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The Ghosts Of Atomic Past: Nuclear Terror Is Back

Despite talk of how ‘unprecedented’ the Trump era is, what we’re seeing is the Greatest Hits album of right wing Americana turned up to 11.

Modified from pixabay/ wikipedia

T his week, the United States and South Korea are conducting a joint exercise of their air forces—dubbed Vigilant Ace—involving some 12,000 personnel and hundreds of aircraft.

In a depressingly familiar news cycle — this is the third such exercise in as many years — North Korea warned that such exercises are provocative and may bring us all “to the brink of war.”

What’s different now is that, for the first time in a quarter century, nuclear attack sirens are blaring over the city of Honolulu. We have lurched back into an era that once seemed safely confined to history: that of nuclear terror.

For all the talk of how “unprecedented” the Trump era is, what we’re actually seeing is the Greatest Hits album of right wing Americana turned up to 11. What has been so terrifying is not quite that Trump and his sycophants are doing anything new, but that they’re forcing us to relive terrors we’d buried, and amplifying existing ones.

Case in point: all of our urgent discussions about nuclear war. The Trumpian twist is that we now have to worry about the terrifying, almost infantile fixation of our own president on the nuclear weapons he commands.

For younger people, the nuclear fallout advice of hiding under your school desk for air raid drills seems like it belongs in the ‘50s.

But throughout the ‘80s, nuclear terror was as pervasive as ever, ritualized into neverending drills, dramatized in film, and flooding earnest instructional videos.

Even in my own childhood, in the early ‘90s, I remember “shelter drills” where we had to line up outside our classroom and then crouch against the blue tiled walls, hands over our heads. The school bell rang out like that of a church; slowly, deliberately, instead of with the rapid pace of a fire-drill bell. It felt maudlin, even to lil’ ol me without words for such things.

The tensions of the Cold War traveled through peaks and valleys. The first summit was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The second occurred around 1983, and is less well remembered by those who didn’t live through it — but it is far more instructive for our current moment.

In November of ’83, a NATO military exercise called Able Archer (this one was more of a communications and paper exercise, rather than one involving tanks and ships) got underway. It was an annual ritual, one meant to simulate the lead-up to an actual nuclear strike against Warsaw Pact nations. But this time, a noxious combination of tensions, posturing, and miscommunication led the Soviet government to think the exercise was cover for a very real nuclear attack.

We came perilously close to the apocalypse.

Critical to this entire scenario was how profoundly each side misunderstood the other, and how otherwise disconnected events all added up to a rational calculus for Armageddon.

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Reagan’s infamous “evil empire” remarks—meant to pander to an audience of right wing Christians—read to the Kremlin as rationalizing a forthcoming attack; the Soviet Union shot down a civilian airliner, murdering hundreds, fearing it was an American spy plane and earning international condemnation; the U.S. invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada to overthrow a Marxist government (continuing a long tradition, of course), providing a timely reminder to the Russians of the U.S.’s willingness to strike first; and the U.S. put its own facilities on high alert in response to the bombing of a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut.

Then Able Archer happened, and paranoia truly blossomed among the Soviet leadership — all while the U.S. was blissfully unaware of the profound effect its actions were having.

As the final day of Able Archer unfolded—which simulated a NATO nuclear strike—the Soviet premier and his top generals all had their fingers poised over the Button.

It’s a fascinating—if deeply terrifying—story in its own right. The U.S. and USSR had embassies in each other’s countries, as well as high-level envoys that could—at least in theory—speak to each other. But despite all this, a miscommunication so vast and deep occurred that two nations were brought to the brink of destruction.

Part of this dynamic, of course, was a combination of Soviet paranoia and American arrogance; the latter was founded around the naive and self-serving idea that “everyone” must know the U.S. would never attack first, after all. We’re the good guys. And they went right on believing that even as Grenada was invaded. Even at the highest levels of the Reagan Administration, there was a chronic unwillingness to grapple with the non-Western perspective on the matter, which saw the U.S. as an aggressive and even warlike nation. Being a tribune for this perspective, it informed the highest levels of Soviet strategic thinking.

Based on what we now know—and despite Reagan’s millenarian prophesying—the U.S. neither wanted a nuclear war, nor would’ve initiated one. Indeed, in his memoirs, and despite his own infamous posturing, he wrote of those generals who thought nuclear war to be winnable, “I thought they were crazy.”

‘Everyone’ must know the U.S. would never attack first, after all. We’re the good guys.

But Reagan communicated that fact rather poorly to a world that had no reason to believe him anyway, even if he was only using these threatening tactics to bolster the bluff of America’s “deterrent.” And his own newfound fear of nuclear Armageddon caused Reagan to accelerate programs like SDI/Star Wars, which served only to exacerbate tensions.

It nearly cost us everything.

When I think of how the lines of communication between NATO and the USSR were a roaring river compared to those between the U.S. and North Korea, I find myself very alarmed indeed. We have no embassy, no consulate, no diplomatic office. The “New York Channel” —a diplomatic link exercised at a New York City office during UN convocations—has long since been shut.

What’s worse, thanks to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s shambolic tenure, the State Department is so demoralized and hollowed out that it is virtually a non-entity on the world stage. Amidst soaring tensions with North Korea, we do not even have an ambassador to South Korea in place yet — so eager was Trump to fire Obama’s appointee.

And to top it all off, we have a president who truly seems to treat the nuclear arsenal as an elaborate toy collection — and who wants the U.S. to have as many as it did during the 1960s. “Then why are we making [nukes]?” Trump asked of an MSNBC interviewer who questioned his sabre rattling, “Why do we make them?”

Why indeed.

In 1983, both sides of the nuclear equation were rational actors who did not want a nuclear war; it still nearly happened. In 2017, both North Korea and the U.S. are led by notoriously mercurial men with tyrannical temperaments whose appreciation for the horror of nuclear war is questionable at best.

Not only is miscommunication a certainty, but a significant percentage of that communication is being conducted by President Trump on his Twitter. The North Korean government is paying attention, but it doesn’t quite know what to make of the tweets (Who would? Who does?). From their perspective, the safest move is to assume Trump is ambling up to the brink of war. It’s “evil empire” times 10, if you like.

Provocative words that they interpret as paving the way for bloody deeds.

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The gulf of misunderstanding is wider as well. The Iron Curtain was, at least, porous. With North Korea, by contrast, it’s harder for information to get in or out. Substituted for that is a culture where North Korea is a never-ending slapstick gag, ripe for a kind of grotesque comedy that occludes both the brutality of its Stalinist regime and the horrible reality of what renewed fighting on the Korean peninsula would look like. A conventional war with North Korea could almost certainly be “won” by the U.S. and allied forces; the problem is that any victory would be of the Pyrrhic variety—essentially ruinous to the “victor”—even by the standards of such wars.

A refugee crisis that would eclipse Syria’s, nuclear fallout, millions of civilians dead, the devastation of Seoul, the destabilization of Manchuria, economic hardship throughout the Far East—all are near certainties of a new war.

North Korea and the U.S. are led by notoriously mercurial men whose appreciation for the horror of nuclear war is questionable at best.

Nontrivial possibilities include attacks on Japan and Guam. That Guam, a colony of the U.S., could suffer so devastating a blow because of its colonizer’s flag is a hideous irony. The violent overthrow of the Kim regime would create unpredictable geopolitical crises that will take well over a generation to resolve.

And, just maybe, North Korea might manage to launch a nuclear attack on the continental U.S. as well, before all is said and done.

A nuclear attack remains unlikely, but it’s a nonzero probability now in a way that should disturb us all.

We, as a nation, have chosen to waltz the entire world up to the brink of a new nuclear crisis. But even if it’s a low probability event, the past teaches us that nuclear terror preys on the minds of ordinary citizens in ways that can alter our democratic habits of heart. Air raid drills serve a propaganda purpose as well, after all—not so much to drill citizens in safety, but to drill into them a permanent consciousness of alien threat, to maintain what was once called “a delicate balance of terror,” a civic fear that was useful for many in the upper echelons of politics.

Just look at Japan.

The return of Cold War-style terror, after all, is by no means confined to the U.S. Northern Japanese towns and cities, which have experienced direct flyovers of North Korean missile tests, are now compelling their citizens to participate in regular air raid drills.

‘A delicate balance of terror’ is a civic fear that’s useful for many in the upper echelons of politics.

It certainly feels necessary — North Korean missiles aren’t known for their stability — but it is also a boon to the freshly empowered government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seeks a mandate to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, which prevents the military from being anything other than defensive. He belongs to a faction of Japanese ultranationalists who view the constitution’s pacifist provisions as a humiliating and unjust imposition by foreigners. How useful might that “delicate balance of terror” be to a prime minister who needs his people to support a militarist revision to the constitution?

How useful is Trump to such an endeavor, when he himself infamously said that Japan should arm itself with nukes?

It’s at this stage where we start to see how the shockwaves of instability emanating from Washington are having serious knock-on effects, even in unexpected places. We’ve seen what nuclear powers locked in a mis-interpretive dance can do; what happens when the bigger of the two powers is all but spoiling for chaos and bloodshed and cares nothing for even trying to communicate?

The early 1980s were a frightening time, and I only know the fear through the accounts that emanate from pages and old video; I wasn’t yet born. I didn’t gain an appreciation of the real, apocalyptic terror instilled in people during those years until fairly recently. Even the music—with its upbeat, unrelenting pop and synth—makes more sense. It feels like a bit of ironic dancing before the apocalypse — which is to say nothing of more overtly anti-nuke anthems. Faithless hedonism and dancing. In 2017 it feels all too familiar and resonant.

And now we get to do it all over again.

I could end there, it’d be dark and artsy. But I’m not here to further the terror. The ‘80s also provide a way forward, after all. If we’re doomed to relive this history, then let us relive it in the way that averts calamity: it’s time for a new worldwide “No Nukes” movement, and to ratchet up the anti-war pressure on global governments once again.

We may be reliving an all too familiar fear, but history also teaches us that we need not be powerless before even the most terrible of our own creations—whether it’s nuclear weapons or Donald Trump.

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