Manhattan Project #37 Survival Instinct

(this is the 37th installment of my unpublished novel, The Manhattan Project, wherein Berman heads home from Afghanistan, trying to understand what he did there)

It wasn’t until we were airborne for the States that I had time to really think about what happened out there that day. Even though the dead soldier’s father had forgiven me, I was still pretty confused about what I’d done. Talk about cognitive dissonance. All the way back to elementary school, I had seen myself as a non-violent person. I never had the urge to kill. Hell, I never even got into a fight with another kid except for a little go-round with another four year old. Even when a bully tried to give me shit at the bus stop in junior high, it was my brother who punched him out, not me. And yet, when my back was literally up against the wall in those mountains, I showed the soldier beside me his target—a human being, a child, really—and added one more body to the list of nameless people whose deaths arrived unnaturally.

I replayed it in my head over and over as we jetted toward home. I heard the shots that sent us scurrying behind the rocks. I saw Tommy go down. I saw that man’s son raising his gun. I felt the terror that seized my brain as I realized what was coming. And I saw myself lean toward Randy and point. Randy fired a lot of rounds that day, but I only heard the three he squeezed off in the direction of that fourteen year old boy.

After the twentieth or thirtieth replay it hit me. I saw and heard all of that stuff, but what I didn’t hear was the thought in my head telling me to kill the kid, even after Tommy tossed me his gun and begged me to take him out. There were only pictures. An awful scene playing out that ended with that scarlet stain on the rocks. That meant that my ultimate reaction came from somewhere deeper in my brain, not from my conscious mind. It wasn’t a rational decision to take part in all of this. It was a reflex, a basic drive embedded out of sight way beneath my consciousness—it was self-preservation, the survival instinct taking over to keep me alive, in spite of all the philosophy and religion and attitudes against that kind of behavior that I’d developed since I learned how to think.

That wasn’t a conclusion I wanted to reach. I mean, yeh, on one hand, if it just happened, it kind of let me off the hook, I didn’t need to feel guilty about it. It was a natural instinct kicking in. But if that’s what happened, then maybe it scores some points for Ardrey and Lorenz and the we’re-born-naturally-aggressive crowd. I didn’t want to believe that. But if it’s true, then it lets a lot of people, lots and lots of other people—common people, powerful people, basically anybody who’s ever killed in war or conflict—off the hook.

Like the people who invented all the weapons. Maybe they just wanted to survive and they figured they could improve their chances by making those things. Although they may have created those things under some threat from the people who ordered them to do it. Or the Huns. Maybe they started killing simply because they wanted to live. Or the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the English, the Spanish, the Americans. Maybe they all built armies and killed other people because they were gripped by a terrible fear that if they didn’t do something, they would cease to be.

Maybe it’s what drove Einstein to sign that letter urging Roosevelt to build the nuclear bomb. He saw Hitler as a threat to his very existence and added his signature; if you look at it that way, what he did was practically a reflex, a decision made for him, in spite of his gigantic IQ, by the part of his brain that simply wanted to stay alive. And it wasn’t far from there to thinking that if Einstein gets off the hook, then my mom should, too. Doris was wrong when he said she knowingly endorsed the invention of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

She was one of the most loving, decent, good human beings ever. She didn’t walk around years later saying how great she thought the atomic bomb was. She never said she was glad we used it. I told you she hardly talked about it at all, at least to me. She wasn’t upset when I decided not to fight in Vietnam. She was patriotic—she and my dad bought a big American flag and always flew it outside the front door on holidays—but she wasn’t a war-monger, like some other mothers I knew. Maybe her decision to take that job with the Manhattan Project was all about primal fear, a feeling of dread, a sense of terror that pierced all the way down below consciousness and tripped the switch telling her if she didn’t do something, she soon might not be around to do anything. I mean how else could people agree to do such things?

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