Destroyer of worlds

“The Day After” (1982)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Seventy-five years ago the world’s first atomic bomb detonated across the arid expanse of the Jornada del Muerto Desert in New Mexico. Upon witnessing the otherworldly power he had unleashed physicist Robert Oppenheimer considered a line from Hindu scripture.

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” said the god Krishna.

A reflective Oppenheimer quoted this passage from the Bhagavad-Gita years after his team’s successful experiment ended World War II and began the Cold War. In this bright flash, a real life manifestation of Krishna’s “radiance of a thousand suns,” Oppenheimer saw the beginning and end of humankind.

For decades afterward Americans believed that the only true threat to our country came from external nuclear destruction. Apocalyptic movies like “The Day After” or even goofy science fiction flicks like “War Games” showed my generation that life after nuclear annihilation was no life at all. There would be no winners in a game like thermonuclear war. This, despite all the world’s hatred and discord, is why we have yet to use the bombs again.

We may be grateful to have not perished in a nuclear war. But we Americans still pay good money every day for this tenuous survival. Most of our federal taxes go to national defense or service on a debt that began to skyrocket under fears of falling behind the Russians. Our old foe, the Soviet Union, went broke trying to keep up with us.

Now Russia has adopted an authoritarian brand of our capitalistic system and dogs us once again — not with bombs, but with information. But most of us don’t know anything about all that. By all appearances, most of us are in some strange new arms race to understand less about the world around us, and to believe only what suits us.

Like a nuclear bomb, the Information Age is the beginning and end of information. All the libraries of human knowledge may be found on a computer that fits in your pocket. Overwhelmed, most of us lack the curiosity to look past the first ten search results on Google. More accurately we are too exhausted from information overload.

“War Games” (1983)

Further, most are not practiced in refining internet searches, detecting bias in source material, or identifying authorship of internet sources. And more information increasingly spreads through social media and “memes” — images containing blocks of emotionally charged text. In this, information literacy proves darn near impossible even when you try.

Not everyone uses social media. But there can be no doubt that social media now greatly influences society whether you use it or not. Last year, 55 percent of Americans reported getting news from social media “often” or “sometimes,” according to the Pew Research Center. This trend is spiking upward.

While some information on social media comes from credible news sites, users often fail to distinguish between newspapers, TV stations, blogs, or outright propaganda. As person who operates a news blog, I can quantify that  most social media users don’t click on the articles. They click “like,” comment, or share the post often without reading the article at all. They base their actions solely on the headline and whether or not the sentiment conforms to their opinion.

It’s not just politics, either. I shared a picture of a co-worker’s lost dog and people commented that they hoped I found my dog. All last week people were sharing a black-and-white picture of a couple that was purportedly found outside a photo shop. Some were in on the joke, but others seemed completely unaware that the picture was of Marty’s parents from the movie “Back to the Future.”

Social media users are not verifying information and are quick to believe what they read, no matter how inaccurate, biased or mean.

I remember a time, not so long ago, when the worst thing on Facebook was persistent requests to join the game Farmville. But Farmville was just one step in a progression that now has people indexing their entire political, social, and emotional profile for online marketers and shady organizations.

I first heard about a certain white supremacist gang because I happen to know a prison guard. But I’ve seen more mention of them than ever on local Facebook groups just this year. Our tendency toward ill-informed sources and emotional extremes is breeding ground for toxic politics and extreme ideologies. And more than half our population breaths it in all day, every day.

Each day when I log onto social media I wonder whether this is the day a friend says something so awful I have to distance myself from them, or whether my family will break apart at the seams. All for what? Politics? It’s not even really politics.

There are still no winners in a game of thermonuclear war. That’s just as true for this current information war. We must better source our views and find ways to debate them in a free society with many different but equal voices. No one is blameless. No one side will “win.” Ever. A society that distrusts itself will destroy itself.

We are destroying ourselves.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. I think the implications of “social media” are far from being understood. Clearly it is hugely popular and influential, if not addictive. I don’t think it’s going away so we have to figure out how to get it under control. Anybody remember the days when the FCC had some control over broadcasting? There was a “fairness doctrine.” There were limits on concentrated ownership. Coverage of local news was a license requirement. The Evil Right set out to get rid of the controls and succeeded. Likewise, it is probably possible to get social media under some control, to make it more of a public utility and less of a means for a few plutocrats to destroy us. How to do this is not at all obvious but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible……

  2. Well said. When viewing the unending battles between the two major political parties, the gerrymandering, the million$ and billion$ raised and spent on ugly advertisements, one must ask “to what end?”
    As you pointed out, no one ever wins. Americans refuse to settle anything and move on.

  3. Joe musich says

    Fairness doctrine ….fair shake and on lots of protections have been squelched. Now education itself is under deep threat from the privatize “movement.” I would take some issue with Russia coming to and end because of the military race alone although that was certainly apart of it. It think in the end Oppenheimer was referring to the twin demons of hubris and greed that lurk in the corner of every human soul. The Prince bite the temptation of the Bhagavad-Gita.
    In 1965, he was persuaded to quote again for a television broadcast:
    We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
    With fewer and fewer structures in place to mollify human weakness and the self discipline of study on the run who knows ? It is certainly time to lay down the sword and shield at the Pentagon, Portland, Effie, our neighborhoods and homes. About the same time period post ww2 there was push for improvement written by the man who raised the children on the Rosenburgs and performed by Sinatra-The house I live in. As we see today the country is not very good at cleaning it’s own house. But we could be.

  4. Actually, military spending had much less to do with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc than is widely suggested by people unfamiliar with a lot of the facts.

    Military spendng in the USSR peaked in both real and nominal spending in the late 1960’s. Despite being forced to open up a “second front” along the Chinese border and fighting a full-scale shooting war in Afghanistan, military spending continued to drop throughout the remaining Soviet era. This was reflected partly in the Soviet’s inability to match US/NATO technical progress, but mostly in the dismal state of preparedness Soviet forces faced — among other things, conditions in which a large percentage of their nuclear forces were unusable, from missile silos that were flooded with water to obsolete liquid-fueled rockets with corroded unusable fuel systems to nuclear subs that were not able to put to sea due to breakdowns. The famous fact that the Soviets kept from 65-85% of their missile subs in port — as opposed to the US keeping at least 65% at sea at any time — was postulated in “The Hunt for Red October”and elsewhere as being due to lack of trust in their sub commanders, but was actually due to the more prosaic fact that many of the subs were inoperable.

    All this was well-documented by the CIA and European intelligence following the end of the Cold War. Intelligence during the Cold War that highlighted this information was generally ignored as it being too risky to allow basing strategic decisions on the evidence, and to the fact that the airborne and spaceborne photo surveillance that was the premier cornerstone of our intelligence system generally could not detect the status of weaponry, just its existence.

    The real thing that “bankrupted” the Soviet Bloc was their inability to create a consumer economy that satisfied their citizens — everything from food to housing to clothing to transportation to music and entertainment lagged strikingly behind the US and its allies, and particularly lagged the “frontline” nations of West Germany, South Korea, Japan, Austria, and the Scandinavian countries that bordered the Soviet Bloc countries., With transmission of electronic media, records and film, and travel both ways across the border, that was widely understood and strongly resented by Soviet Bloc citizens. It is the failure of the post-Soviet rule in those countries to attain desired — and promised — levels of economic success that has driven, in large part, the emergence of authoritarian, nationalist, xenophobic governments in the former Soviet Bloc, especially evident in Russian, Belarus, Moldova, Poland, and Hungary.

    The visible success of the “frontline” states was all part of the policies created in the late 1940’s by George Kennan, George Marshall, and others, and continued by the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. Military confrontation and containment was just one leg of a three-legged stool, the other two being heavy financial backing and favored trade status for states bordering the Soviet zone and elsewhere in Europe that allowed the countries to develop visibly flourishing economies and well-off citizenry, and aggressive promotion of strikingly improved lifestyle and social equality in the US as a propaganda tool, including programs ranging from education to housing to transportation to myriad consumer products, all made possible by government programs from the FHA and GI Bill to the Defense Highway Act to massive funding of scientific and technical research to minimum wage laws and support of unions to civil rights for minorities and women, and all touted to the world in media from Hollywood movies to TV to Life Magazine.

    That was the spending that the Soviets went broke trying to match.

    In fact, there is strong evidence that the huge increase in American military spending in the early and mid-1980’s actually slightly delayed the fall of the Soviet Bloc, because the US military build-up was interpreted in the Soviet Union as evidence of aggressive intentions by the US, and used by right-wing factions in the Soviet Union as an argument against any relaxation of policy and easing of confrontation, delaying the eventual triumph of liberal forces and the end to the regime.

  5. I think everyone trying to discuss the collapse of USSR is important. My thinking is still stuck on Chernobyl. Something off with that whole thing to this day. Was it a US operation? Was it worth it? How much of earth was contaminated? How many people suffered through nuclear holocaust?

    RBMK reactors were not supposed to detonate like that. Looking into this is still very fishy. I sort of think Putin has his thoughts on it. None of it is healthy for anyone. The workers pushed the AZ5 button when they saw the test was going badly. A shutdown operation was supposed to occur. Yet, for some reason, everything grew exponentially worse after pushing the AZ5 process. That is still very mysterious.

    Either way, the Soviet power came from the PERCEPTION of their power. The party knew that. Once that perception was altered inside and outside of Russia there was little they could do. Nuclear energy and weapons are terrible in the best circumstances. I am sticking to the thinking that Chernobyl was the final reason for Soviet collapse.

    • I think that Chernobyl was another brick in the wall convincing Soviet citizens that their government was incompetent — sort of like the US federal management of the pandemic these days. For the Soviets, their failures in Afghanistan also made the public think the government couldn’t find its ass with both hands.

      But Soviet citizens had abundant evidence that their government had trouble getting anything right, from keeping food, clothing, and other necessities available to offering decent housing to making their industries and farms work to keeping workers from being falling down drunk out of their minds while at work. Experience with serving in the military — and the Soviets had a huge draft that drew in millions of men — showed them that the military was incapable of functioning effectively, despite constant posturing. By the time Gorbachev started his reforms, the population was more than eager to toss the government in the dump.

      I had a friend who had an interesting experience. He worked for a summer doing research in Soviet era Czechoslovakia. While there, he happened to come in contact with several young men from Russia who were also working at the lathe was working in. One night while out drinking, one of the Russians asked him point-blank why the US seemed so bellicose toward the USSR. He responded that it was because the US feared attack by the Soviets, either on themselves or on Western Europe. My friend said the Russians literally burst out laughing. They were all veterans and they proceeded to tell story after story of how dysfunctional the Soviet military was and how they doubted that they could conquer Finland, let alone the US or NATO. They were incredulous that Americans actually believed otherwise, and asked if our intelligence service or our news media ever talked to ordinary Russians.

      • That’s “the lab he was working at” not the lathe. He was a scientist,, not a tool maker.

        • My main point remains that whatever led to the downfall of the USSR, it was not trying to match US military spending and development. They gave up that idea by 1969, and never tried after that.

          Our massive military spending in the last 20 years of the Cold War had the effect of driving our own government deep into the red and preventing spending on more useful programs. It had exactly zero effect on the Soviets, who just plain stopped trying to keep up early in the Brezhnev era.

          • Aye.

            Totally. Possibly one of the greatest movies of all time is called, “The Russia House”. Obviously its great due to being made on real film. Amazing cinematography. The soundtrack is New Orleans Jazz. I mean, we are talking Branford Marsalis. Jerry Goldsmith is great.

            The actors do a really great job. The point of the movie is Sean Connery’s character being trapped between US/British Intelligence services and his love for the Soviet people. Also he has a love interest in Michelle Pfieffer’s character, a Russian woman.

            None of this is super relevant. Its just that I discovered this movie a few years ago and can’t stop watching it. The point of the movie really gets into Soviet nuclear capabilities. I hope people watch it. I can’t just go writing spoilers. The movie is too good. Suffice to say, I would have to agree that your point about the Red Army being not much of a threat is a central component.

            We are talking about industry ultimately. The US has a war industry. Industrial contracts steer defense decisions. How do you sell that idea if US citizens knew the Soviets couldn’t reach the Americas? How do you sell weapons if people are not scared?

  6. Mike Worcester says

    Probably way off topic, but the original version of Gojira, which later became known as Godzilla, was an allegory for the horrors of nuclear war. In the original 1954 Japanese version, several direct references to the use of nuclear weapons were made, which were excised for the 1956 release of the American version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (the one with Raymond Burr).

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