Friday, September 10, 2021

"American Prometheus" by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin--Nonfiction Review

In this review, we’re talking about the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. It tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer—father of the atomic bomb.

Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin

What I love about this book:

As someone interested in technology, physics, and history, this book satisfies all of those interests in one fell swoop. At first, I assumed it would be strictly a biography of Oppenheimer during his time with The Manhattan Project and shortly after that because that’s when he was the director at Los Alamos, where we all know him for his work—the building of the first nuclear weapons. “American Prometheus” is actually the entire story of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life from the cradle to the grave. As such, it provides us with great context for how and why he became the father of the atom bomb. 

Oppenheimer was someone whose life straddles two sides of a pivotal moment in history. I enjoyed vicariously seeing the world—as best you can imagine through books like these—through his eyes and perceptions. It has been growing in my mind this idea that while we may have been on the winning side of World War Two, we won at a significant cost to our nation’s soul and character. 

The World Wars are often expressed in numbers—number of dead—number of planes, tanks, and ships lost—number of dollars spent. So the intangibles get left by the wayside because they’re impossible to quantify. What I mean by our national character and soul is that when we fought against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, we were morally in the right and superior to our foes. 

But then we won, and things change. An ugly thing started to creep into America, the presumption that we would always be morally right and superior to our adversaries—no matter what we did because we dubbed ourselves the good guys. It stood to reason that any actions done by the good guys would have to ex post facto be good and justified for the greater good. Even when objectively it wasn’t true. This book shows in the latter half how our paranoia caused us to turn on our own, seeing traitors and communists everywhere in our midst, including our national luminaries such as Oppenheimer.

This is not the focus of this book but is given context through Oppenheimer’s life that it occurred to me when reading “American Prometheus” that there is a kind of repetitive beat to the American character. We fought the American Civil war, and the crux of it was that all people are people and should be able to partake and enjoy the fruits of freedom, against a foe who, based on an odious theory of race, disagreed. Then after we won, we backslid with the death of reconstruction. In World War Two, something similar happened, and after we won, we backslid again. 

The argument could be made that this has always been our central conflict. It’s been with us even all the way back to the Revolutionary War against Britain because our founding fathers pointed out, as a central justifying point for our rebellion, the question; what is a King? Is he not but a man? And as just a man, how could he be any more than merely equal to his fellow-men?

What I don’t love about this book:

So this book won a Pulitzer Prize in biography in 2006—and that’s great, don’t get me wrong—but my complaint is for such an esteemed book, and it’s a great book, how is it the audiobook version is produced so poorly? 

The narrator isn’t totally to blame. He’s fine. But somewhere along the line, the editing got sloppy, and the sound levels are all over the place. In one sentence, it’ll sound like Jeff Cummings is right next to you. The next, he’ll sound like he’s across the room, and then right back next to you a heartbeat later. I get it’s an older audiobook, but—holy hell—it’s not like 2007 when the audiobook was released was the dark ages. For a ninety-five percent exclusive audiobook reader, it was beyond distracting for me.

My chief complaint about the content of this book is that the authors will state a point, share a quote, and then make sure to repeat it again. This typically happens at the beginning of one of their usually very long chapters—my feelings about that topic are well documented—and then rehammer that point or quote later in the chapter. It isn’t clever. It just adds to a whole circular repetitive feel to the whole book. You might have noticed I just did something similar with nearly every sentence in this paragraph, and it was annoying then too!

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Parting thoughts:

One of the most terrible things about American culture over great periods seems to be our proclivity to vacillate back and forth on our beliefs. It’s uncomfortable—to me at least—how many times we defeat a foe either ideologically, on the battlefield, or both only to then cede ground to them. Then some of our number spontaneously decide something like, “well, maybe those objectively terrible people had a point!”

Again calling back to the civil war period, we did it with the Confederacy, then the Ku Klux Klan, and now some people openly call themselves Nazis. All of those original groups engaged in slavery and genocide to varying degrees. It does a disservice to the men and women who sacrificed so much to put them down that we now allow them a seat at the table as though they had something legitimate to add to the conversation. Now I get this is starting to sound like an anti-free speech argument, and that isn’t my intention. I believe in free speech. I believe you should be allowed to say nearly anything you want without censorship from the government, as defined in the first amendment.

What I don’t believe in is immunity to consequences because of your words or a guaranteed platform provided by privately or publicly owned companies. The first amendment protects you from the government, but any other entity which isn’t the government is free to decide not to do business with you because you went on a racist tirade on Youtube. I cannot begin to tell you how much it makes me grind my teeth when people get this wrong still when they accuse Youtube or Facebook, their job, or whatever else that isn’t part of the government of violating their first amendment rights.

I digress—and I’m straying from my original point—I can’t help but be horribly conflicted with what happened in Afghanistan. On the one hand, I never agreed with the war. I didn’t think we should have invaded in the first place. To continue to pour blood and treasure into the cause decades on, intellectually, I understand, would be folly. But it smacks a lot of what I was saying earlier. It kind of smells like the age-old American tradition to cede ground because we’re tired of the fight—and maybe this fight wasn’t worth fighting in the first place. I thought so and still think so.

But watching people cling to the outside of American planes in takeoff—people who fought with us, people who believed in us, only to fall to their deaths—how did it come to this? 

There had to be a better way.

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