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The Indelible Traces of War

September 1965

I see Peter Watkins’ BBC-banned documentary, The War Game, at the New York Film Festival. It’s a “what if” documentary—what if an atomic bomb, the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima, exploded over Kent in Southern England? Watkins takes us through the event, before, during, and after. As a US-USSR crisis is mounting over Berlin, Watkins interviews Londoners in the street, checking how good a job the relevant defense committees have done in educating the public to the dangers of nuclear war. “What is strontium-90?” he asks. “I dunno. A kind of hairspray?” is the answer from a giggling young woman with a beehive hairdo. As tensions mount, a soldier is shot in Berlin. He is “the first victim of WW III,” Watkins’ voice tells us–a nuclear war. Pathetic preparations ensue, amounting to door-to-door delivery of pamphlets about what to do in case of a nuclear attack—pamphlets that were real, had involved expense, and had never been delivered to the public to prevent alarmism. When the bomb detonates—the “sound of a door closing on Hell’– a blinding light, a fireball, and hurricane winds fanning the flames to a cosmic frenzy. Using footage from the bombing of Hiroshima, we see the effects: a shadow on the steps of what had been a person, vanished while waiting for the bank to open shortly after 8 am on 6 August, 1945. Naked bodies with evaporated clothes tattooed on their charred skins. A river clogged with bodies, seeking relief from the torture of burning flesh. The aftermath comes as the time when “the living envies the dead.” Radiation sickness sets in. The body is drained of fluids. Three months after the bomb, it is a dark, smoky Christmas. Fires in the streets protect from looters. The chaplain asks three vacant-eyed children what they want to be when they grow up, “Nuthin’. I don’t want to be nuthin’,” they murmur almost inaudibly. The film gets an Oscar for best documentary, but it remains banned in Britain for decades.

I leave Lincoln Center badly shaken.

January 1968

I’ve been happily pregnant for seven months. I am in the tiny shelter of the kitchen of our 18th-floor apartment overlooking midtown Manhattan from Union Square. As the water flows rinsing the dinner dishes, I think I hear the faint rumble of bomber planes. I know I am imagining, but my hands begin to shake. I walk out to the living room and look up to my husband, “There’s going to be a war.” “I thought we were happy,” he says. He doesn’t take me in his arms. We step apart. I have frightened him. He is not afraid of war; he’s afraid for us. It’s the American versus the European encounter. I must keep this fear to myself.

That night, the nightmare returns: I am in a solidly built stone house. Men with rifles, advancing, surround it. They are German soldiers. The walls of the house vanish, and I stand alone, exposed.

In the morning, I hear on the radio that 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops have struck one hundred cities in South Vietnam. It is the beginning of the Tet Offensive on Tet Nguyen Dan, the lunar New Year. The Pentagon is considering using tactical nuclear weapons in response. My husband shuts off the radio. We eat breakfast in silence.

February 1968

I am in a drugstore on University Place, off Washington Square. I am looking for a birthday card for my sister-in-law. On a bookrack, I see the paperback edition of Peter Watkins’ screenplay of The War Game. I open at random: the grainy photograph of a soldier lifeless on the ground. The caption reads, “First victim of WW III.” I snap the book shut.

Now I can no longer eat. A knot of fear constricts my throat. The doctor reassures my husband, “She is a sensitive girl. It will pass after the birth. Make sure she takes vitamins.” They talk as if I weren’t there.

My husband suspends the subscription to the New York Times. So that I may not listen to the radio, he takes me listless to the office where we both used to work as advisors to undergraduates at New York University—and now only he does. On the way back from work one evening, I rest my arm on my husband’s arm, heavily pregnant in my little black raincoat. We pass the Grand Union supermarket just as a man exits with a broom in his hand. A few steps further, my husband turns around to look at the man with the broom. He says, “That was Edward Albee. He’s looking back at us.” Politely, I look back. Indeed he is. My husband says, “He probably thinks that he invented this couple, and now here we are.” The reference to Albee’s play A Delicate Balance, about the Bomb, is not a fortunate one. I force a wan smile.

24 March 1968

On a Sunday at 8:06 pm, our Catherine is born. She has lovely feet. From my bed, in my single room in Doctors’ Hospital uptown, I stare out on Riverside Drive. The stream of traffic flows uninterrupted in the black night—a red artery for north; white lymph for south.

After five days, on a spring-clear and lucid-cold Friday morning, we are all back home. On 4 April, Martin Luther King is killed. From our windows, we watch the red glow north of Harlem burning. At night I nurse her. Down below in the street, I see the air shelter sign. I think, how will I protect her from the war, how can I make her safe.

It is, of course, myself I’m thinking of—myself, born into a war. I hear my father’s voice, “You were not born in a war. You were born in a cataclysm.”

Epilogue: 1974 and 2015

Peter Watkins is staying at out house in Pennsylvania. He’s on a speaking tour through universities showing his latest film, Edvard Munch. Away from the monster city for five years, I feel safe among cows and fields. I can even refer to my breakdown of 1968—though not often and not when Catherine is present. I try it now, “You know, Peter,” I say, at breakfast, “I saw your War Game at Lincoln Center. It was powerful.” And I told him about the drugstore, the book, and the fear. He seems to freeze. Years later, I read that one of the reasons for banning the showing of The War Game in England was precisely that reason—that it would unhinge pregnant women.

Our Catherine has left America for good. Ironically, she chose the Balkans, where I began—a remote hamlet in the mountains where it is still possible to imagine a hard working, tightly knit humanity at peace with the chores of daily life and the bonds that sustain it.

This is an excerpt from autobiography in process.

Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: lbohne@edinboro.edu

More articles by:

Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: lbohne@edinboro.edu

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