War fills the headlines. Stories about what is happening in Ukraine are everywhere. Each day I open the New York Times on my phone and see the headline in their largest type—the one reserved for the most dire news. I scroll down and there are heartbreaking photos of massive destruction, dead bodies, smoke rising from unextinguishable fires. Journalists add to their stories the inevitable comparison: “This is the worst world threat since the Cuban missile crisis.” What they mean is that the threat of nuclear war—after what has seemed like a thirty year hiatus—is once again visible. Could it actually happen? This article discusses the possibility.
I remember in elementary school having bomb drills where we crawled under our desks and put our heads down—as though somehow our desks would protect us from an atomic bomb. I also remember everyone wanting to build a bomb shelter. Some of my friends’ families built elaborate shelters with reinforced concrete and air filtration systems. Our family couldn’t afford that, so my father, working alone with a shovel, dug out a pit under the car in our earth-floor garage. He wanted to do something to protect his family; I remember how hard he worked, sweating and shoveling every weekend until it was done. My friends and I liked to crawl under the car into that pit and play “nuclear war,” not knowing what that really meant.
In those days the threat of nuclear war was woven into the fabric of daily life. It was always there. I was fourteen when news of the Cuban missile crisis first came over the radio. I was in a barbershop getting a haircut and I listened to the newscaster with mounting dread. “Does that mean what I think it does?” I asked the barber cutting my hair.
“Yep,” he said, combing my hair back and continuing his work, “this is it.”
He was a veteran of World War II; he knew the score. I didn’t actually need him to tell me. Young though I was, I followed world news. I knew what this bulletin meant—the possible end of the world, the destruction of all civilization. I rode home on my bike wondering if I would live to see my next birthday.
Until now I had thought all of that was ancient history, but in a flash it is back—and probably never really left. I hear that people in Europe are starting to build bomb shelters—just like we did in the fifties– and that potassium iodide is in demand there as an antidote to radiation poisoning. Don’t be surprised if soon there are internet ads on American websites for bomb shelter plans and mail-order iodine. It’s a head-spinning change. A few weeks ago we were all deeply worried about Covid and the dire effects of climate change. Yet Covid and climate change are small potatoes compared to a nuclear war. A full-scale nuclear war is climate change times a million. It could end much life on earth.
Yes, war is back. I think back to all the wars that have happened in my adult lifetime, a a lengthy and depressing list, beginning with Vietnam (during which I came of age), through Rwanda, Iraq, Bosnia, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar—it exhausts me even thinking about how long the list is. War is constant, war is—dare we say it—normal, and though we feel in supporting the Ukranians we are on the side of the right, our country has prosecuted wars in which we appeared to be the aggressor and eventual loser against a united populace fighting for their own homeland. Joining untold thousands in those years, I too marched against the Vietnam war. Now I read that, at great personal risk, people are marching in similar anti-war demonstrations all over Russia. History repeats itself in surprising and ironic ways.
So where are we heading? Bob Dylan once sang, “Senor, senor, can you tell us where we’re headin’, Lincoln County Road or armegeddon?”
What is most disorienting is that here in America daily life hasn’t really changed—at least not yet. It’s still “Lincoln County Road.” Ordinary life just goes on. In the wine country where I live the grape vines are budding out, the flowering pear trees on our street have bloomed and are now shedding white blossoms, the hummingbirds have returned to our garden. It seems so lovely and real, and that distant war, with its news of daily destruction and death, seems so unreal. Actually all of it is real, the whole enchilada, and the threat of nuclear holocaust lurks in the background. We did this, we the people—the whole vaunted human species. It is we who have created this crazy patchwork world, at once so beautiful and so destructive. That is what our creative, gadget-making brains love to do—make shiny new things without thinking through the consequences.
I think that there has never been a weapon of war that has been invented but not used. They are always used. I read that President Truman had the option to explode the Hiroshima bomb in Hiroshima bay, rather than over the city—demonstrating its horrific power without killing anyone. Apparently the decision was made that a mere demonstration would not be enough to induce the Japanese to surrender. Are we about to see that chilling logic applied again?
I wake up each morning and reach for my phone, bracing myself to see what horrible things have happened during our night. Another day of peaceful calm here in America, and of horror abroad. This is our life now. How long will this go on?
However long, the whole world has no choice.