100 Suns; Arsenals of Folly

I’m having some difficulty writing about 100 Suns. This is the collection of photos documenting above-ground nuclear explosions selected and compiled by Michael Light. On the one hand I’m fascinated by the images and on the other repulsed by all the horror they imply.

How easy it is to aestheticise the photos. Form, colour, texture – there’s much to play with. And the usual moral questions apply: in writing about these images do you cheapen them? Sanitise them?

Let me try:

Each explosion is unique. Most are variations of the “mushroom cloud” trope, but a few that look different: a milkdrop, a lump in a lava lamp. A few are simply flashes. Even within the “mushroom cloud” types there’re details worth noting. For example, one cloud lies absurdly dead-center in a targeting sight. Another occurs far in the distance in the sky, above a row of palm trees along the bottom of the photo, calling to mind the “one thousand suns” reference from the Bhagavad-Gita (via Oppenheimer, upon observing the first explosion) and also reminiscent of a descending deity.

Michael Light put the more apocalyptic images at the end of the book. These are truly hellish – full of blacks, reds, oranges – radiating an implacable anger.

I was also struck by some photos which showed soldiers observing explosions. It seems that the US Army actually ordered troops to observe above-ground nuclear detonations at various distances, and then conduct exercises at or near the blast site right after detonation.

(Richard Rhodes’s new book Arsenals of Folly has one of these photos from 100 Suns on the cover:

Not the first time nor the last in history that leaders knowingly ordered their people to certain doom, driven by Mengele-like reasoning.)

Many of these soldiers turned away from the blast – ultimately futile. But there’s one picture of waiting troops, seated and smoking to while away the time till they had to move, staring out of the photo. All of them were enraptured. They had no protective gear whatsoever.

But I don’t think higher-ranking officers had much more protection. In another photo, a group of military observers sit comfortably in wooden chairs, possibly on the deck of a ship, watching an explosion. All of them are wearing oversized sunglasses of some material. The shades are futile too, and hint at the ominous reach of the radiation. But the whole setting absurdly looks like they’re all on holiday, sunbathing or watching a movie.

Doesn’t this say it all? Organised insanity.

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