Why the Fuck Is No One Talking About Nukes?
The Cold War is over, but mankind still has the capacity to destroy itself.
Welcome to Why the Fuck Is No One Talking About… our occasional series examining important but under-discussed issues.
If we talked about things in proportion to their danger, we’d talk a lot more about nuclear weapons. We’d be talking about them so much, in fact, it would be impossible to eat, sleep, or screw without feeling them tug at the back of our minds. We’d debate arms treaties over breakfast, suffer dream visitations by mushroom clouds, and invent new types of benzodiazepines just to manage our nuclear anxiety. We’d make nukes the routine objects of protest movements, nightly newscasts, Hollywood films, and national elections.
We would, in other words, be living in the United States of 1962 or 1983.
As veterans of those Cold War years can attest, it was exhausting. I was in third grade during the 1983 war scare and remember well the humming undercurrent of dread. At any moment—maybe at school, maybe during Saturday morning cartoons—air-raid sirens and TV test patterns could sound, followed by a blinding flash and, if you survived that, a thermonuclear mushroom big as the sky and hot as the sun. The unimaginable misery awaiting the burned and irradiated survivors—that was most terrifying of all.
Naturally, when the chance arrived later that decade to stop worrying about the bomb, we took it and ran, doing cartwheels and somersaults into the post–Cold War sunrise. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, brought a message of peace to foreign capitals in the final years of the USSR and was mobbed in the streets by a grateful public, newly liberated from a half-century on the verge of nervous breakdown. Gorbymania, it was called. But it wasn’t really about Gorbachev. We were celebrating our own collective exhalation. Living on a Cold War footing was not a happy or healthy state of mind. A lot of people were deformed by it or just cracked.
Nuclear weapons, meanwhile, quietly waited out the demise of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and Gorbymania. Despite the stockpile reductions and arms treaties of the 1990s, more than 1,000 nuke-tipped missiles were kept on hair triggers in submarines and silos from Omaha to Omsk. On those vintage Cold War triggers the missiles remain, patiently awaiting orders or perhaps a monumental mistake.
In the late 1990s, things started getting scary again, and in familiar ways. NATO broke its promise to Russia not to expand the military alliance eastward. Then we bombed Russia’s ally, Serbia, pouring accelerant on growing mistrust and hostility between the two nuclear powers. George W. Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty and began deploying missile defenses near Russia’s borders, undermining the cornerstone of strategic stability. Russia’s early warning system, meanwhile, had degraded badly, to the point where nuclear command centers monitoring radar data could be sent into panic by a research rocket launched innocently from Scandinavia.
Fast-forward to 2017, and we’re back to Cold War levels of nuclear danger. Arms reduction on the US side has slowed, Russia is violating an important missile treaty, and tensions continue to wind apace with US pursuit of an ever-evolving missile defense system. (Like any weapons system, it is defensive or offensive depending on which side of the barrel you’re looking down.)
And it’s not just the Cold War superpowers that possess these weapons anymore. North Korea now has a handful of atom (and possibly hydrogen) bombs, bringing the number of nuclear states to nine. India and Pakistan remain in a staring contest armed with enough mega-tonnage to trigger a planetary nuclear winter. Then there is the growing risk of nuclear terrorism, a threat compounded by the chill in US-Russian relations. Recent years have seen the icing and abandonment of hard-won cooperative efforts to monitor the production and traffic of nuclear materials around the world. And securing this material should be every nation’s top anti-terrorism priority: It takes only a grapefruit-sized slab of enriched uranium, shot into a slab of conventional explosive, to trigger a Hiroshima-sized bomb.
All of this is reflected in the hands of the Doomsday Clock, now sitting two and a half minutes from midnight. This is closer than it’s been since November 1983. Only this time, we’re not talking about it. It’s not even clear we’d know how.
In the decades since millions of Americans gathered for community screenings of The Day After, the widely seen apocalypse film, two generations have come of age whose knowledge of nuclear weapons is derived mostly from video games. At the apex of the nuclear command chain sits a man who last year revealed his ignorance of the nuclear triad, which is roughly the equivalent of a sixth-grader being unable to explain a triangle. Former nuclear grandees have been stirred and are speaking out to shake the public from its nuclear stupor. But it’s not happening.
Why is it so hard to talk about nuclear weapons the way we did 30 years ago?
For starters, nuclear weapons have always been synonyms for death, and people don’t like thinking about death. (This goes triple for "megadeath," the unit-measure for every million people killed in a nuclear war.) Nuclear weapons also involve, not one, but two apparent paradoxes. The first cuts through morality and human nature: How can we be so smart and yet so dumb? How can we barrel down a highway lined with flashing neon signs reading, "Horrific Mass Suicide, 1 mile"? The second paradox is just the physics mindfuck of it all: An atom can flatten a city. Like the vastness of our expanding universe, it doesn’t seem real. It can’t be.
Even during the Cold War, nobody wanted to think about nukes. It took Hiroshima, Nagasaki, a series of major crises, a superpower standoff, and a media focused on the gruesome details of nuclear war to spark even a modest global disarmament movement. The world of 2017 is a different place. There is no binary Cold War frame. The shared culture that could focus a conversation with something like The Day After is no more. The attention span required for sorting through our nuclear dilemma—also pretty close to gone. Nothing embodies this better than the devolution of the "peace" symbol: Born as the logo of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a group that organized mass sit-ins in downtown London, it is now hippie marketing shorthand used to sell hazy nostalgia for a nonpolitical counterculture.
Climate change is another factor. Humans have bandwidth for confronting, maybe, one apocalyptic threat at a time. When the Cold War ended, climate change took over the slot. But climate change doesn’t supersede the nuclear threat; it only adds to its urgency. Climate change is leading us back to a world of scarcity, of resource wars for water and arable land. Resource war is the most brutal kind of war, and you don’t have to be a Pentagon planner to see that climate and nukes are on glide paths to intersect, barring radical intervention, sometime mid-century. Climate pressures are already aggravating the situation in South Asia, where glacial shrinking has reduced water flow to contested rivers supporting 90 percent of Pakistani food production.
So, it isn’t a pretty picture. But what else is new? Apathy is an option, but one best suited to rich assholes with luxury bomb shelters. The more difficult and urgent thing to do is to integrate nuclear weapons into the growing movement for systemic change. There are blips of hope. At the UN, most of the world is working to produce a legally binding nuke-ban treaty (though the US is leading a boycott of those talks).
A 21st-century nuclear-disarmament movement won’t look like the one in 1980, when British historian E.P. Thompson inspired an anti-nuclear revival (and a Discharge song) with his pamphlet Protest and Survive. No document could land with that kind of impact in 2017, even if the public was primed for it. But it is possible to imagine such a movement, thanks to the recent emergence of grassroots causes possessed of vitality and drive, from Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock. This is something to build on, above ground, and without being paralyzed by fear.
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist living in New Orleans.