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Expert blog: Long after midnight. On our new nuclear fears

By Dr Daniel Cordle, Associate Professor in English and American Literature and an expert in nuclear culture, Nottingham Trent University. *** WARNING: Contains graphic details ***


WARNING: This blog contains graphic details which some people may find distressing

It’s 4 a.m. on 28 February, 2022. It’s long after midnight and I’m feeling sick in a way that many of us haven’t felt since the 1980s. The sickness matters. The time matters.

We've mostly stopped thinking about nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century. If there’s one thing about nuclear weapons – apart from the death, apart from the sickness, apart from the sheer, bloody horror – it’s that they’re hard to think about. We bury their existence in our minds, pretend they’re not there, let them sit deep in their silos, circulate in their submarines. You never expect the repressed to return until it does. And now, suddenly, here they are, pressing on our minds, the silo doors opening, the waves washing off the conning towers of the submarines as they break the surface, ready their launch codes.

The British novelist, Martin Amis, wrote of sickness in the 1980s, a decade weary of nuclear fear and of talk about nuclear weapons. ‘I am sick of them,’ he wrote in ‘Thinkability,’ an essay prefacing his short story collection, Einstein’s Monsters, ‘I am sick of nuclear weapons. … When, in my dealings with this strange subject I have read too much or thought too long – I experience nausea, clinical nausea. In every conceivable sense … nuclear weapons make you sick. What toxicity, what power, what range.’ Amis was playing, in the title of his essay, with the cliché of strategy hawks who, wanting nuclear war as an option on the table, said we should ‘think the unthinkable.’ And here we are, in 2022, and Vladimir Putin is, apparently, thinking the unthinkable. And here I am, in the early hours of the morning, feeling sick.

I should explain my interest here. I’ve spent my career trying to think about nuclear weapons – or, rather, how to think about thinking about them: what they mean to people. I’m not a strategist, an engineer, or a physicist. I’m an academic, a literary critic specialising in the cultural history of the nuclear age. I aspire to detached, calm, retrospective analysis, to cool, elegant prose. I try to keep myself out of my writing. It’s time to ditch all that. I make arrangements to meet friends, talk about going on holiday in the summer, but to be honest I’m not sure we’ll see the back end of next week. I don’t feel detached.

Somehow, we must find a way to think about this thing before it’s too late. I don’t have answers, but perhaps the clearest thing I’ve learnt in two decades of working on this monstrous stuff is that everyone is out of their depth with it, but that, still, we must keep trying to think about it.

During the long misery of the last two years, I thought the lesson of Covid was that our sense, our absolute smug assurance, in the West at least, that there were things that didn’t happen in the twenty-first century, was exposed as an illusion. I wasn’t immune from it. Sure, I would have said in December 2019, things like pandemics are possible, but that isn’t what I really felt. If I’m honest, my gut said that everything would probably be alright simply because everything had been alright before (surely someone, somewhere, was in control and wouldn’t let it happen). When it became clear that things like pandemics absolutely did still happen, I hoped we might learn a lesson: if nuclear weapons exist, they can happen too. I thought we’d have time to work that through, though, but it turns out it’s long after midnight and here I am, tapping away, feeling sick.

Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning Indian novelist, also wrote about the difficulty of thinkability in a 1998 essay pointedly titled, ‘The End of Imagination,’ written in response to nuclear testing by India and Pakistan. There is, she said, ‘nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons,’ and nothing more humiliating than for a novelist to have to restate a case already made eloquently by other people elsewhere. Yet, in the face of emergency, ‘silence is indefensible.’ Despite her protestations that she was merely speaking ‘second-hand lines in this sad second-hand play,’ Roy was, in fact, extraordinarily eloquent. Perhaps we should start with her, then, as we try to think about this thing.

Daniel Cordle.jpg
Dr Daniel Cordle, of the School of Arts and Humanities

Nuclear war, she says, is not just another kind of war. ‘If there is a nuclear war,’ she wrote, ‘our foes will not be China or America or even each other. Our foe will be the earth herself. The very elements – the sky, the air, the land, the wind and water – will all turn against us. Their wrath will be terrible.’ Perhaps we’ve forgotten, in our long nuclear sleep since the end of the Cold War, what nuclear war means.

We get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where atomic weapons were used. Let’s think about human bodies before we think about our planet. There are many who simply disappeared in the atomic attacks on Japan, their bodies vapourised in the flash. At best, a few of them left rough silhouettes, blast shadows cast on pavement or wall where their bodies briefly shielded them from the heat. Let’s not forget the forces involved here, that the flash of a nuclear weapon is many times brighter, many times hotter, than anything else ever seen on this Earth. Brighter than the sun. Hotter, briefly, than its heart.

Those vapourised might have been the lucky ones. Hiroshima, by the American journalist, John Hersey, lays out starkly the fragility of the body in the face of nuclear explosions. In a distressing passage he describes the experience of one of his interviewees, Mr Tanimoto, who tried to help one of the survivors: ‘He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces.’ Or we could look to the Japanese novelist, Masuji Ibuse, who in his novel, Black Rain, describes the eerie world of the city in the days after the bomb. A body in the river swings round in the current and raises ‘its arms as though to grasp at a branch, so that it almost seemed, for a moment, to be alive.’ A charred corpse, on a bridge, seems to puff out its cheeks. Only on closer inspection does the observer realise there are ‘swarms of maggots tumbling from the mouth’ and that ‘it was nothing but their wriggling, that first impression of life and movement.’ This is what nuclear war threatens: a world of the dead haunted by the living.

But let’s not forget that the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were measly things compared with later nuclear weapons. Hydrogen (fusion) bombs, invented in the 1950s, are commonly described as a thousand times more powerful than the fission bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We haven’t seen what one of those does to a city. Yet.

Typing this, I feel sick. Why isn’t everyone else sick? Why isn’t everyone else up, now, at nearly quarter to five, typing? ‘Never mind if it’s been said before,’ writes Roy, ‘Speak up on your own behalf. Take it very personally.’

So let’s speak up. Let’s take it personally. Let’s not forget the rest of it, either. In a full-scale nuclear war there will be nowhere to run, no outside help. When the world has gone there won’t be a relief effort, there won’t be a place you can flee to. It won’t be a case of getting through a few weeks until things are better. Roy again: ‘Our cities and forests, our fields and villages will burn for days. Rivers will turn to poison. The air will become fire. The wind will spread the flames. When everything there is to burn has burned and the fires die, smoke will rise and shut out the sun. The earth will be enveloped in darkness. There will be no day. Only interminable night.’ Roy writes apocalyptically, but in some models temperatures drop catastrophically as nuclear winter sets in. Ecosystems might collapse suddenly, irreparably. If you’re unlucky enough to be so far from the first blasts as to survive them, you face death from radiation sickness, or starvation, or any one of the myriad other ways in which nuclear weapons can kill you.

How do we think this? Why the hell haven’t we been thinking about this, doing something about it, before it’s too late? In 1947, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists invented the Doomsday Clock as a way of signalling how close we were to nuclear midnight, and periodically, ever since, the hands of the clock have moved closer or further away from 12 to indicate our shared peril. It doesn’t escape my notice that I’m writing this now at 5 a.m. Is it too late?

I don’t have answers about what to do, but I do know we have to hold this in our minds somehow, in the hope we get through this crisis long enough to find a way, together, once we’re through it, to do something about nuclear weapons. Let’s be clear: in the long term, nuclear deterrence isn’t a viable strategy. In the below-the-line comments of the smugly overconfident – they’re there under almost any article on nuclear weapons – you will read assertions about how nuclear deterrence has kept the peace since the Second World War. Unlike many of those opposed to nuclear weapons, I’m happy to concede that’s likely the case so far. But the problem with deterrence is that it can never fail because if it fails once that really is the end of everything. It assumes there are rational actors in control of nuclear weapons (are we confident that’s the case at the moment?). Even if you assume rational actors, deterrence requires they can make good decisions, that they have access to perfect information and that they’re immune to the heat and terror and sleeplessness of a crisis (if I’m up typing in the early hours because I’m sick with worry, what on earth are those making decisions doing?). Are there any human and technological systems we trust never to fail? No, this has to be a watershed: if we get through this crisis we must find a way collectively, globally, to deal with nuclear weapons. It won’t be possible simply, suddenly, to disarm, but gradually, slowly, we need to find a way to reduce their numbers and put what few remain into some sort of international control.

The usual answer to calls for disarmament is that we need nuclear weapons to deter our enemies. Are they deterring Putin now? Or have they given him a card he can play that we can’t counter? If he’s prepared to destroy the world, our deterrence is useless. Aren’t they actually stopping us from intervening in Ukraine? (whether we would be able to, even in a world devoid of nuclear weapons, is, of course, a different question, but there’d certainly be a greater range of options).

And the current crisis? Of course, I don’t know. In my sleep-addled way I can think only of blind hope or, perhaps better, strategic naivety: that we share these sentiments, that we share what we have in common as human beings, beyond nationality; that we love this planet, the Earth; that we keep sharing these things and remembering them, in the face of the horror and the brutality unfolding in Ukraine and perhaps yet to unfold elsewhere, until someone, somewhere, shares them who is in a position to do something to take us back from the brink. It’s embarrassing to write in these terms – it seems so starkly emotional, so adolescent in its all-or-nothingness – and no doubt these fears will date quickly if the nuclear threat recedes, but what else have we got? Perhaps we need our friends in Russia, whoever they may be, to share this feeling, to know that we share it, that they might act when the opportunity rises to change the regime. Perhaps we need, as much as we loathe Putin, to guarantee him a safe exit from power: a way out to a life lived in luxurious, if ignominious, isolation. If this is naïve, fine, it probably is (and goodness knows, in my isolation from the horror unfolding in Ukraine, I have no right to suggest anyone escapes justice), but it’s 6 a.m. now and I’ve nothing else to give. Turn the page, scroll on by, but keep the stakes in mind, propose a better solution – I don’t care what it is; just keep trying to find it.

Amis’s point about ‘thinkability’ was that although strategists would happily try to think the unthinkable to find ways of using nuclear weapons, the real unthinkability we had to challenge was nuclear disarmament. We have to keep trying to think that type of unthinkable, to believe that, if we get through all this, we can find another way to live with (perhaps even eventually without) nuclear weapons. What we’re doing now isn’t sustainable. If we get through this, we can’t go back to assuming everything’s fine just because it’s too hard to hold in our mind the horror, the complete destruction of the future, our weapons can unleash.

It’s long after midnight and I feel sick. You should, too.

Dr Daniel Cordle is Associate Professor in English and American Literature and an expert in nuclear culture at Nottingham Trent University. His most recent book is Late Cold War Literature and Culture: The Nuclear 1980s (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Expert blog: Long after midnight. On our new nuclear fears

Published on 2 March 2022
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Arts and Humanities

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