Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Madness of Damocles

Truman went on to promise, "Citizens of the United States will awaken in cold sweats, screaming, night after night. Dark visions will haunt their every night's sleep: their children being cut apart like burnt paper by the gush of million-degree atomic heat or worse, their children surviving as 'radiated,' subhuman mutants who roam the charred earth as marauding cannibals."
- The Onion, "War Over! 50 Years of Nuclear Paranoia Begin Today." August 15, 1945.

Earlier this month, Germany celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its reunification. The coming-together of West Germany and East Germany, an event no one at the time had seriously expected, marked a turning point in the Cold War - although it was overshadowed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the definitive end of that fifty-year standoff two years later. It has been nearly eighteen years since the Hammer and Sickle last flew over the Kremlin. Today, there are university students to whom the Cold War, and its attendant omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation from a clear blue sky, is nothing but history.

I'm practically there myself. I was born in 1982, and by the time I was old enough to intellectually conceive of just what nuclear war was, the Cold War had ended. I think that gives me a different perspective from those who actually lived through it - and it's the sheer logistics of living through something like the Cold War that's brought me back to one question, again and again.

How is it that the last generations, living so much of their lives in the shadow of bombs, were not driven insane by that fear? Denial and ignorance and an unwillingness to confront the gravity of the situation can only go so far. Stress can be sublimated, but it's still there, just waiting for an opportunity to roar. You could find it wherever you looked, so long as you looked hard enough; back in 2006, Randy McDonald at A Bit More Detail called attention to "a worringly popular subgenre" in 1980s music "about the world ending in nuclear fire."

In 2005 or so I heard, through a friend, that his father found the then-current War on Terror to be far more worrisome than the twentieth-century threat of nuclear war. I couldn't understand that position at all. Granted, while a terrorist attack is significantly more likely to occur than global thermonuclear war, terrorist attacks by their very nature are limited. The odds of being swept up in one are remote, and they are very focused in terms of targets - a marketplace, a building, an aircraft. In contrast, the hopeful unlikeliness of nuclear war is, I think, far counterweighed by the ubiquity of nuclear war. Had the United States and the Soviet Union launched all their birds back in, say, 1983 - a Soviet first strike brought on by panic toward NATO's Able Archer 83 exercise, maybe - there is nowhere on Earth that would not have been touched by it.

Something as long-lasting and dreadful as the threat of nuclear annihilation cannot possibly have passed without leaving some kind of psychological imprint. I've wondered if the idea of the "disposable society" that's so in vogue today was at least partially inspired by it. Around the 1950s, Western society turned from favoring well-built products that lasted and stood up to punishment in favor of kitschy crap that fell apart if you looked at it askance, but it was cheap, cheap, cheap! Even the abandonment of public transit systems in North America and the United Kingdom might conceivably be tied to this attitude - why not build a system to be convenient to the growing legions of car owners, if there was a legitimate danger of civilization being destroyed in the next couple of decades? Deathbeds are supposed to be comfortable, aren't they?

It'll be a long time yet before people who were too young to conceive of, or weren't around for, the dangers of the Cold War enter positions of public and private leadership in any significant way. Until then civilization will be guided by those who grew up powerfully aware that at any moment, their lives might be ended by a silent flash of light in the sky.

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