Apocalypse Soon // Tim Clark
“Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying”
Growing up in the sixties and seventies provided a unique education. The Cold War was percolating, heating, bubbling, in places with comfortable, well-known names like Berlin, Havana, Prague. Also, in other places, mysterious places, with exotic, fascinating, eerie names, Khe Sahn, Pyongyang, Danang, Malaysia. It was constant, a pre-boil surface tension waiting, threatening to explode, and start the war, the big war, the last war.
It was easy to think in terms of megatons, multiple independently target-able reentry vehicles, throw weights. It was easy to find cold comfort in the dire predictions of people who spent a lot of time thinking about ways to avoid the ultimate destruction of man. All the predictions, most of them, anyway, were easy to watch for, easy to see.
1. The reunification of Germany was a widely-predicted trigger. Francois Mauriac said “I love Germany so, every day I thank God there are two of them.” He had a lot of company. Then on October 3rd 1990 the unthinkable happened, Germany came together, one glorious, industrious, disciplined country. Fortunately, they seemed content to become an economic power and had little ambition or taste for conquest.
2. If China ever became anything more than a giant population center. Stability in Asia and trillions in foreign investment coupled with an enormous labor force turned China into the world’s second largest economy. Obviously, China was a true world power. But, they were a huge trading partner and everybody was willing to look the other way when things were uncomfortable.
3. The Dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent loss of power and territory. Of course, everybody remembers that. Russia was willing to work with the old proxies, and was facing NATO on one side and China on the other. A loss of that magnitude was very hard on Russian pride, but they have learned patience is the best defense against what they view as foreign intervention. Puppet regimes and “assistance to allies” gives them hope. So, they watch, and they wait.
Somehow the world lived through all three, these doomsday triggers. Somehow mankind had managed to survive. It offered a brief hope.
Somehow, we had avoided the catastrophic conflicts that had managed to drag the world into the hell of complete war that dated back to at least The Hundred Years War beginning in 1337. It was an awful cycle of mounting hostility, gathering hatred and resentment, and spasmodic release. Exhausted, terrified, and unable to maintain the level of destruction, running low on treasure and soldiers the world would draw new borders, relax, and begin preparing for the next round, for the circle to come around again. Waiting for the next shuffle of the deck to light the fuse, and send men off to kill and die.
It was never easy, and it took an enormous amount of statesmanship, but, somehow, we had managed to find a way to use words instead of weapons. Of course, there were “little wars” all the time. Wars of liberation, proxy wars, cold wars, and certainly everybody spent a lot of time and money attempting to sabotage everybody else. But, through the UN we could always keep enough diplomacy, and conversation to avoid the “big war.”
Of course, it was, looking back, only beginning. It was only dry, crispy tinder piled on oil soaked rags. Waiting for a spark.
And along comes America in 2017 carrying a box of matches.
“Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying”
In 1971 a group of planetologists gathered to study the photos of Mars provided by the Mariner 9 probe. A huge dust storm covered the whole planet. With nothing else to do they decided to study the effects the clouds had on the atmosphere. They concluded the clouds had lowered the surface temperature significantly.
Intrigued, the considered the effects volcanic eruptions had on Earth’s temperature. After every major eruption, the temperature had decreased temporarily but noticeably. Further, they found that asteroid impacts throwing large amounts of sun blocking dust and particles had significantly altered the climate and was more than likely responsible for almost every major extinction.
The group stayed in touch over the years. In 1982 they were shown an early draft of a study by the Max Planck Institute of chemistry that calculated the amount of smoke that would be thrown into the atmosphere form forest fires caused by a nuclear exchange. The study did not include the dust and soot that ground level detonations over population centers would add. Their research showed that an exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union would cover at least the Northern Hemisphere and likely the whole planet in sun blocking smoke, soot, and dust for up to six months.
On the surface the temperature would plummet, likely by as much as 72° Fahrenheit. Dropping the average below freezing in any season. Plus, when the radioactive particles finally descended the complete destruction of the ozone layer would allow lethal levels of the harmful spectrum of ultraviolet rays to reach the surface. Enough to cause burns and blindness in as little as a half hour of exposure.
Until that time it had been assumed that nuclear war would devastate Europe and North America, killing millions, wiping out crops, livestock, and an enormous swath of history and heritage. But, mankind, it was widely assumed, would survive. And, it could be hoped the new great powers, situated in the southern hemisphere would learn from the mistake.
Everything changed with these findings, everything was different. Everything would be gone, everything. In a race for self-preservation and deterrence the secret to extinction was unlocked. It should have changed the way world leaders would think forever. Unfortunately, it did not.
“Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
There is a dark power involved with calculating the usefulness of nuclear weapons. An allure, a magical summons that forces people to abandon firmly held principles chase the specter of “limited strategic response.”
In 1980 Jimmy Carter became the 39th president. Jimmy Carter, likely one of the gentlest souls (and certainly the person most intellectually adapted to understand the power of nuclear weapons) to be elected president, could not avoid tinkering with the formula. Upon taking the office he was convinced that a finite number of trident missiles hidden safely under the ocean, tucked safely away in submarines were sufficient to deter aggression. It was, he believed, a number that was easily calculable, and independent of other factors. But, soon the allure of “limited strategic employment options” was more than he could resist. And PD- 59 was born.
Presidential Directive 59 was a terrifying document, filled with assertions about the ability to control a nuclear exchange. It was almost a Sean Connery “Untouchables” targeting plan. “If they send tanks, we send nuclear artillery shells, if they send atomic bombs, we send cruise missiles.” Of course, it carried the unlikely supposition that once things started one, or both combatants would be willing to walk away short of victory. Given the long, violent history of “humanity” and war that is a very questionable belief.
Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on Nuclear Non-Proliferation. He was passionate, and persuasive. A true believer. But, the call of controllable, escalatory response was too great to resist. He approved a thirty year, trillion dollar “force modernization.”
These are people who didn’t really believe we needed all the weapons we had, argued against keeping the stockpile, truly wanted to shrink the arsenal. These are men who believed we could reduce the amount of destruction possible and still be safe. They believed nuclear weapons had only one use, deterrence. when they went into the tunnel. When they came out on the other end the views had changed. All the intricacies, possibilities, the sheer magic of the terrible power and the illusion of control were more than they could resist.
All this money, all this wasted time, all serving one purpose, chasing the insane dream of making nuclear weapons usable. Making it possible to “Look-Shoot-Look,” stopping short of annihilation, of course a lot of people won’t see much of a difference. People unfortunate enough to be in one of the early “limited exchanges” will be just as dead, even if most of their countrymen aren’t. Maybe annihilation is relative.
These men fell victim to the power, and the illusion of control. These were kind, gentle, intelligent men who fell prey to the myth of a controlled nuclear exchange. Men whose training and beliefs opposed war, men who knew better. But, it was too powerful to resist.
Even if the thousands of dead are overlooked which is not a comfortable thought, what benefit is there to this limited exchange? Is it possible to believe that any national leader will stop short of excessive retaliation? It hasn’t worked that way in the past. In the world today (and almost certainly the world tomorrow) force is the ultimate choice of persuasion, and once it is employed the only effective counter is equal, or more likely superior force.
In this case, it becomes a “Look-Shoot-Look-Shoot-Shoot Again” until the whole world is covered in radioactive dust, the sun’s rays fail, and humanity ceases to exist. Mankind will become the first species fortunate enough to pick the method of its extinction.
“As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
You don’t have to go back very far to find examples of wars that grew wildly out of control. World War I is a perfect example, a war that was almost accidentally started. Not in an “I told you not to push that button” manner, but almost as absurd. A war that bled an entire generation dry. And the causes are almost incredibly small, but once it started nobody was willing to stop. Does anybody really feel today’s world leaders are more controlled? Does anybody really believe that absolute destruction is enough to stop today’s power brokers once the opening bell sounds?
Enter America of 2017. A nation uncomfortable with the responsibilities of world leadership. A nation that is willing to cede the top slot to save a few dollars.
Suppose, for a minute, that China assumes the role of partner in these trade negations America is running away from. And, why wouldn’t they? They certainly have the economy to cover the ante, and the national resolve to make it work. How long do you think it would take for China to become the world’s largest producer, and consumer? How long until American isolationism, paranoia and the policies invoked to make China the world’s largest economy. Point two of the WWIII has just been sharpened, and become acutely painful.
Now, move to Europe. American involvement in NATO has become dependent on the ability to collect their due. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars.” Does anybody really believe Germany, with its marvelous productive capacity, flourishing economy, and tragic memory of the days when wars raged across the German landscape leaving thousands of dead are willing to cede control of Eastern Europe to the tender embrace of Russian expansion? Suddenly, into the power vacuum left by a fiercely nationalistic, and short sighted American administration steps the German Military, complete with a nuclear deterrent. Point one and point three are starting to turn dark, stormy, and almost predictably terrible.
“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred”
Step, for a minute, into the world being born from this genesis. Consider the frightening possibilities. Across Europe, it is easy to imagine countries, led by a nationalistic fervor, fielding giant armies, staring maliciously across the border. Easy to imagine, and easy to find in recent, and older, history. It has never ended very well.
In Asia, the growing power of Chinese wealth and prosperity are threatening our ties with Japan, Australia and India, and our trade war with Mexico has left crops to rot in the field, leading to a declining economy, and a failing middle class.
Add to that, a bellicose, intolerant administration filled with inexperienced cabinet members, and led by a man who has publicly proclaimed his belief that nuclear weapons are usable. We may be teetering on the edge of the end of the history. We might be the horsemen of the apocalypse.
But, we don’t have to go gently into the goodnight. The future has not been written, and if we raise our voices loud and often we can demand change. What choice do we have?
“So, don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing”
Lyrics from “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” by Bob Dylan.
Tim Clark is a blogger, a warehouse associate, and a happily married man (for 28 years) and a father, from Columbus, Ohio.
He occasionally contributes to Street Speech, a local homeless advocacy newspaper, as well as creates a monthly column for The Wild Word. There are a few others, that can be viewed on Tim's Contently page, here.