I have long had an objection to the prospect of being blown to smithereens. It is a peculiar fixation of mine. I prefer my life as a fully intact human being, my organs comfortably encased beneath my flesh. I don’t wish to be burned to a crisp, splattered onto a wall, or boiled alive. I do not want to be described as “charred beyond recognition.” I am strongly opposed to having my limbs, brains, and other components violently extracted from my person and scattered in all directions.
I am therefore somewhat horrified by the prospect of nuclear war. I find it disquieting to realize that the United States possesses about 6,800 warheads, ready to be deployed at any time via submarine, aircraft, and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Yet others do not seem to share my horror. Certainly, if they do, they don’t talk about it much. The number of nuclear war-related conversations I have overheard or been invited into in the last six months stands at zero. It doesn’t seem to come up much.
I suppose it’s easy to forget that all the warheads are lying there, ready to vaporize every city on earth in an instant. After all, you rarely see them. Sometimes it’s hard to even believe they exist. They don’t sit in your front garden waiting to be exploded. They hide deep within secure military installations, often in remote deserts. You don’t see many pictures of them, they aren’t paraded down the streets. Living under the nuclear threat doesn’t feel like living with a person permanently pointing a loaded gun at your head.
And yet that’s precisely what it is. In fact, it’s much, much more terrifying than living with a gun to your head. Because the weapon in question doesn’t just threaten you, it threatens every single thing you love, every family member, every friend, every colleague, every beautiful and precious thing in your life and the lives of everybody you know.
My God, that makes me sound like some alarmist nutcase. I seem like I’m exaggerating. But I don’t think my premises are in any way controversial; it’s simply factually true that, in the course of a single day, the world’s great powers could end almost all life on earth. We all know this. It’s beyond argument. And yet it doesn’t really seem plausible. It’s hard for me to really believe, sitting at my desk in a fuzzy blanket looking out the window at sunshine and trees, that everything could truly be obliterated instantaneously.
But it absolutely could. And by everything, I do truly mean everything. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (in which the United States decided to demonstrate its newfound capabilities to the Japanese by detonating atomic weapons in the middle of two cities rather than, as some in the Truman Administration thought would be more reasonable, in an uninhabited area) look like holiday firecrackers next to the explosions we are now capable of producing. A nuclear device 12 feet long could turn every single person in Manhattan into a smudge, and give everyone else within a 100 mile radius both hideous burns and cancer.
I know everybody knows this. I know it’s a cliché. But I can’t think that everybody really does know it, because nobody seems to act as if it’s true. Perhaps that’s because after a certain amount of repetition, the language and imagery of nuclear war becomes empty of feeling, a set of symbols and signs that don’t actually convey much appreciable content. Differing amounts of megatons just seem like numbers, they don’t seem real in any substantive way. The word “warhead” becomes innocuous; for decades now it’s been a candy with a mushroom cloud logo. The mushroom cloud itself is almost adorable or comical. It’s still vaguely morbid, but if it made us think of Japanese babies without any skin, you wouldn’t be able to brand sour candy with it.
Perhaps we’ve been in a state of relative peace for so long that we’ve forgotten what war really is. It hasn’t been that long, of course; there are still World War II veterans and Hiroshima victims alive. And plenty of people on earth do have an intimate acquaintance with the realities of large-scale violence. But especially in the United States, it’s perfectly possible to go through life with only the fuzziest and most cartoonish understanding of what it means to actually destroy places and people. I’ve never even seen a very large explosion, let alone had one near me, let alone watched someone I love be torn to bits. How can I possibly contemplate the scale of a nuclear weapon? I can think about it intellectually. But the realities are not just too horrible, but too remote from anything in my experiences, for me to be able to seriously conceive of what we are even talking about. Yes, I can affirm that, rationally, I believe a 12-foot long metal object can vaporize everything in the Greater Boston Area. Rationally, I know that there are thousands of hidden underground launching silos, filled with tubes that can fly thousands of miles and turn a million human bodies to ash. I know that the great cities we have spent a dozen generations building are so precarious that Donald Trump could eliminate one within an hour. Yet for these being the rational results of inescapable logic, they sounds totally and profoundly irrational, because they feel just about as true as the existence of leprechauns or the Great Pumpkin. Really, there are warheads everywhere? I’ve never seen one. And I can’t accept that everything here in Boston, from the Old North Church to the Suffolk Law School to every stop on the Red Line, could cease to exist in a nanosecond.
The good thing about it not seeming like a real threat is that maybe it isn’t a real threat. Maybe nuclear deterrence really does make us very secure. It certainly seems to have worked for seventy years. Perhaps, despite the counterintuitiveness of the idea, the safest thing for countries to do really is to point the largest possible weapons at one another and depend on the mutual operation of rational self-interest.
I will confess that this does not bring me too much comfort. That’s mainly because it only has to fail one time. I actually do believe that rational self-interest is a pretty good predictor of much human behavior. Unfortunately, I also believe in the existence of madness. And it only takes one or two nations controlled by the mad or the ambitious in order to plunge humanity into eternal oblivion. To keep nuclear weapons around is to operate on the assumption that there will never again be another Hitler, bent on expansion at all costs and ideologically committed to mass murder. It assumes that a death cult, or a cruel and stupid religious sect like ISIS, will never control the governing apparatus of a major state. And while that may be true in the short term, is it possible that it can be true forever? Someday something irrational will happen, and it only needs to happen once.
Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe the world really has entered a period totally different from every other historical era, in which large-scale war will never again occur. Maybe no government of a major nation will ever again be unhinged and irrational. Or maybe I am a uniquely naïve and pessimistic person, who simply fails to comprehend the way the world works. It’s hard not to believe that I am, since everyone else seems so untroubled.
But I just don’t know. And it doesn’t seem absurd to me to think that some crazed form of religious fundamentalism could have some theory for why the world needed to be destroyed in order to please their god. It doesn’t seem a stretch to believe that a chain of small human errors could add up to a very large mistake, one which can never be undone. (As Albert Einstein put it in his warning about the bomb, “So long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. [Yet] unless another war is prevented it is likely to bring destruction on a scale never before held possible and even now hardly conceived.” Einstein’s logic actually leads to the conclusion that the ultimate goal should be the elimination of “sovereign nations possessing great power” altogether.)
I often think of the “Oh, shit” moment that comes along with a catastrophe. This is the moment where someone realizes that everything they thought was true was totally wrong, that what seemed impossible was actually quite possible indeed, and that there is no way to go back and fix the problem. It’s the moment where we become fully cognizant of the fact that there was no real logical reason to assume the thing wouldn’t happen, that we had just kind of assumed it because contemplating it was so unbearable. The last big “Oh, shit” moment was the night of Donald Trump’s election. Over the course of the evening, those who were horrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency, but were dead certain that he would lose, realized that they had been conflating desire and reality. They realized that actually, the polls had showed a close race, and the experts’ confidence had been completely unwarranted. They realized that the fact that a Trump presidency was inconceivable didn’t actually affect whether it was likely. But by the time that realization came, it was over. There was no way to go back and adjust one’s actions accordingly.
My fear is that nuclear war could be similar. It won’t seem possible until it becomes inevitable. And once it becomes inevitable, we will have an “Oh, shit” moment. We’ll realize that everyone’s certainty had been totally groundless, that it had been based entirely on wishful thinking rather than fact. But having the moment of realization doesn’t actually let you go back and undo anything. It’s too late. All you get is those two words. Oh, shit.
I’m not alone in thinking this. William J. Perry, Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, has spent the most recent decade or so of his life trying to warn the world of the serious possibility of nuclear catastrophe. In his book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, Perry recounts his experiences with nuclear weaponry from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the present, and issues an urgent call to humanity to wake up and recognize that there is literally no reason to believe that the unthinkable is impossible merely because it is unthinkable. Perry states it plainly: “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” Yet during the Cold War, people actually felt the danger. They were afraid. Talk of nuclear war was part of life. (It was even a recurrent theme in pop culture. The six-disc CD box set Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security collects nuclear-themed music from the 40s through 60s, including Muddy Waters playing the “Atomic Bomb Blues” and a gospel number called “Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb.”)
It’s strange, then, that as the destructive capabilities of atomic weapons have only increased, their presence in the public consciousness has diminished. And while during the postwar era, Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and countless other public intellectuals constantly discussed the implications of atomic weaponry for humanity’s long-term prospects, today’s physicists and philosophers are largely silent on the topic, even as our destructive potential has continued to multiply.
Examining William Perry’s work in the New York Review of Books, California governor Jerry Brown pondered why nobody was listening:
“No one I have known, or have even heard of, has the management experience and the technical knowledge that William Perry brings to the subject of nuclear danger. Few have his wisdom and integrity. So why isn’t anyone paying attention to him? Why is fear of a nuclear catastrophe far from the minds of most Americans? And why does almost all of official Washington disagree with him and live in nuclear denial?”
Brown answers these questions by quoting Perry:
“Our chief peril is that the poised nuclear doom, much of it hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands, is too far out of the global public consciousness. Passivity shows broadly. Perhaps this is a matter of defeatism and its cohort, distraction. Perhaps for some it is largely a most primal human fear of facing the “unthinkable.” For others, it might be a welcoming of the illusion that there is or might be an acceptable missile defense against a nuclear attack. And for many it would seem to be the keeping of faith that nuclear deterrence will hold indefinitely—that leaders will always have accurate enough instantaneous knowledge, know the true context of events, and enjoy the good luck to avoid the most tragic of military miscalculations.”
It’s reassuring, if that is the right word, to hear Perry confirm this. I keep thinking I must be missing something. But I’m not. Perry knows more about nuclear weapons than anybody, and he says I am right to be shitting myself. The refusal to deal seriously with the nuclear threat can only be based on myths and fallacies, born out of both a desire not to face the unthinkably horrific and a sense that even if one did think about it, it would be impossible to know what to do about it, thus it is better to keep it out of mind.
That type of thinking is suicidal, though. And I am not suicidal. For a person who thinks about the apocalypse as much as I do, I actually believe I am more of an optimist than many other people. When I do talk to people about the future of humankind, especially people my age, they often seem to feel resigned to doom. Jokes are made about how the species will be lucky if it survives another fifty years. People do not have much confidence in our ability to solve our problems, to eliminate warfare and the threat we pose to ourselves. Human nature is too flawed, technology advancing too rapidly, militaries too sophisticated, social systems too uncontrollable, for a non-catastrophic future to be possible. We must enjoy what we can while we can, but there’s generally very little hope. I find this attitude woefully pessimistic. Yet it’s extremely common. I worry, though, that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and a license to justify inaction through resignation. If you’re doomed, why try to fix anything? The courageous and forward-looking thing is to treat human problems and civilizational threats not as our inevitable fate, but as quandaries needing solutions. I may scare people with my talk of nuclear war, with my constant exhortations to people to look at the photos of Hiroshima victims and the numbers on available megatons and ICBM capabilities. But I am more scared of those who refuse to look at these things, who avoid them and leave them to others, and whose first thoughts about them will come at the “Oh, shit” moment.
I know full well that it’s hard. I don’t want to think about what happened to the people in Hiroshima. The true horrors are so revolting that if I described or showed them to you fully, you would slam down the lid of your computer. You would be sick to your stomach. And to a certain degree, it is necessary to couch our discussions in morbid jokes, irony, cartoons, because we are ill-equipped to think about what really happens to people when a nuclear weapon is detonated. Actually contemplating it would require us to think of our friends as skeletons, to think of toddlers without skin. I want it so desperately for it to be word, not a physical occurrence in the lives of humans like myself. But it isn’t. The bombs are sleeping and waiting, and there’s no use thinking they’re not.
Let me be clear on what I am trying to argue: I have not advocated immediate nuclear disarmament. My sole contention here is that nuclear weapons need to be thought about and understood for what they are, because if their threat isn’t taken seriously, it will only be appreciated in hindsight, and in hindsight we will all be dead. I have not taken a position on how nuclear war is to be averted, only that it needs to be given the same sober attention that Einstein and Perry have given it.
There are, in fact, good arguments that certain attempts at disarmament could actually make the world less secure. Brad Roberts, in The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, counsels extreme caution in approaches toward reducing U.S. nuclear capability. (Despite a title that makes him sound like Dr. Strangelove, Roberts is sensible and even-handed in his approach.) After all, if the great powers are constantly engaged in a classic “Mexican standoff” situation (the one in films, where the cowboys and banditos are all pointing their guns at each other at once, waiting for one false move), there might be far more risk in trying to get everyone to lower their weapons than in holding things where they are. Roberts, who worked in the Obama administration on nuclear weapons policy, shares a belief that nuclear weapons pose a major threat to humankind, but believes that there are serious perils in trying to disarm quickly. As is often pointed out, if you eliminate nuclear weapons, but countries are still hostile to one another, then instead of being a race to stockpile the most weapons, there will be a race to produce the greatest capacity to reproduce nuclear weapons quickly if war were to occur. Thus it may be necessary to focus on reducing hostility rather than simply weapons.
I can entertain the intellectual arguments that people like Roberts make, about how from a pragmatic and strategic perspective, campaigns like Global Zero (aiming for the total elimination of nuclear weapons) could increase global instability. However, when reading works on nuclear policy from think tank scholars, I am frequently disturbed by the lack of appreciation shown for the real-world implications of the underlying question. To Roberts, as to many who opine on military strategy, international relations is a policy like any other, to be discussed in precise and technical language. But when we are talking about nuclear weapons, we are fundamentally talking about a set of incredibly violent acts that will be perpetrated upon human beings against their will. It is necessary to appreciate what Hiroshima actually meant to the people it happened to in order to have any kind of sensible discussion about control of nuclear weapons. There is something missing from books like The Case for Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, which is any sense of what nuclear weapons actually are: what they do to people, how they do it, and what the scenarios we are envisaging would really imply. (I feel the same way about the writings of those who defend the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings as necessary. I can entertain the argument that the bombings were the least worst option. But those making the argument are never willing to discuss what the bombings actually did to people. They always wave away these considerations, as Roberts does, with some cursory line about how we all know that nuclear weapons are terrible things that inflict a lot of damage. But do we know this? Do we really?) Thus even those who have given the most thoughtful consideration of the problems surrounding weapons control still have an insufficient sense of urgency and alarm, and an insufficient appreciation of the true stakes of the issue. When we do think about the stakes, we realize in our bones that global nuclear war cannot be allowed to happen under any circumstances. However many of these weapons we have, however many we build, we must never, ever fire one. (This makes them, even at their most useful, an incredibly expensive, useless, and inefficient side effect of an unfortunate intercontinental Prisoner’s Dilemma.)
Lyndon Johnson’s infamous “Daisy” ad is now mostly known as a successful piece of political propaganda, and a milestone in the history of scaremongering. (In it, a little girl picks petals off a daisy before being annihilated in a nuclear explosion; Johnson’s voice warns viewers that “These are the stakes… we must love each other, or we must die.” The implication was that one shouldn’t vote for Barry Goldwater.) Johnson was criticized for trying to terrify Americans into voting for him.
But the scenario depicted in the ad was perfectly plausible. In fact, we’ve come close to it several times. Anyone who is insufficiently concerned about arms control should pick up Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, which spends 600 pages documenting the United States’ long history of very near misses with nuclear bombs. The Johnson ad was absolutely right, and hardly propagandistic, in focusing Americans’ attention squarely where it should be: on the issue of which candidate is more likely to end human civilization. Next to this question, everything else is somewhat secondary.
I have a recurring nightmare about nuclear war. In it, I am in a vast cave, deep within a mountain in Colorado or New Mexico. I turn a corner and realize I am in a storage chamber for nuclear warheads. It is totally silent. I cannot believe how peaceful it is. I go up and touch the warheads. They are so still. They seem like they are sleeping. It is difficult to believe that they can even explode, let alone that they can destroy cities. Suddenly, an alert sounds. The usual flashing red lights and sirens. The missiles fire up and launch from the cave. Hundreds of them leave. I know they are heading for cities all over the world. Soon, I am left alone, back in the silence, with the knowledge that in only a few minutes, there will be nothing left of humanity, save for me and the empty cave. I call out, trying to get the missiles to come back. They are gone. I was sitting next to them. But I did not stop them, and now there will be nothing.
The funny thing about this nightmare is that it’s not really a nightmare at all. It’s the reality we inhabit every day, whether we’d prefer to think about it or not. The missiles are in the caves. They are on submarines, and at air force bases. And if we don’t do something while they slumber, there’s no calling them back once they’ve woken up. All you can do is stand at the mouth of the cave, and spend the last few moments thinking about what you did, and what you didn’t do.
Illustration by Nick Sirotich.