a nuclear chain reaction has begun. As the quantity of fissioning atoms increases exponentially, the superheated core expands outward, until the atoms are no longer close enough together to sustain the chain reaction. And just like that, it’s all over — except for the boom, as the radioactive material, hotter now than the surface of the sun, explodes outward with a force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT.
At the Baker bunker, one person says, “My God, it’s beautiful.” “No,” replies another, “it’s terrible.” “Now we’re all sons of bitches,” says yet another.
Ed Lane, engineer of a passing train:
All at once it seemed as if the sun had suddenly appeared in the sky out of darkness. There was a tremendous white flash. This was followed by a great red glare and high in the sky there were three tremendous smoke rings. The highest was many hundreds of feet high. They swirled and twisted as if being agitated by a great force. The glare lasted about three minutes and then everything was dark again, with dawn breaking in the east.
H.E. Wieselman, passenger on another train:
Suddenly, the tops of high mountains by which we were passing were lighted up by a reddish, orange light. The surrounding countryside was illuminated like daylight for about three seconds. Then it was dark again. The experience scared me. It was just like the sun had come up and suddenly gone down again.
L. Don Leet, a seismologist monitoring the blast from 50 miles away:
When it let go, it lit up 180 degrees of the horizon, not like one but a dozen brilliant suns. It stayed lit up and made chills run up my back because I knew what might happen if it was not controlled. It was followed by a brilliant red wall of flame. Fifty miles away it was like an earthquake.
Physicist William Laurence, on Compañía Hill along with Teller and the others:
There rose from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one. It was a sunrise such as the world had never seen, a great green super-sun climbing in a fraction of a second to a height of more than 8,000 feet, rising ever higher until it touched the clouds, lighting up earth and sky all around with a dazzling luminosity. Up it went, a great ball of fire about a mile in diameter, changing colors as it kept shooting upward, from deep purple to orange, expanding, growing bigger, rising as it was expanding, an elemental force freed from its bonds after being chained for billions of years. For a fleeting instant the color was unearthly green, such as one sees only in the corona of the sun during a total eclipse. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies had split. One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the Birth of the World—to be present at the moment of Creation when the Lord said: “Let There Be Light.”
New Mexicans in the vicinity believe the state has just experienced an earthquake, or that a meteor has just come to earth. Many of a religious inclination believe this must be the end of the world. Others assume “the Japs” have unleashed some horrible new weapon.
The military will quickly claim that the explosion was the result of an accident at an ammunition dump, but those relatively close to the blast will have cause to be skeptical of that story. In the weeks to come, ranchers will notice that many of their cows have begun losing their hair. It will eventually grow back in, but when it does so it does so in white. After the atomic bombing of Japan, when everyone knows at last what really happened at the Trinity site, these “atomic cows” will become press favorites. Unpainted fences will also turn white, as will some of the ranchers’ beards and half of a black cat. Fallout, apparently borne in waterways, will turn the products of paper mills in Indiana and Iowa mildly radioactive, spoiling a whole production run of Kodak film which used the mills’ product for its packaging. Unusual atmospheric radioactivity will be detected as far away as Maryland, while traces of plutonium will be detected in plants and in cattle feces 100 miles from the shot tower. Ornithologists will notice signs of radiation sickness and, later, unusual deformities amongst the local bird populations. Plenty of ranchers living in the vicinity of the blast as well as personnel at the site itself will later die of cancer, but their numbers will not be vastly larger than one might expect from any random sample, nor will there be any smoking guns to definitively attribute their deaths to this event. As scientists study the situation, they will soon conclude that the Trinity test got very, very lucky. Had the rain started again soon after the blast, the fallout it would have brought back to earth with it could have been disastrous. Future Stateside testing will be moved to an even more remote area, in the Nevada desert.
And what (again) of Robert Oppenheimer? Well, he will later claim that a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita was the first to flash through his mind: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Be that as it may, when he opens his mouth to speak in the first instant after the explosion his erudition for once seems to fail him. Turning to Enrico Fermi, relief spreading over his countenance, he says just two words: “It worked.”
A set of children's swings moves slowly back and forth in the humid breeze. Behind them stands a long building, its windows hung with flowers and birds folded from colored paper.
Mounds of dirt are heaped around a dark opening to the east. It appears to be a shelter of some kind.
Several small children are happily chasing dragonflies north of the swing set. Turning south, you see a group of adults (schoolteachers, by the looks of them), wearily digging another shelter like the first.
A little girl races between the swings, hot on the trail of a dragonfly. She trips and sprawls across the sand, laughing with hysterical glee. Then she sees you.
At first, you're sure she's going to scream. Her eyes dart back and forth between you and the teachers; you can see a cry forming on her lips.
Suddenly, the umbrella in your hand catches her eye. You watch her expression soften from fear to curiosity.
The girl is a cute four or five years old.
The girl can't keep her eyes off the umbrella.
You've noticed a faint sound coming from somewhere overhead. The girl turns to stare at the sky.
The girl blinks uncomprehendingly.
The sound overhead grows louder. There's no mistaking the drone of aircraft.
The girl looks at you expectantly and tries to pull you towards the shelter.
Muttering with exasperation, the teachers drop their spades and begin to trudge in the direction of the shelter.
One teacher, a young woman, sees you standing in the sandpile and shrieks something in Japanese. Her companions quickly surround you, shouting accusations and sneering at your vacation shorts. You respond by pointing desperately at the sky, shouting "Bomb! Big boom!" and struggling to escape into the shelter.
This awkward scene is cut short by a searing flash.
On August 6, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets dropped the second atomic bomb ever to be exploded in the history of the world — and the first to be exploded in anger — on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later another B-29, piloted this time by Major Charles Sweeney, dropped another — the second and, so far, the last ever to be exploded in anger — on Nagasaki; it’s this event that Trinity portrays in the excerpt above. On August 15, Japan broadcast its acceptance of Allied surrender terms.
The cultural debate that followed, condensed into four vignettes:
In the immediate aftermath of the event, the support of the American public for the bombings that have, according to conventional wisdom, ended the most terrible war in human history is so universal that almost no one bothers to even ask them about it. One of the few polls on the issue, taken by Gallup on August 26, finds that 85 percent support the decision versus just 10 percent opposed. Some weeks later another poll finds that 53.5 percent “unequivocally” support the country’s handling of its atomic arsenal during the war. Lest you think that that number represents a major drop-off, know that 22.7 percent of the total don’t equivocate for the reason you probably think: they feel that the United States should have found some way to drop “many more” atomic bombs on Japan between August 6 and August 15, just out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Newspapers and magazines are filled with fawning profiles of the “heroes” who flew the missions, especially of their de facto spokesman Tibbets, who comes complete with a wonderfully photogenic all-American family straight out of Norman Rockwell. He named his B-29 the Enola Gay after his mother, for God’s sake! Could it get any more perfect? Tibbets and the rest of the Enola Gay‘s crew march as conquering heroes through Manhattan as part of the Army Day Parade on April 6, 1946. The Enola Gay becomes a hero in her own right, with the New York Times publishing an extended “Portrait of a B-29” to tell her story. When she’s assigned along with Tibbets himself to travel to Bikini Atoll to possibly drop the first Operations Crossroads bomb, the press treat it like Batman and his trusty Batmobile going back into action. (The Enola Gay is ultimately not used for the drop. Likewise, Tibbets supervises preparations, but doesn’t fly the actual mission.)
Fast-forward twenty years, to 1965. The American public still overwhelmingly supports the use of the atomic bomb, while the historians regard it as has having saved far more lives than it destroyed in ending the war when it did and obviating the need for an invasion of Japan. But now a young, Marxist-leaning economic historian named Gar Alperovitz reopens the issue in his first book: Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. It argues that the atomic bomb wasn’t necessary to end World War II, and, indeed, that President Truman and his advisers knew this perfectly well. It was used, Alperovitz claims, to send a message to the Soviet Union about this fearsome new power now in the United States’s possession. The book, so much in keeping with the “question everything your parents told you” ethos of the burgeoning counterculture, becomes surprisingly popular amongst the youth, and at last opens up the question to serious historiographical debate in the universities.
Fast-forward thirty years, to the mid-1990s. The Smithsonian makes plans to unveil the newly restored Enola Gay, which has spent decades languishing in storage, as the centerpiece of a new exhibit: The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Cold War. The exhibit, by most scholarly accounts a quite rigorously balanced take on its subject matter that strains to address thoughtfully both supporters and condemners of the atomic bombings, is met with a firestorm of controversy in conservative circles for giving a voice to critics of the bombing at all, as well as for allegedly paying too much attention to the suffering of the actual victims of the bombs. They object particularly to the charred relics from Hiroshima that are to be displayed under the shadow of the Enola Gay, and to the quotations from true-blue American heroes like Dwight Eisenhower voicing reservations about the use of the bomb. Newt Gingrich, the newly minted Republican Speaker of the House, condemns the Smithsonian and the director of its National Air and Space Museum, Martin Harwit, as “cultural elites” telling Americans “they ought to be ashamed of their country.” Tibbets, still greeted as a hero in some circles but now condemned as an out-and-out war criminal in others, proclaims the proposed exhibit simply “a damn big insult” whilst reiterating that he feels not the slightest pang of conscience over what he did and sleeps just fine every night. In the end the grander ambitions for the exhibit are scuttled and Harwit harried right out of his job. Instead the Smithsonian sets up the Enola Gay as just another neat old airplane in its huge collection, accompanied by only the most perfunctory of historical context in the form of an atomic-bombing-justifying placard or two.
Fast-forward another ten years. On November 1, 2007, Paul Tibbets dies at the age of 92. The blizzard of remembrances and obituaries that follow almost all feel compelled to take an implicit or explicit editorial position on the atomic bombings, which are as controversial now as they’ve ever been. Conservative writers lay on the “American hero” rhetoric heavily. It’s the liberal ideologues, though, who become most disingenuously strident this time. Many resort to rather precious forms of psychoanalysis in trying to explain Tibbets’s lifelong refusal to express remorse for dropping the bomb, claiming that it means he had either been a sociopath or deeply troubled inside and holding himself together only through denial. They project, in other words, their own feelings toward the attack onto him whilst refusing him the basic human respect of accepting that maybe the position he had steadfastly maintained for sixty years was an honest, considered one rather than a product of psychosis.
If support for the atomic bombings of Japan equals mental illness there were an awful lot of lunatics loose in the bombings’ immediate aftermath. If we could go back and ask these lunatics, they’d likely be very surprised that people are still debating this issue at all today. Well before 1950 the history seemed largely to have been written, the debate already long settled in the form of the neat logical formulation destined to appear in high-school history texts for many decades, destined to be trotted out yet again for the bowdlerized version of the Enola Gay exhibit. Japan, despite being quite obviously and comprehensively beaten by that summer of 1945, still refused to surrender. But then, as the Smithsonian’s watered-down exhibit put it: “The use of the bomb led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. Such an invasion, especially if undertaken for both main islands, would have led to very heavy casualties among American, Allied, and Japanese armed forces, and Japanese civilians.” The bombings were terrible, but much less terrible than the alternative of an invasion of the Japanese home islands, which was estimated to likely cost as many as 1 million American casualties, and likely many times that Japanese.
For a sense of the sheer enormity of that figure of 1 million casualties, consider that it’s very similar to the total of American casualties in both Europe and the Pacific up to the summer of 1945. Thus we’re talking here about a potential doubling of the United States’s total casualties in World War II, and very possibly the same for Japan’s already much more horrific toll. The only other possible non-nuclear alternative would have been a blockade of the Japanese home islands to try to starve them out of the war, a process that could have taken many months or even years and brought with it horrific civilian death and suffering in Japan itself as well as a slow but steady dribble of Allied casualties amongst the soldiers, sailors, and airmen maintaining the blockade. For a nation that just wanted to be done with the war already, this was no alternative at all.
Against the casualties projected for an invasion or even an extended blockade, the 200,000 or so killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki starts to almost seem minor. I’d be tempted to say that you can’t do this kind of math with human lives, except that we did and do it all the time; see the platitudes about the moderate, unfortunate, but ultimately acceptable “collateral damage” that has accompanied so many modern military adventures. So, assuming we can accept that, while every human life is infinitely precious, some infinities are apparently bigger than others (Georg Cantor would be proud!), the decision made by Truman and his advisers would seem, given the terrible logic of war, the only reasonable one to make… if only this whole version of the administration’s debate wasn’t a fabrication.
No, in truth Truman never had anything like the debate described above with his staffers — unsurprisingly, as the alleged facts on which it builds are either outright false or, at best, highly questionable. Far from being stubbornly determined to battle on to the death, Japan was sending clear feelers through various diplomatic channels that it was eager to discuss peace terms, with the one real stumbling block being the uncertain status under the Allies’ stated terms of “unconditional surrender” of the Emperor Hirohito. Any reasonably perceptive and informed American diplomat could have come to the conclusion that was in fact pretty much the case in reality: that many elements of this proud nation were still in the Denial phase of grief, clinging to desperate pipe dreams like a rescue by, of all people, a Soviet Union that suddenly joined Japan against the West — but, as those dreams were shattered one by one, Japan as a whole was slowly working its way toward Acceptance of its situation. Given these signs of wavering resolution, it seems highly unlikely that an invasion of Japan, should it have been necessary at all, would have racked up 1 million casualties on the Allied side alone. That neat round figure is literally pulled out of the air, from a despairing aside made by Truman’s aging, war-weary Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall engaged in a similar bit of dead reckoning, based on nothing but intuition, and came up with a figure of 500,000. Others reckoned more in the range of 250,000. The only remotely careful study, the only one based on statistical methods rather than gut feelings, was one conducted by the Army that estimated casualties of 132,500 — 25,000 of them fatalities — for an invasion of Kyushu, 87,500 casualties — 21,000 of them fatalities — if a follow-up invasion of Honshu also became necessary. Of course, nobody really knew. How could they? The only thing we do know is that 1 million was the highest of all the back-of-the-napkin estimations and over four times the military’s own best guess, meaning it’s better taken as an extreme outlier — or at least a worst-case scenario — than a baseline assumption.
The wellspring for the problematic traditional narrative about the use of the atomic bomb is an article which Henry Stimson wrote for the February 1947 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This article was itself written in response to the first mild stirrings of moral qualms that had begun the previous year in the media in response to the publication of John Hersey’s searing work of novelistic journalism Hiroshima. Stimson’s response sums up the entire debate and the ultimate decision to drop the bombs so eloquently, simply, and judiciously that it effectively ended the debate when it had barely begun. The two most salient planks of what’s become the traditionalist view of the bombing — Japan’s absolute refusal to surrender and that lovely, memorable round number of 1 million casualties — stand front and center. This neat version of events would later be enshrined in the memoirs of Truman and his associates.
Yet, as we’ve seen, Stimson’s version of the debate must be, at best, not quite the whole truth. I want to return to it momentarily to examine the biggest lie therein, which I consider to be profoundly important to really understanding the use of the bomb. But first, what of the stories told by those of later generations who would condemn the use of the bomb? They’ve staked various positions over the years, ranging from unsubstantiated claims of racism as the primary motivator to arguments derived from moral absolutism: “One cannot firmly be against any use of nuclear weapons yet make an exception in the case of Hiroshima,” writes longtime anti-nuclear journalist and advocate Greg Mitchell. Personally, I don’t find unnuanced tautologies of that stripe particularly helpful in any situation; there’s always context, always exceptions.
By far the strongest argument made against the use of the atomic bomb is the one that was first deployed by Gar Alperovitz to restart the debate in 1965: that external political concerns, particularly the desire to send a message to the Soviet Union, had as much or more to do with the use of the bomb than a simple desire to end the war as quickly and painlessly as possible. While the evidence isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as many condemners would have it, there’s nevertheless enough fire under this particular smokescreen to make any proponent of the atomic bombing as having merely been doing what was necessary to end the war with Japan at least a bit uncomfortable.
It was the evening of the first day of the Potsdam Conference involving Truman, Stalin, Winston Churchill, and their respective staffs when Truman first got word of the success of the Trinity test. Many attendees remarked the immediate change in his demeanor. After having appeared a bit hesitant and unsure of himself during the first day, he started to assert himself boldly, almost aggressively, against Stalin. Suddenly, noted a perplexed Churchill, “he told the Russians just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting.” Only when Churchill got word from his own people of the successful test did all become clear: “Now I know what happened to Truman yesterday…”
There follow Potsdam in the records of the administration’s internal discussions a disturbing number of expressions of hopes that the planned atomic bombings of Japan will serve as a forceful demonstration to Stalin that the United States should not be trifled with in the fast-approaching postwar world order. Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes in particular gloated repeatedly that the atomic bomb should make the Soviets “more manageable” in general; that it would “induce them to yield and agree to our positions”; that it had given the United States “great power.”
But we have to be careful here in constructing a chain of causality. While it’s certainly clear that Truman and many around him regarded the bomb as a very useful lever indeed against increasing Soviet intractability, this was always discussed as simply a side benefit, not a compelling reason to use the bomb in itself. There were, in other words, lots of musing asides, but no imperatives in the form of “drop the bomb so that we can scare the Russians.” Truman’s diary entry after learning of the Trinity test mentions the Soviets only as potential allies against Japan: “Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in. I am sure they will when Manhattan explodes over their homeland.”
If we consider actions in addition to words the situation begins to look yet more ambiguous. Prior to Potsdam the United States had been pushing the Soviet Union with some urgency to enter the war against Japan, believing a Soviet invasion of Manchuria would tie down Japanese troops and resources should an American-led home-island invasion become necessary. The Truman administration also believed a Soviet declaration might, just might, provide the final shock that would bring Japan to its senses and cause it to surrender without an invasion. But in the wake of Trinity American diplomats abruptly ceased to pressure their Soviet counterparts. The Soviet Union would declare war at last anyway on August 8 (in between the two atomic bombings), but the United States, once it had the bomb, would seem to have judged that ending the war with the bomb would be preferable for its interests than having the war end thanks to the Soviet Union’s entry. The latter could very well give Stalin postwar justification for laying claim to Manchuria or other Japanese territories, claiming part of the spoils of a war in which the Soviet Union had participated only at the last instant. An additional implicit consideration may have been the conviction of Byrnes and others that it wouldn’t hurt postwar negotiations a bit to show Stalin just what a single American bomber could now do. The realpolitik here isn’t pretty — it seldom is — but what to make of the whole picture is far from clear. The words and actions of Truman and his advisers would seem ambiguous enough to be deployed in the service of any number of interpretations, from condemnations of them as war criminals to assertions that they were simply doing their duty in prosecuting to the relentless utmost of their abilities their war against an implacable enemy. Yes, interpretations abound, most using the confusing facts as the merest of scaffolds for arguments having more to do with ideology and emotion. I won’t presume to tell you what you should think. I would just caution you to tread carefully and not to judge too hastily.
In that spirit, it’s time now to come back to the biggest lie in Stimson’s article. Quite simply, the entire premise of the article is untrue. Actually, there was no debate at all over whether the atomic bomb should be used on Japan.
Really. Nowhere is there any record of any internal debate at all over whether the atomic bomb should be dropped on Japan. There were debates over when it should be used; on which cities it should be used; whether the Japanese should be warned beforehand; whether it should be demonstrated to the Japanese in open country or open ocean before starting to bomb their cities. But no one, no one inside the administration ever even raised the shadow of a suggestion that it should simply be declared too horrible for use and mothballed. Not even among the scientists who built the bomb, many of whom would become advocates in the postwar years for atomic moderation or abolition, is there even a hint of such an idea. Even Niels Bohr, who was frantically begging anyone in Washington who would listen to think about what the bomb might mean to the future of civilization, simply assumed that it would be used as soon as it was ready to end this war; his concern was for the world and the wars that would follow. Interestingly, the only on-the-record questioners of the very idea of using the atomic bomb are a handful from the military who had no direct vote on the strategic conduct of the war in the Pacific, like — even more interestingly — Dwight Eisenhower. Those unnoticed voices aside, the whole debate over the use of the atomic bomb on Japan is largely anachronistic in that nobody making the big decisions at the time ever even thought to raise it as a question. The use of the bomb, now that it was here, was a fait accompli. I really believe that this is a profoundly important idea to grasp. If you insist on seeing this conspicuously missing debate as proof of the moral degradation of the Truman administration, fair enough, have at it. But I see it a little bit differently. I see it as a sign of the difference between peace and war.
The United States has visited war upon quite a number of nations in recent decades, but the vast majority of Americans have never known war — real war, total war, war as existential struggle — and the mentality it produces. I believe that this weirdly asymmetrical relationship with the subject has warped the way many Americans view war. We insist on trying to make war, the dirtiest business there is, into a sanitized, acceptable thing with our “targeted strikes” and our rhetoric about “liberating” rather than conquering, all whilst wringing our hands appropriately when we learn of “collateral damage” among civilians. Meanwhile we are shocked at the brutal lengths the populations of the countries we invade will go to to defend their homelands, see these lengths as proof of the American moral high ground (an Abu Ghraib here or there aside), while failing to understand that what is to us a far-off exercise in communist control or terrorist prevention is to them a struggle for national and cultural survival. Of course they’re willing to fight dirty, willing to do just about anything to kill us and get us out of their countries.
World War II, however, had no room for weasel words like “collateral damage.” It was that very existential struggle that the United States has thankfully not had to face since. This brought with it an honesty about what war actually is that always seems to be lacking in peacetime. If the conduct of the United States during the war in the Pacific was not quite as horrendous as that of Japan, plenty of things were nevertheless done that our modern eyes would view as atrocities. Throughout the war, American pilots routinely machine-gunned Japanese pilots who had bailed out of their stricken aircraft — trained pilots being far, far more precious a commodity to the Japanese than the planes they flew. And on the night of March 9, 1945, American B-29s loosed an incendiary barrage on Tokyo’s residential areas carefully planned to burn as much of the city as possible to the ground and to kill as many civilians as possible in the process; it managed to kill at least 100,000, considerably more than were killed in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and not far off the pace of Hiroshima. These scenes aren’t what we think of when we think of the Greatest Generation; we prefer a nostalgic Glen Miller soundtrack and lots of artfully billowing flags. Our conception of a World War II hero doesn’t usually allow for the machine-gunning of helpless men or the fire-bombing of civilians. But these things, and much more, were done.
World War II was the last honest war the United States has fought because it was the last to acknowledge, at least tacitly, the reality of what war is: state-sponsored killing. If you’re unlucky enough to lead a nation during wartime, your objective must be to prosecute that war with every means at your disposal, to kill more of your enemy every single day than he kills of your own people. Do this long enough and eventually he will give up. If you have an awesome new weapon to deploy in that task, one which your enemy doesn’t possess and thus cannot use to retaliate in kind, you don’t think twice. You use it. The atomic bomb, the most terrible weapon the world has ever known, was forged in the crucible of the most terrible war the world has ever known. Of course it got used. The atomic bombings of Japan and all of the other terrible deeds committed by American forces in both Europe and the Pacific are not an indictment of Truman or his predecessor Roosevelt or of the United States; they’re an indictment of war. Some wars, like World War II, are sadly necessary to fight. But why on earth would anyone who knows what war really means actually choose to begin one? The collective American denial of the reality of war has enabled a series of elective wars that have turned into ugly, bleeding sores with no clear winners or losers; somehow the United States is able to keep mustering the will to blunder into these things but unable to muster the will to do the ugly things necessary to actually win them.
The only antidote for the brand of insanity that leads us to freely choose war when any other option is on the table is to be forced to stop thinking about it in the abstract, to be confronted with some inkling of the souls we’re about to snuff out and the suffering we’re about to cause. This is one of the services that Trinity does for us. For me, the most moving moment in the entire game is the one sketched out at the beginning of this article, when you meet a sweet little girl who’s about to become a victim of the world’s second atomic-bomb attack. Later — or earlier; chronology is a tricky thing in Trinity — you’ll meet her again, as an old woman, in Kensington Gardens.
Her face is wrong.
You look a little closer and shudder to yourself. The entire left side of her head is scarred with deep red lesions, twisting her oriental features into a hideous mask. She must have been in an accident or something.
A strong gust of wind snatches the umbrella out of the old woman's hands and sweeps it into the branches of the tree.
The woman circles the tree a few times, gazing helplessly upward. That umbrella obviously means a lot to her, for a wistful tear is running down her cheek. But nobody except you seems to notice her loss.
After a few moments, the old woman dries her eyes, gives the tree a vicious little kick and shuffles away down the Lancaster Walk.
That scene breaks my heart every time I read it, and I’m still not entirely sure why.
I like the fact that Trinity goes to Nagasaki rather than Hiroshima. The Hiroshima attack, the more destructive of the two bombings in human lives by a factor of at least two and of course the first, normally gets all of the attention in art and journalism alike. Indeed, it can seem almost impossible to avoid emphasizing Hiroshima over Nagasaki; I’ve done it repeatedly in this article, even though I started out vowing not to. “We are an asterisk,” says Nagasaki sociologist Shinji Takahashi with a certain bitter sense of irony. “The inferior a-bomb city.” Nagasaki wasn’t even done the honor of being selected as a target for an atomic bomb. The B-29 that bombed Nagasaki had been destined for Kokura, but settled on Nagasaki after cloud cover and drifting smoke from a conventional-bombing raid made a drop on Kokura too problematic. An accident of clouds and wind cost 50,000 or more citizens of Nagasaki their lives, and saved the lives of God only knows how many in Kokura. As the Japanese themselves would say, such is karma. And such is the stuff of tragedy.