The Siren Song of Nuclear War
Updated: Apr 8
By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
“The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”
–The Doors, “Roadhouse Blues”
In January, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its Doomsday Clock (which metaphorically records the time left until the end of the world) at 100 seconds to midnight for the third year in a row, the closest to Armageddon it has ever been.
I’m afraid to ponder where it would be set now that Russian President Vladimir Putin is waving his nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
A Dr. Strangelove-ian fever had already gripped other world leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and our very own Donald Trump. While running for president in 2016, Trump reportedly asked a foreign policy expert three times why we can’t use nukes. He’s since floated the idea of using them on ISIS and even hurricanes. Most recently, Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity that if he were still president, he would be reminding Putin that America has the biggest and best nuclear arsenal.
It does not bode well for the human race that Pope Francis recently felt compelled to say in his weekly address, "Our imagination appears increasingly concentrated on the representation of a final catastrophe that will extinguish us, such as that which would happen with an eventual atomic war."
There are more than 13,000 nuclear warheads on the planet, 90% of them held by the United States or Russia, according to the Arms Control Association. Both countries reserve the right to use them first in order to gain a battlefield advantage or to avoid a major military defeat.
It’s painfully easy to picture a deluded narcissistic megalomaniac like Putin or Trump pushing the button to soothe a bruised ego. Just look at how far into unreality both of them have already gone to justify invading Ukraine and subverting the 2020 American presidential election, respectively.
If you need a miracle to cling to in these obsidian times, consider that nukes have only been used twice (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945) while mankind has been working steadily to make them more, shall we say, handy.
For example, a “tactical” or "battlefield" nuke is much smaller than the warheads designed to destroy entire cities, but the smallest can create an explosion and 300-foot-wide fireball that levels buildings and severely burns anyone within about 1,000 feet while spraying a lethal dose of radiation about 2,000 feet.
This is the kind of toy Putin is most likely to employ in Ukraine and no one knows what will happen after that. I recently heard an NPR interview with Fred Kaplan, author of The Bomb: Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War. He described an unsettling war game conducted by the Obama Administration in which Russia invades a Baltic state. The U.S. responds militarily and, while winning, is hit on the battlefield by a Russian tactical nuke.
The question was: What do we do? Some officials proposed continuing to fight with conventional weapons and letting world condemnation ruin Russia. Most of the others thought that decision would be folly. So they all played with the idea of firing a couple of tactical nukes at military targets in Belarus, a Russian ally. Then the game was stopped.
“Nobody wanted to play ‘what happens next?’” Kaplan said. “People have been writing about nuclear strategy since a few weeks after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People have written out scenarios. Despite this, for decades, nobody has the slightest idea what would happen after one nuclear weapon is used. Even if there are the finest tuned intentions of keeping the war limited and not hitting population centers and so forth, the effects of nuclear weapons … are much greater than any think tank playing a war game has ever been able to anticipate.”
It’s a crying shame that at times like these, human beings can’t just grab the idiots who are perpetrating and perpetuating a nuclear crisis and say, “O.K., that’s enough out of you. Have a seat in this cell.” But no. Too many among us will rationalize and justify demented so-called “leadership.”
Here’s a comforting thought: A 2003 report showed that if just 300 of Russia’s approximately 1,500 nukes were used on U.S. cities, 75 to 100 million people would die the first day. Temperatures worldwide would plummet with 150 million tons of soot tossed into the upper atmosphere, triggering a "nuclear winter," global famine and likely the end of civilization as we know it.
"The 'day after’', if there will still be days and human beings — we will have to start again from nothing," the Pope said in his recent address.
Well, not everyone will start with nothing. The ultra-wealthy have been building luxe bunkers for surviving Armageddon in style. Mother Nature will take a royal beating but cockroaches will supposedly go about their business as usual. The rest of us wretches will have to make do in a Walking Dead scenario where competing bands of humans attack each other for food, resources, territory and, of course, political power. And if we think Covid lockdowns are the height of intolerable inconvenience, consider that the half-life of radioactive fallout is 30 years.
I’m sorry, but that kind of existence doesn’t hold much appeal for me. I’m 64 and would be very strongly inclined to off myself rather than spend my remaining (surely declining) years in a pointless hell. But the human spirit doesn’t go down without a fight.
Potassium iodide pills, which offer limited protection against radiation poisoning (never mind the gnarly side effects if used incorrectly), are now a hot item. Naturally they are being soaked in the milk of human kindness: price gouging. This reminds me of the pathetic run on plastic sheeting and duct tape for windows in the wake of the 9/11 anthrax attacks, and the pitches on right-wing talk shows for stocking up on survival rations, gold bars and firearms.
Not go morbid on you, but I have long suspected that I was put on Earth to witness the end of human civilization. I’m not religious, mind you. It just seems like a likely event when one of my first memories is the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was barely five years old, but I can recall hearing news reports on the transistor radios people carried in my neighborhood and sensing that something was terribly wrong. It feels the same way now, as Ukraine is destroyed and humanity fails to halt the ravages of climate change.
Back in my salad days, the specter of nuclear war became a normal part of life with grade-school kids like me hiding under desks or lining up in a hallway away from windows in case Russia or China dropped The Big One on us. I’m amazed we’ve all survived this long, especially when the reality of nuclear apocalypse is a mere abstraction to those who would trigger it and then ride it out in deluxe accommodations.
There’s something ironically fitting about humans transforming this beautiful planet into a world where only cockroaches and the ultra-rich, like Putin and Trump, will thrive. Count me out.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.