scholars and rogues

We each have a nuclear story of our own


“Nuclear war must be the most carefully avoided topic of general significance in the contemporary world. People are not curious about the details. … almost everyone seems to feel adequately informed by reading one book about nuclear war.”
— Paul Brians, chronicler of nuclear imagery in literature and pop culture

Some of us are oblivious to the threat of nuclear war; others shrink from it in fear. Many operate under the assumption that there’s no longer anything to worry about because we survived the Cold War intact. Besides, there’s always deterrence. Like a trusty old shotgun in the corner, we try to reassure ourselves, it’s served us well for 50 years.

To the rest of us, the Bomb has been taken down a peg from its status as the existential threat to sharing that title with climate change and the economy, both of which have grown increasingly combustible. In fact, the United States may be closer to divesting itself of its nuclear arsenal (thanks, in no small part, to our current president) than restoring our economy and the environment to health.

Whoever thought ridding the world of nuclear weapons might be the easiest — the least impossible, anyway — of the three?

But just because total disarmament seems like an idea whose time has finally come doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion. It’s true that the days when three quarters of a million people would descend on New York’s Central Park chanting “No nukes,” as they did in June of 1982, are long gone. How then, aside from signing petitions or calling our representatives, can we move the threat of nuclear war to the front lines of our national consciousness?

For starters, we can make nuclear weapons personal. Why not encourage each other to summon up memories and emotions — ideally, our earliest and most primal — that the subject of nuclear weapons invokes in us?

For those of us who confine our attention to family or community, as opposed to the nation or the world, our personal responses to nuclear weapons may not be apparent to us. But listening to others’ nuclear narratives might call up our own. For the first nuclear generation, it may be private doubts about Hiroshima and Nagasaki; for Baby Boomers, memories of “duck and cover” and the Cuban Missile Crisis; for those who came of age in the eighties, Reagan’s first bellicose term; for the youngest among us, the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Also, there’s that old standby — appealing to fears about our children. Let’s ask each other to imagine a future in which our children are subject to the same risk of incineration in a nuclear conflagration as we grew up with. (Though it must be admitted that appeals to consider the fate of future generations don’t seem to have persuaded most of us that the economy requires fundamental reform or that climate change needs immediate attention.)

Sharing personal stories is more likely to incite sympathy for disarmament than the issuing of edicts by its advocates and the importuning of peace workers. In fact, assembled into a film, such stories have the potential to form the third leg of a tripod of impactful nuclear movies along with Dr. Strangelove and The Day After.

Sure, a nuclear-free world may still be at least a generation away. But, with disarmament only months removed from the state of inertia it was in during the previous administration, we must ensure that its newfound momentum continues and pin policymakers down to a long-term course of action. Why not put the difficult early days of the process behind us as soon as we can? After all, it takes a decade or more to decommission enrichment and reprocessing plants.

Finally, if telling our nuclear stories contributes in some small way to committing the world to disarmament, it will embolden us. In turn, we can replicate that success in realms where we’re now mired in impotence, such as the environmental and the economic.

First posted at the Faster Times.

Categories: scholars and rogues

1 reply »

  1. It’s strange, Russ, i guess that i’m one of those people who doesn’t really think about nuclear war and what would follow. I’ve contemplated it to some degree, but it always reaches a point where i feel that i’m incapable of comprehending the vision. I can’t imagine it, not in a way that would do it justice.

    That’s actually why i think we should all give up the bomb. The only people who can imagine it are the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The rest of us can enliven scientific descriptions and ponder megadeath in abstract terms, but those do not reach the awesome power we now wield. If we cannot conceptualize the power, we’d be best served to put it away. Stealing fire from the gods is no simple matter, and it is not the fire that makes gods.

    Btw, this is why i’m not at all thrilled by the prospect of Cameron putting the atomic attacks on celluloid. He cannot reproduce it, not without making audiences vomit and not be able to sleep for weeks afterward. He won’t do that. I fear that he’ll find some “glimmer of hope” to end the film on, some story of making it through the horror. The problem with that is the human, particularly American, propensity to see that character who makes it through and see ourselves. We’ll make it, so it will be ok in the end.

    I certainly see you point. If we refuse to think about we can pretend that it isn’t a problem. We do need to come to terms with the fact that we have stolen fire from the gods. Not doing so makes the weapons that much more dangerous.