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“The attempt to keep conscience alive” – Reflections on the book Burning Conscience

The threatening shape hanging above the horizon these days does not resemble a mushroom cloud. This is not to suggest that the potential threat of nuclear weapons has completely receded; however, the looming danger with which many minds are occupied of late is of another sort. It is not that humanity learned its lesson from nuclear proliferation, but that something else has taken its place in the category of “impending doom.”

It is a shift that seems as though it might make a sizable mountain of books irrelevant – all of those historical, environmental, philosophical and ethical treatises sounding the siren about nuclear weapons. For there is something slightly anachronistic about the tomes warning of the threat of nuclear war between the USA and the USSR at a point decades after the USSR has ceased to exist. And yet, dated though they may be, some such books may have grown more effective over time. Insofar as the central question that many of those writers sought to address was “how to live when catastrophe seems imminent” – these books will continue to be relevant as long as humanity’s future seems uncertain.

The summer can be an excellent time to draw up an overly ambitious reading list and to proceed to follow it carefully for several books before discarding the list in favor of new directions that an earlier read inspired. Regardless of how many books are actually checked off the original list it can be important as summer draws to a close to think back and consider which books one could almost forget that one read, and which books have lingered like the memory of a nail through a boot that can still make one wince whilst walking. Of the books I read this summer, the one that I have found myself carrying around long since returning it to the bookshelf has been Burning Conscience – a collection of correspondence between Claude Eatherly and Günther Anders, originally published in 1961 (in English in 1962).

Anders and Eatherly are not particularly well-known individuals anymore – and a passing familiarity may make one wonder why a former air force pilot (Eatherly) was corresponding with a German philosopher who fled the rise of fascism only to return to Germany after the Nazi’s defeat. Even if Claude Eatherly has become something of a footnote in histories of the Second World War, he is still a significant footnote, for he was the pilot who gave the all-clear for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was an action the implications of which he had not known at the time. Returning from the mission and learning of the devastating impact of the atomic bomb Eatherly was unable to calmly accept his role. Though he was treated as a hero in the press, Eatherly was morally distraught over his actions and felt that he could not silently accept the accolades. The case of Eatherly is aptly captured by Bertrand Russell in the books preface thus:

“The world was prepared to honour him for his part in the massacre, but, when he repented, it turned against him, seeing in his act of repentance its own condemnation.” (Russell)

As part of his repentance Eatherly committed several “anti-social” acts in an attempt to demonstrate to the world the guilt he felt (these consisted of robberies where he took nothing). Eatherly’s notoriety – his status as a war hero – allowed for his actions to have some impact, and for his narrative to quixotically challenged the jingoism of his time. Due to his odd criminal acts (the previously mentioned robberies) Eatherly was portrayed as insane, and thus was locked away – out of sight, to be forgotten – in a psychiatric hospital in Waco, Texas (from which he was not permitted to leave). When Anders learned of Eatherly’s actions, impressed by his moral fortitude, he wrote to Eatherly – and the correspondence that followed allowed for Eatherly’s words and grief to reach an international audience, even as the correspondence demonstrated to Eatherly that he had not been forgotten.

Over the course of some 71 letters Anders and Eatherly struggled with the problem of taking moral responsibility in a time when ethics were the last thing that most people seemed to want to discuss. As technological society made it ever more difficult for people to truly take responsibility – Anders and Eatherly obsessed over the vital importance of taking responsibility. Part of what fascinated Anders about Eatherly – and prompted the former to contact the latter – was precisely this way in which Eatherly sought to take responsibility for something which he easily could have ignored as having been a matter of “just following orders.” For Anders – a philosopher and writer whose texts dealt seriously with the topic of technology – the age of the atomic bomb represented a shift in the moral arc of human history one in which:

“it is possible that unknowingly and indirectly, like screws in a machine, we can be used in actions, the effects of which are beyond the horizon of our eyes and imagination, and of which, could we imagine them, we could not approve—this fact has changed the very foundations of our moral existence.” (Anders – Letter 1)

What Anders sought to do in his letters to Eatherly was to convey a sense that far from being insane, Eatherly’s horror was in fact a clear mark of sanity – Anders was not only trying to bring comfort to Eatherly but to praise him for his moral fortitude. For Eatherly had participated – if unknowingly – in unleashing cataclysmically destructive forces upon the world, forces which if unchecked could possibly bring about the end of humanity. Much of Anders philosophical writings involved the problem that humanity encountered upon finding itself in a technological world in which its own survival was called into question, in which humanity had unleashed forces that made life anachronistic – but individuals like Eatherly demonstrated that humans could still assert responsibility (even if doing so was difficult) and could still demand that there be a moral accounting.

What makes the correspondence particularly effective is that it is not the dry back and forth of two philosophers delighting in archaic turns of phrasing and academic debate – but consists of two individuals trying to make sense of the deeply troubling things that are transpiring around them. At times the discussion goes on lengthy tangents, Anders takes time to tell Eatherly of the impact he is having abroad, and a great deal of the correspondence consists of Anders and Eatherly trying to figure out how they can secure Eatherly’s release (the collection also includes Anders’ open letter to the President on Eatherly’s behalf). Yet the core of the letters (and that which makes them worth reading as more than a historical curiosity) is the way in which ethics and responsibility are treated. For want of a clearly established moral vocabulary with which to discuss the new (nuclear) state of humanity, the discussants are left trying to construct such a language anew, or, as Anders puts it:

“It is not only meanness which we have to fight, but also stupidity, in the sense of lack of fantasy. Here lies our task; to awaken and to educate other people’s capacity of imagination.” (Anders – Letter 32)

and, in another letter:

“our duty now: to build bridges between our hopes and the real world.” (Anders – letter 45)

and later still:

“If we can become so dreadfully guilty through being cogs, then we must refuse to be transformed into such cogs.” (Anders – Letter 65)

Burning Conscience is a fascinating and troubling book – not simply because it provides a first-hand account of an oft untold moral story in the aftermath of World War II, but because the matters being discussed by Anders and Eatherly are as important today as they were during the lives of the correspondents. Though the threat of nuclear war no longer hangs perilously overhead, it is not because humanity has avoided self-destructive tendencies but because the danger of the extreme heat of the bomb flash has been replaced by the less immediately noticeable (but still potentially deadly) changing climate of the planet. The questions with which Anders and Eatherly are wrestling – how to confront a perilous and uncertain future, how to assume responsibility, how to broaden people’s moral imagination – are ones for which we are still looking for answers today. In his open letter to the President, on Eatherly’s behalf, Anders located Eatherly’s moral actions in contrast to that of the rest of society in a manner that remains relevant:

“Ordinarily the apparatus divests everybody—not even excluding those who seem to decided upon its use—of responsibility; so much so that finally there is no one left to answer for its doing, and far and near there is nothing to be seen but the charred land of the miserable and the radiantly good conscience of the stupid. By taking upon himself the guilt for the act of which he had only been a part, Eatherly is doing the opposite: for his is the attempt to keep conscience alive in the Age of the Apparatus. And as conscience, by its very nature, is criticism; and criticisms, by its very nature, non-conformistic, he is being told: ‘Conscience off limits’.” (Anders – Letter 57)

We are still very much living in the “Age of the Apparatus” and there is as much need today as there was decades ago to “attempt to keep conscience alive.”

The Book:

Burning Conscience: The case of the Hiroshima pilot, Claude Eatherly, told in his letters to Günther Anders. Monthly Review Press, 1962. (though out of print, used copies of this book can be found for sale).

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

7 comments on ““The attempt to keep conscience alive” – Reflections on the book Burning Conscience

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