The atomic bomb is a scientific masterwork. Speaking objectively, in terms of its power, it is the most brilliant weapon man has created. It is also the most horrible weapon man has created. It excels in succeeding at its objective, that is, causing supreme destruction and the indiscriminate death of whatever may be in its blast zone. It is quick, it is easy, and it is dangerous. It was designed, as many technologies are, to ensure our victory. The hidden, tragic reality of such technologies, however, is that they may lead to our end, as Dr. Strangelove comically and cannily suggests.
War often accommodates great strides in science and technology, a curious marriage that has been the rule for millennia. Ancient civilizations, of course, increased their knowledge of fire and metallurgy in preparation for conflicts. Contemporary examples are more revolutionary: the space program rose out of a cold war with the Soviet Union; nuclear technology, which we now use to generate energy for the most part, was researched hastily to quickly end a tiresome war; fighter planes and submarines were created for battle and led to advances in those respective fields. We have the capacity to be extremely resourceful when we want to be. That, ironically, is the problem we find in Dr. Strangelove -- we have become too smart and too resourceful.
The film revolves around an inexplicable and chilling weapon created by the Soviets: a Doomsday device, impregnable even to its creators, that is set to automatically destroy the planet if the Soviet Union is attacked. The logic behind it is inspired, and it’s a logic we follow to this day: if you destroy me, you’ll go down with me -- mutually assured destruction. Unfortunately, when it goes wrong, it has the tendency to go very wrong, especially, as in Dr. Strangelove, if you don’t bother to tell your enemy that you’re planning on such a tactic. (To be fair to Premier Kisov, he was only days away from informing the world of the Doomsday device at the annual Communist party meeting. He “likes surprises.”)
Kubrick’s film is crushingly funny for two reasons. As becomes evident quickly, it is a satirical take on the Cold War, and describes events that occasionally really happened and that almost resulted in war on several occasions. Dr. Strangelove captures the paranoia of the time, the type of paranoia that ripens enough to devolve into devastating incompetence. We even get sucked into it. At the beginning of the film, when George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson suggests an all-out nuclear attack in order to hinder the Soviets’ ability to retaliate, it’s difficult to suppress the cursory thought, ‘well, given the mess we’re in, that’s not a totally bad idea,’ before, after a few seconds more deliberation, we realize that it is, in fact, a totally bad idea. The picture ultimately concludes over a discussion about whether man could survive underground, living in mineshafts. In the film’s best one-liner, echoing the supposed ‘missile gap’ that existed between the two superpowers, Turgidson screams, “We must not allow a mineshaft gap!”
Secondly, Dr. Strangelove is especially potent is because it deftly captures the wartime human condition. It keys in to the obvious but fundamental human desire to win and, if possible, to be the sole victor. This is a base yearning, something primitive, and while some rare individuals see no wrong in embracing it, most of us hide that side of our humanity. That’s why we laugh when General Turgidson suggests blowing up the Soviet Union as a possible solution; that’s why we laugh when the same man vehemently opposes letting the Soviet ambassador into the war room because “he’ll see the big board!” It’s funny because he is entirely unfiltered. It’s funny because he’s just trying to win, trying to ensure that his people are safe. It’s an odious situation because it is difficult to accept that we can lose our empathy for others in favor of saving ourselves.
Indeed, as the film mockingly suggests, our side loses because the empathetic person -- the President -- holds us back. He is unwilling to make the hard decisions quickly and he labors over simple matters. As it happens, the Doomsday device saves the President from having to make a decision of substance because nothing can save us from this supreme weapon.
We still develop extraordinary weapons despite the end of our conflict with superpowers. In fact, we probably don’t know the worst of what’s going on. Much of our nation’s arsenal is hidden from us. Even the tools we do know of are terrifying. Drones, the unarmed remote-controlled aircraft that can rain fire from the sky, are just one example. It’s great while we’re the only ones who have them, but how long is it before they’re used against us? The image of hostile drones buzzing through our cities and between our homes is a troubling one. And can we really complain when that happens? We’ve used drones for our purposes. It seems only fair that the enemy have them too. Our sole response is to be ready for them if and when they strike.
The same applies to space technology. Satellites are invaluable to us, not only for GPS, but for transmission of data. They could easily be used for belligerent purposes, not only for reconnaissance. The ability to deploy an armed satellite exists today; no state has the need to do so, much less the courage to do so. But it will happen one day. Needless to say, it is difficult to defend against enemies not immediately before us, and it is impossible for you or me, the man on the street, to put up a fight against something miles away.
Fear is an ingenious foe. Those who fear corrupts become incapacitated, and the entirely fearless are sociopaths, the most dangerous of all. But a balanced appreciation of fear can lead to moments of brilliance. As Dr. Strangelove notes, we can’t stop our wartime logic without putting ourselves in a dangerously weak position, but we can take minor steps to ensure our safety. Perhaps salvation truly lies in ensuring there is no mineshaft gap.