[This post was originally published three years ago on my old livejournal. I’m dusting-it off for today, though, because it is always an important thing to bear in mind.]
This Remembrance Day, I’m going to remind you of something. Something that our whole civilization has become so saturated with, something which is so depressing, that you quite probably don’t think about it enough anymore.
Now, I want you to imagine something. I want you to imagine that you’re up one day, going about your life. Suddenly you see a bright flash, brighter than anything you have ever seen. This is the detonation of a nuclear weapon. I want you to think about what it would feel like to be ripped-apart, atom by atom, or half-cooked by the blast. I want you to imagine radiation poisoning, cancer, nausea, swelling up like a sausage and dying ignominiously. I would like for you to imagine whatever city in which you presently reside laid flat, everyone you love dead or dying. I want for you to imagine the sun blotted-out, the Earth stripped bare, blackened to cinders, foliage dead, animals starved, cities in ruins, vast tracts of land rendered permanently uninhabitable.
Now, I want you to remember that, for more than fifty years now, the only thing between us and this nightmare scenario is one bad day. Sleep tight.
I say this, because as we reflect upon the wars of the past, it is very important to remember that the nature of warfare has now fundamentally changed. In the past, prior to the twentieth century, wars were frequently viewed as daring adventures, and then as tragedies. In the film Passchendaele, Paul Gross likens the Human impulse to wage war to a forrest’s need to burn itself out every so often. In Africa, clans of chimpanzees have been seen committing genocide against one another. I don’t think that anyone can at this point reasonablly argue that warfare is not inherent to Human nature, something which we are genetically compelled to do.
But it’s different now. As great as was the slaughter in the world wars, it was, in some sense, limited to the immediate time period. There was never any chance, even in the darkest days of the nineteen forties, that the generation doing the fighting would be the last generation of the Human race. But though it has become a cliché to say it, nuclear weapons have given mankind the capacity to destroy the entire world (or at least all life on it, save perhaps for cockroaches and microorganisms). In the nineteen fifties, people lived in fear of this fact; it permeated every aspect of culture, and was so ubiquitous, as I have said, that I think that culture became “saturated” with it, and it ceased to be something about which most people actively thought.
The fear faded somewhat after the Cold War ended in the early nineties, but in some ways, I think that that makes the situation even more dangerous. Let me put this bluntly: you should be afraid.
People do not look at history enough; they have lost sight of this matter. There are people now, powerful people, who act as if a nuclear war is one which can be won; as if nuclear weapons are just like regular weapons, only bigger and oh it would be a tragedy to have to use them, but war is hell don’tcha know?
An all-out war in this age would not be a mere tragedy. It would be an apocalypse. You could no more “win” a nuclear war than you can “win” a category five hurricane; it is a contradiction in terms. If you are lucky, you will be among the first to die!
The truth is, frankly, that there is only one war left to fight; the war against our own baser nature, the war against those primitive impulses which compel us to wage war. I am not the first person who has said this; indeed, as I have said, it has become a cliché, it has become parodied, it has become ridiculed but it is nonetheless true.
The stakes are simply too high to lose this battle.