Maybe we need a booster shot of nuclear dread every decade or two, just to keep us alert to the mortal peril we’ve lived in for over 75 years. Without it, we might sleepwalk to destruction by letting Vladimir Putin conduct his hostile takeover of Ukraine — because we’ve forgotten the horror of the words “nuclear option.”
It was different in the 1930s: the First World War had been the first great war between European powers in a century. The carnage had been so brutal that the victors didn’t dare risk another war to stop the rise of fascism and Nazism. So we appeased the Nazis, and tolerated the Italian war in Ethiopia, and tut-tutted at the Japanese invasion of China. Then they dragged us into a large war we might have prevented if we’d been brave enough to risk a smaller one a few years earlier.
Winning the Second World War with atomic bombs was as much a shock to the winners as the losers. We understood at once that we were as vulnerable to such weapons as the Japanese had been, and took steps to protect ourselves: Canada allowed the creation of the Distant Early Warning line and radar stations in the Arctic to spot incoming Soviet bombers, while the Americans built nukes on every scale from artillery to H-bombs. In many North American cities, air raid sirens were tested once a month, reminding us all that if we heard them at unusual times, we could count our life expectancies in hours.
A whole culture of dread evolved: espionage scandals, endless novels about a third world war, and movies as well. That led to the post-apocalypse as a genre, with zombies as well as radioactive mutants shambling through the ruins.
I am of a generation who grew up in a Cold War culture: loyalty oaths, Red scares, conscription for most western armies, nuclear testing in the atmosphere, the “containment” of the Soviet Union and China, and the waging of proxy wars to show our determination to go to the brink — and over it, if we had to. The dread seeped into our daily lives. At school, the air raid siren tests would send us practicing ducking under our desks. At home, we worried whether we should let our neighbours into our fallout shelter when the moment came.
In 1962 we thought that moment had arrived. The Soviet Union had moved nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba, easily within range of most of North America. After two excruciatingly tense weeks, a stand-down was negotiated. After the profound scare of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we relaxed a little: we and the Russians had gone to the brink and stepped back. Thereafter we preferred proxy wars, covert actions and regime change, with Canada playing good cop to the Americans’ bad cop.
We had another scare in the 1980s, when the Soviets began blundering — shooting down Korean Air Flight 007, marching into Afghanistan to rescue a failing client state, letting Chernobyl melt down. And then Gorbachev opened some Soviet windows, and the hurricane of fresh air blew the Cold War into oblivion.
What a difference! We went straight from a culture of dread to one of triumph. Containment was vindicated, history had ended and neoliberal capitalism joined to democracy was said to be the only possible world. We could all relax into a life of cheerful consumption while putting Siberia and China on our bucket lists.
Reality show politics
Even 9/11 didn’t change things that much. The forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were fought by professionals, not draftees; most Canadian and American families had no skin in those games. They ended badly, which made us feel a little uneasy. Our current threats seemed feebler than Hitler or Stalin: Islamic terrorists? Kim Jong-un? Come on.
The nuclear booster shot we’d had in the 1980s began to fade, and of course the kids born in the 1990s and after had only the haziest sense of their parents’ world. Climate change has replaced nuclear war as a threat, but it is too gradual and hard to imagine (except in places like B.C.).
Meanwhile American politics had gone full reality show with the rise of Donald Trump, so we took him and his buddies Putin and Jong-un as entertainment — not as serious threats. No one worried about nuclear weapons unless Iran was building them. We might use war terms to describe the pandemic — frontline health-care workers, battling the virus — but COVID-19 was a scare that became a bore and then a serious inconvenience, and a distraction from foreign affairs.
So Putin’s behaviour seemed like pranks in bad taste: poisoning or shooting his critics, meddling in U.S. elections, staging phoney revolts in Ukraine, shooting down a Malaysian airliner. So when he began to make open preparations for war with Ukraine, we still didn’t take him seriously.
Until Feb. 24, 2022, when we had to.
Now, for the first time in 60 years, we have the real prospect of a confrontation between nuclear powers — a confrontation we could have won years ago if we hadn’t been distracted by Islamic terrorists.
Come to think of it, both Russia and the U.S. are declining imperial powers who actually created those terrorists by losing colonial wars in Afghanistan. Though both are well past their best-before date, they still think they deserve to throw their weight around.
A devastating ‘jackpot’?
What is chillingly apparent this week is that the Russians know the West better than we know them. After watching doofuses like Trump and Boris Johnson, they must think we’re pushovers. If we retain any fear of nuclear weapons, it’s just enough to let them get away with non-nuclear violence.
So far, sanctions have been our chief response, as if charging a high enough fee would price Putin out of his neocolonial war. It probably won’t, if he takes Ukraine as quickly as the Taliban took Afghanistan. If the war drags on, we can hope Putin is ousted by his people or his generals, but hope is not a policy.
We will then be under intense pressure to put our proverbial boots on the ground of a country that defeated Napoleon and Hitler. And that in turn could lead to a nuclear detonation somewhere, by someone, and maybe by accident.
Long ago in the worried 1980s, I published an article in the Province about how we would fare in a nuclear war. I estimated that two smallish H-bombs — one over YVR airport and the other over Burrard Inlet — would make Canada unable to wage its part in a war in the Pacific. (Similar barrages could take out American ports from Seattle to San Diego.)
In those days, we marched in thousands across the Burrard Bridge every year to protest nuclear weapons, a tradition that ended about the time the Berlin Wall came down. If we’d kept marching, here and elsewhere, we could have warned the world that some ambitious crook would eventually get his hands on a nuclear arsenal. When he did, we might have had the political strength to strangle him financially or politically.
Instead, we’ve let things drift. And today we have what science fiction author William Gibson calls “the Jackpot”: a combination of climate disasters, pandemics, social breakdown, and now a preventable war of choice. In Gibson’s novels, the Jackpot brings our world down. Putin’s war, nuclear or not, may do the same thing.
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