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How Fucked Are Nukes?

Are you scared of getting nuked? If you asked me that now, I'd say, "Not hugely." But if you had asked me that when I was around ten, I would have been sobbing before you even finished the question.

by Thomas Morton
May 4 2014, 9:44pm

This is the medical ID booklet the Soviet Union assigned to people exposed to radiation in the Nuclear Testing Polygon, but wouldn't it make a much better thrash zine called Passport to Annihilation?

Are you scared of getting nuked? If you asked me that now, I'd say, "Not hugely." But if you had asked me that when I was around ten, I would have been sobbing before you even finished the question.

I don't know what kids are afraid of these days—if it's just kidnappers and internet pedophiles or they still think Al-Qaeda is going to blow up a middle school in Evansville for some reason. When I was a tyke in the early-90s, though, the big three were killer bees (hand at knee), drive-by shootings (hand at collarbone), and nuclear annihilation (hand way the fuck up here). Didn't matter that the Cold War was effectively over; all those hydrogen bombs, which had been trained at my head since birth, were still out there and possibly in less reputable hands than even the Russians. Besides, I had an entire back catalog of prime nuclear-proliferation cinema to learn my fate from. As soon as the NORAD computer would freeze up during chess and mutually assure the destruction of Omaha, my friends and I would see a flash brighter than a thousand suns, and those of us who weren't turned into disintegrating skeletons would swell up like Akira monsters and slosh like chili across the windshield of the first car that hit us. That's how we were going to go out. Provided, of course, we hadn't already died from AIDS.

It didn't help learning that the actual results of a for-real nuclear explosion are way worse than Hollywood has the special effects to depict. A lot of mainstream accounts of Japan's bombings, like those in John Hersey's Hiroshima, sort of soft-pedal the body horror that acute radiation poisoning causes, but they are nevertheless full of preteen nightmare fodder. Melty-faced Jason Robards doesn't hold a candle to trying to guess what it feels like turning into a shadow, a permanent shadow, tattooed on the side of a building.

Once you dig a little deeper, you realize the human shadows were the lucky ones. Scope your peepers on some of this eyewitness testimony from Robert Jay Lifton's Hiroshima classic Death in Life:

A blinding flash cut sharply across the sky. I threw myself onto the ground in a reflex movement. At the same moment as the flash, the skin over my body felt a burning heat. Then there was a blank in time—dead silence, probably a few seconds—and then a huge "boom," like the rumbling of distant thunder. At the same time a violent rush of air pressed down my entire body. I raised my head, facing the center of Hiroshima to the west and saw an enormous mass of clouds which spread and climbed rapidly into the sky. It took on the shape of a monstrous mushroom with the lower part as its stem—it would be more accurate to call it the tail of a tornado. Beneath it more and more boiling clouds erupted and unfolded sideways.

Boiling fucking clouds. I remember seeing a mushroom cloud for the first time on TV and being chilled to the sweatpants boner when I realized what it meant. Try to imagine seeing one for the first time IN FRONT OF YOU ON EARTH and having no fucking clue what its deal was. And that's just what the bomb does to the sky...

The appearance of people was... well, they all had skin blackened by burns. They had no hair because their hair was burned, and at a glance you couldn't tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back.
The most impressive thing I saw was some girls, very young girls, not only with their clothes torn off but with their skin peeled off as well. My immediate thought was that this was like the hell I had always read about.
I saw women, one corpse with the flesh removed from the bones, then about 100 people, mostly women and children, none of them with clothes on, lying on the asphalt pleading for help. I was reminded of leprosy patients. And one thing that has never disappeared from my mind, even today, a miserable thing was a girl in the rain of about 18 or 19 years old. She had no clothing on her body except half of her panties, which did not cover her. She took a few steps toward me but as she was ashamed of her situation, she then crouched on the ground and she asked me for help—putting her hands in a position of prayer. And when I looked at her hands I saw the skin was burned off as if she were wearing gloves.

It's like reading the source code for every Suehiro Maruo drawing ever made.

This is a cartoon the Japanese used to show schoolchildren every year on Hiroshima Day to remind them exactly what happened to their countrymen twice. Which I agree is insanely harsh, but I guess that's Japan for you. Anyways, behold—Enola Gay kicks things off a little before the four-minute mark if you're antsy.

Very fucked, right? If you haven't already gone to the bathroom to slit your wrists, revisit our episode of VICE on HBO which covers the second major population intentionally exposed to atomic radiation—the Kazakhs living around the Semipalatinsk Testing Polygon, where the Soviet Union tested 456 nuclear bombs. While they weren't close enough to the blasts to experience the sort of immediate deformities the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did, the 20 year bombardment did something even worse. It deformed their genes. Sorry it's a bit of a bummer.

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