An All-American Horror Story
Three-Quarters of a Century of Nuclear Follies And That's Just Where to Begin
Yes, once upon a time I regularly absorbed science fiction and imagined futures of wonder, but mainly of horror. What else could you think, if you read H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds under the covers by flashlight while your parents thought you were asleep? Of course, that novel was a futuristic fantasy, involving as it did Martians arriving in London to take out humanity. Sixty-odd years after secretly reading that book and wondering about the future that would someday be mine, I'm living, it seems, in that very future, however Martian-less it might be. Still, just in case you hadn't noticed, our present moment could easily be imagined as straight out of a science-fiction novel that, even at my age, I'd prefer not to read by flashlight in the dark of night.
I mean, I was barely one when Hiroshima was obliterated by a single atomic bomb. In the splintering of a moment and the mushroom cloud that followed, a genuinely apocalyptic power that had once rested only in the hands of the gods (and perhaps science-fiction authors) became an everyday part of our all-too-human world. From that day on, it was possible to imagine that we not the Martians or the gods could end it all. It became possible to imagine that we ourselves were the apocalypse. And give us credit. If we haven't actually done so yet, neither have we done a bad job when it comes to preparing the way for just such a conclusion to human history.
Let's put this in perspective. In the pandemic year 2020, 76 years after two American atomic bombs left the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in ashes, the world's nuclear powers actually increased spending on nuclear weapons by $1.4 billion more than they had put out the previous year. And that increase was only a small percentage of the ongoing investment of those nine yes, nine countries in their growing nuclear arsenals. Worse yet, if you happen to be an American, more than half of the total 2020 "investment" in weaponry appropriate for world-ending scenarios, $37.4 billion to be exact, was plunked down by our own country. (A staggering $13.3 billion was given to weapons maker Northrop Grumman alone to begin the development of a new intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, the one thing our thoroughly troubled world obviously needs.) In all, those nine nuclear powers spent an estimated $137,000 a minute in 2020 to "improve" their arsenals the ones that, if ever used, could end history as we know it.
In the Dust of the History of Death
Imagine for a second if all that money had instead been devoted to creating and disseminating vaccines for most of the world's population, which has yet to receive such shots and so be rescued from the ravages of Covid-19, itself a death-dealing, sci-fi-style nightmare of the first order. But how could I even think such a thing when, in the decades since this country dropped that first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, it's learned its atomic lessons all too well? Otherwise, why would its leaders now be planning to devote at least $1.7 trillion over the next three decades to "modernizing" what's already the most modern nuclear arsenal on the planet?
Let me just add that I visited Hiroshima once upon a time with a Japanese colleague who had been born on an island off the coast of atomically destroyed Nagasaki. In 1982, he took me to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which, despite exhibiting a carbonized child's lunchbox and permanently imprinted human shadows, can obviously offer a visitor only a hint of what it was actually like to experience the end of the world, thanks to a single bomb. And yet I found the experience so deeply unsettling that, when I returned home to New York City, I could barely talk about it.
Admittedly, though nine countries now possess nuclear weapons, most of them significantly more powerful than the single bomb that turned Hiroshima into a landscape of rubble, not one has ever been used in war. And that should be considered a miracle on a planet where, when it comes to weapons and war, miracles of any sort tend to be few and far between. After all, it's estimated that, in 2020, this country alone had more than 5,000 nuclear weapons, at least 1,300 of them deployed and ready to use enough, that is, to destroy several worlds.
Consider it an irony of the first order, then, that U.S. leaders have spent years focused on trying to keep the Iranians from making a single nuclear weapon, but not for a day, not for an hour, not for a second on keeping this country from producing ever more of them and the delivery systems that would distribute them anywhere on this planet. In that light, just consider, for instance, that, in 2021, the U.S. is preparing to invest more than $100 billion in producing a totally new ICBM, whose total cost over its "lifespan" (though perhaps the correct word would be "deathspan") is already projected at $264 billion and that's before the cost overruns even begin. All of this for a future that" well, your guess is as good as mine.
Or consider that, only recently, the American and Russian heads of state, the two countries with by far the biggest nuclear arsenals, met in Geneva, Switzerland, and talked for hours, especially about cyberwar, while spending little appreciable time considering how to rein in their most devastating weaponry and head the planet toward a denuclearized future.
And keep in mind that all of this is happening on a planet where it's now commonplace scientific knowledge that even a nuclear war between two regional powers, India and Pakistan, could throw so many particulates into the atmosphere as to create a nuclear winter on this planet, one likely to starve to death billions of us. In other words, just one regional nuclear conflict could leave the chaos and horror of the Covid-19 pandemic in the unimpressive dust of the history of death.
A Slow-Motion Hiroshima?
And yet, here's perhaps the strangest thing of all: we're still convinced that, since the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no matter how much world-ending weaponry has been stockpiled by China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, none has been used. Unfortunately, that should increasingly be seen as a Martian-less fantasy of the first order.
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