The Meaning of Silence

Peter Medawar

  • Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by Lewis Thomas
    Viking, 168 pp, $12.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 670 70390 7

Lewis Thomas’s latest book is a collection of 24 short essays of which the first has to do with the gravest problem confronting mankind – the Bomb. In this essay his fans see a different Lewis Thomas – angry where he was once urbane, grim rather than gay, for no aspect of the bomb is at all funny and upon this subject Thomas is unrelievedly grave. His night thoughts are akin to those that most of us have when awake at dawn or sleepless in the small hours of the morning, or whenever the faculty of self-deception that so often insulates us from real life is temporarily in abeyance. For me, the gravest of these black morning thoughts is that the future of England and, ecumenically speaking, of the world depends upon the decisions of party politicians such as Mr Heseltine who can have no deep understanding of these awful matters, and of warlords who in respect of strategic understanding and common humanity are not likely to have altered greatly from, for example, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, architect of the strategy of attrition that cost hundreds of thousands of British casualties in the Somme offensive and at Passchendaele.

Lewis Thomas considers first the failure of military planners clearly to envisage the ‘worst case’ among the possibilities they profess to consider. ‘At the outset of World War One the British didn’t have in mind the outright loss of an entire generation of their best youth, nor did any of the Europeans count on such an unhingeing of German society as would lead straight to Hitler.’ Again, ‘defeat at the end was not anywhere on the United States’ list of possible outcomes of the Vietnam adventure – nor was what happened later in Cambodia and Laos part of the scenario.’

‘The final worst case for all of us has now become the destruction by ourselves of our species.’ This would not be a novel event biologically: several species have gone under before in the history of life on earth. Where now are the trilobites and the great reptiles of the mesozoic? However, Thomas thinks that the environmental changes or epidemics that did them in could never endanger a species as intelligent and resourceful as ours: ‘We will not be wiped off the face of the earth by hard times, no matter how hard: we are tough and resilient animals and are good at hard times. If we are to be done in, we will do it ourselves by warfare and thermonuclear weaponry and it will happen because the military planners and the governments who pay attention to them are guessing at the wrong worst case.’

There follows a paragraph written very much as Voltaire would have written it if he had compiled his Dictionnaire Philosophique today:

Each side is guessing that the other side will, sooner or later, fire first. To guard against this, each side is hell-bent on achieving a weapons technology capable of two objectives: to prevent the other from firing first by having enough missiles to destroy the first-strike salvo before it is launched (which means, of course, its own first strike) and, as a back-up, to have for retaliation a powerful enough reserve to inflict what is called ‘unacceptable damage’ on the other side’s people. In today’s urban world, this means the cities. The policy revision designated as Presidential Directive 59, issued by the Carter White House in August 1980, stipulates that enemy command and control networks and military bases would become the primary targets in a ‘prolonged, limited’ nuclear war. Even so, some cities and towns would inevitably be blown away, then doubtless more, then perhaps all.

In reading Thomas’s account of the acute (i.e. direct, proximal) effects of the Hiroshima bomb we must keep it in mind that by modern standards this was a pipsqueak affair – a ‘technological antique’ like a Tiffany lamp. With a modern thermonuclear bomb nothing would remain alive within a radius of six miles from the hypocentre of the explosion – the ‘hypocentre’ being the point on the earth perpendicularly beneath the exploding bomb – and it is a most mischievous illusion that politicians, company presidents, ministers and other high-ups, having gone to ground during an explosion of which the precise time and place are assumed to be known beforehand, could now emerge to re-establish order and communications and institute medical treatment. Of the latter, Lewis Thomas remarks that a person exposed to near-lethal irradiation can occasionally be saved, though only by using the full resources of a highly specialised hospital unit, with endless transfusions and bone marrow transplants: so what could be done for a thousand such cases all at once, or a hundred thousand – quite apart from the multitude of conventionally maimed or burned people? The words ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’ are too frivolous, says Thomas, to describe the events that would inevitably follow a war with thermonuclear weapons.

Lewis Thomas quotes extensively from Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings and notes that Hiroshima was spared assault by conventional war weapons ‘in order to measure with exactitude the effects of the new bomb’. He also remarks that when American journalists reported on the effects of the bomb about a month after detonation they described only the physical damage, and no news about injuries to the people, especially news about radiation sickness, was allowed by the Allied Occupation. Moreover, ‘on 6 September 1945, the General Headquarters of the Occupational Forces issued a statement that made it clear that people likely to die from A-bomb afflictions should be left to die. The official attitude ... was that people suffering from radiation injuries were not worth saving.’

In a long-term view, it is not the acute but the chronic effects of thermonuclear weaponry that are the greater threat to mankind: the cancers, for example, that occur with higher than normal frequencies for decades after a nuclear explosion, and the shortening of the life-span which has been observed in experimental situations to be among the long-term consequences of sub-lethal irradiation, not to speak of the chromosomal damage and the genetic consequences in general. All is darkness and Lewis Thomas now gives us a new menace to think about:

a good-sized nuclear bomb, say ten megatons, exploded at a very high altitude, 250 miles or so over a country, or a set of such bombs over a continent, might elicit such a surge of electromagnetic energy in the underlying atmosphere that all electronic devices on the earth below would be put out of commission – or destroyed outright – all computers, radios, telephones, television, all electric grids, all communications beyond the reach of a human shout. None of the buttons pressed in Moscow or Washington, if either lay beneath the rays, would function. The silos would not open on command, or fire their missiles. During this period the affected country would be, in effect, anaesthetised, and the follow-on missiles from the other side could pick off their targets like fruit from a tree. Only the submarine forces, roaming far at sea, would be able to fire back, and their only signal to fire would have to be the total absence of any signal from home. The fate of the aggressor’s own cities would then lie at the fingertips of individual submarine commanders, out of touch with the rest of the world, forced to read the meaning of silence.

How should ordinary people react to the prospect of these calamities? In my view, the avoidance of nuclear warfare is a consideration of overriding priority – something more important than national sovereignty, ‘face’ or prestige, or, of course, the continuance in office of party politicians. We must resolutely abstain from any political decision that might promote or be thought to promote our candidature as a thermonuclear target, and we must be seen to be incapable of mounting a first strike on our own account or as an agent of Nato. If these are unconditional principles, I see no alternative to unilateral nuclear disarmament. The advantage that would be taken of such an action by a potential enemy is merely suppositious, but the effects of thermonuclear assault are for real. Thomas reminds us that the words REST IN PEACE FOR THE MISTAKE WILL NOT BE REPEATED are carved in the stone of the cenotaph at Hiroshima, but ‘meanwhile the preparations go on, the dreamlike rituals are rehearsed, and the whole earth is being set up as an altar for a burnt offering, a monstrous human sacrifice to an imagined god with averted eyes.’ If our rulers are not, as they sometimes seem to be, unteachable, what lesson could be more clamant or more brutally exigent than that which has been taught by Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What can we peaceable people teach them that Hiroshima did not?

Not all of Lewis Thomas’s book is in the dark and foreboding vein of this first chapter; the witty and urbane New Yorker we are more familiar with wrote the remaining chapters. It is praise enough to describe them as vintage Thomas – full of good things, unexpected apercus and witty juxtapositions of ideas. An important element of Thomas’s style is to be reassuringly dismissive about the imagined threat of exaggeratedly scary things such as artificial intelligences. Although computers can manufacture successions of sounds ‘with a disarming resemblance to real music’, he says, language is a different matter. There would be no problem, he says, in constructing a vocabulary of ‘etymons’ – an excellent word for a purely nounal vocabulary of simple designations: ‘the impossibility would come in providing for the ambiguities, metaphors and mistakes characteristic of real language.’ And what computer, I wonder, could differentiate reliably between nonne questions and num questions: those that expect the answers yes and no respectively.

Thomas loves words and, taking an educated readership for granted, he assumes that his readers do too, so his books always contain a number of philological divertissements: thus he tells us that ‘the word “gibberish” is thought by some to refer back to Jabir ibn Hayyan, an eighth-century alchemist, who lived in fear of being executed for black magic and worded his doctrines so obscurely that almost no one knew what he was talking about.’ One of Thomas’s most attractive gifts is for comical hyperbole: ‘a family was once given a talking crow for Christmas, and this animal imitated every nearby sound with such accuracy that the household was kept constantly on the fly, answering doors and telephones, oiling hinges, looking out of the window for falling bodies, glancing into empty bathrooms for the sources of flushing water.’ He loves the English language and deservedly exults in his ability to write it so well. If he had not been a medical scientist he would have been happiest, I think, as a philologist: one of his essays, indeed, is on the birth and growth of a new language, Hawaiian Creole, in a polyglot community that had formerly relied upon pidgin English – ‘pidgin’, I learned, being the pidgin for ‘business’.

Later on Lewis Thomas’s thoughts return to the Bomb and the sky darkens again: for by simple reasoning to do with the immense difficulty, complexity and expense of the procedures used to rescue the victims of burning and radiation injury, and with the rarity of the people qualified to put them into effect, he infers that modern medicine has nothing whatever to offer, not even a token benefit, in the event of a thermonuclear war. This is a very grave statement and no one in the world is better qualified than Thomas to make it: he is thoroughly familiar with and has contributed to the science underlying the medicine and surgery of repair and has a thorough understanding of the administration and execution of practical medicine. There is, incidentally, no foundation whatsoever for the idea that seems to underlie much of Britain’s strategic thinking on the bomb: that if we are the target of a thermonuclear attack, British grit and the Dunkirk spirit will see us through and – more than that – will unite us all in warm comradeship and resolution for victory, as the bombing did in the Second World War. Thomas plaintively asks what has gone wrong in the minds of statesmen in this generation, and how it should be possible that so many people with the outward appearance of steadiness and authority, intelligent and convincing enough to have reached the highest positions in the governments of the world, should have lost their sense of responsibility for the human beings to whom they are accountable? It is to psychiatrists and social scientists that he looks for an answer. What a hope! The case is much too serious for the glib psychologisms of psychiatrists and the lame fumblings of social science – and in any case, Thomas remarks, if we are going under it would be small comfort to understand ‘how it happened to happen’.

The problem is not insoluble in the sense that it is mathematically impossible to devise a straight-edge and compass construction to trisect an angle or to ‘square the circle’ – that is, to draw a square equal in area to a given circle – or that it is logically impossible to arrive at transcendental theorems from the axioms and observation statements of science, containing, as they do, only empirical furniture. No: the problem is not insoluble, but it is too difficult – too far beyond the capabilities of warlords and politicians whose judgments of priority are obfuscated by considerations of political or economic advantage, ‘face’ and national prestige. Because of his bluntness and strength of mind and great personal authority, Lewis Thomas has performed an important public service – and with the most enviable literary grace.