A week ago, I touched the casing of a B-61 nuclear weapon, an object created by humans with a yield as much as 20 times that of the bomb dropped at Hiroshima. It’s as large in diameter as a big dinner plate, and twice as long as a water heater.
Before that, a desert stroll among a comprehensive historical inventory of our country’s military aircraft, many bombers among them, brought home exactly how much technical human effort has been poured into one goal — developing the capacity to kill someone else before he kills you.
These tools are no different from any highly engineered instrument. Seeing these aircraft and ordnance with the eyes of an experimental physicist and mountaineer instead of a fighter-plane loving teenager and grandson of a USAAF veteran brings new perspective. Those who built the planes, on both sides of each conflict, worked *so hard* to build these trim, efficient, and effective tools.
One of the museum’s prized aircraft is a B-29 that flew 33 missions over Japan. You can walk into the open bomb bay and look up to see the small pressurized tunnel back to the rear gunner’s compartment. More subtle are the rails to which the bomb racks mounted, flew, then released. There’s no mention on the plaques of how many people that single aircraft was responsible for killing, but the estimate is a simple Fermi problem.
The firebombing of Tokyo killed about 100,000 people, comparable to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some canals boiled, along with the people who had sought refuge in the water.
Make no mistake, those building, transporting, maintaining, supplying, and flying the aircraft were courageous and doing, for them and for their country, what needed to be done. In a nearby hangar, beside a restored B-17, hangs the nose art of every B-17 in a wing of aircraft that flew over Germany. Few of them and their crews came home.
The news that our President spoke yesterday in Hiroshima about the need to draw down the world’s nuclear weapons gives me continued hope. Humanity isn’t yet ready for a world without these terrible tools, but we must aspire to and work toward a world where they are no longer necessary.