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If Not Me

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

This story begins with a random seat assignment on a Hawaiian Airlines flight, returning from O’ahu to Los Angeles. It was late January of 1989, and I was tired. The man seated next to me seemed rather dignified, and quiet. We exchanged smiles and names, and the time passed in silence. Yet I felt I should be talking with him, and this sensation grew with the miles. I asked him where he was headed.

To Albuquerque, he said, and added that he was returning from testing MIRV’s (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) for our country’s ballistic nuclear defense missiles. The man was in fact a rocket scientist, and I was in fact looking for an American city to pair with Leningrad for the next episode of The Homeland Project film series. This was a joint U.S./Soviet Union documentary project designed to address the changing relationship between these two world powers. The subject of this second episode was to be warfare, past and future. The Soviet city of Leningrad suffered horribly during the Second World War, and we were hard-pressed to find an American city as a match. All this came out in our expanding conversation.

My companion politely suggested Santa Fe, a New Mexico city close to the Los Alamos site where the first atomic bomb was created. There are still people living in the area who worked on the bomb, he continued, and it might be a fine location to present what awaits us if we ever use such weapons again. This, I thought, was precisely why I had needed to speak with this man, for he was absolutely correct. Nine months later our second episode, Homeland Leningrad and Santa Fe, was complete and on the same day aired on The Discovery Channel and National Soviet Television. But that’s not the story, just what you need to know to understand what’s coming.

During the New Mexico segment of the film, our efforts were supported in no small part by our government's scientific community. We interviewed a man who had worked with Dr. Oppenheimer on the first atomic bomb. My friend from the plane introduced our joint crew to the head of the U.S. testing program designed to determine the effects of nuclear blasts on various battlefield equipment. We were allowed to film this. Also, as it happened, there was a Soviet contingent of scientists visiting for a first-ever joint testing event. We were invited to film a social gathering of these men, heretofore enemies in an unimaginably high-stakes game. It was at the end of this session—with perhaps five men from each country sitting comfortably around the director’s living room—that I asked the question, “Who is responsible for the weapons you create?”

The answer remains with me still, now, thirty-five years later. I was once an Army Armor captain. I trained to fight the Russians. Years later, during our filming outside of Leningrad, we visited an army base and I addressed a Soviet Armored Battalion. Here was the enemy I was to have fought. Here, before them, was the dreaded American enemy. I was offered a tank ride through their Close Combat Course. Of course, I accepted. Later, with blood running down my face from an intimate meeting of my head with the inside of the turret, I addressed the entire battalion, “I was trained to meet you here,” I said, “but never expected it to be like this.” I can yet hear the laughter.

Watching what is happening today in Europe, I see the death of so many people from both sides of the War. I cannot help but see in the explosions the faces of the young soldiers who are put to death for reasons they will never understand. The faces in their final agony have, for me, no nationality. There is only surprise and a moment’s sadness for a life lost.

Yet I am satisfied to have followed my heart as it demanded. I am grateful that I did not listen to the arguments of doubt, and turned toward uncertainty rather than away. I am glad that I found a way to share this with others, in no small part to possibly invite them to follow themselves toward wherever their purpose leads. There is much peril in the world today, but possibility and hope exist in equal balance. Discovery begins with refusing to hate your fellows, and continues by asking yourself the only question that matters: “What am I going to do about it?” Then acting on your reply. And it is here we return to the question that was asked so long ago, “Who is responsible for the weapons you create?”

The one rather abrupt Russian scientist immediately scoffed and replied, “The government; it’s the government’s responsibility.” Silence for a moment, and then a quiet and more reflective Russian shook his head and offered this gentle rebuttal, “No, it is my responsibility; if not me, then who?”

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