Putin’s nuclear threats could lead to the end of the world
A few days after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, my wife and I went for our usual end-of-the-day walk in the beau monde. But the walk was different tonight.
The end of the world was in our heads. This stuff changes everything.
Earlier today, I had read an op-ed about how Putin probably did not subscribe to the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) logic that we have allowed ourselves to rely on for decades as making nuclear annihilation unlikely.
My wife had heard Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, say that in her opinion Putin was capable, if cornered, of launching a nuclear attack on New York rather than lose. So here is the “madman” who has always been the worrying exception to the common sense of MAD.
MAD’s common-sense, human logic seemed unassailable – with nuclear arsenals on both sides, neither Russia nor the US will start a nuclear war because it would mean the end of the world. Nuclear annihilation, nuclear winter, species suicide were all ways of referring to this end.
Nuclear war was a failure because it was unwinnable, the ultimate lose-lose. It seemed, in any case, confirmed by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Russia blinked.
Of course, this MAD logic of the unthinkability of all-out nuclear war was famously – and infamously – challenged by Herman Kahn’s “Thinking the Unthinkable”, satirized by the wonderful 1964 film ” Dr. Strange Love.” As Dr. S himself says, nuclear war is not really unwinnable. Of course, that would kill off most of the planet’s human population and make survival worse than death (“the living would envy the dead”).
But hey, a few rulers might be buried deep in a mine shaft and after only about 100 years their descendants might emerge and start anew in a new Eden. And of course, as Dr. Sleering points out, every man should do heroic sexual duty with women selected for their exceptional attractiveness to ensure the continuation of the species.
Over the decades, our faith in MAD logic seemed to be borne out by the absence of a third world war, when the first, despite its unprecedented horror, had been so closely followed by the second, even more horrific.
Since our sunset walk, there have been numerous opinion pieces in high-profile venues suggesting that indeed the end is, if not near, back on the table.
“A nuclear attack has become more plausible than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962” (Max Fisher, New York Times). “The prospect of nuclear war is back in the realm of possibility” (UN Secretary General).
The Tucson-based Arizona Daily Star runs a map showing the damage that would be done to this mid-sized city by the three nuclear warheads that an expert in the matter believes are its share of the 2,000 bombs likely dropped during an all-out assault. over the United States, each 44 times more powerful than those dropped on Japanese cities at the end of World War II.
“Is it possible that these are the last days of our lives, of human life,” we wondered aloud as we walked? From the life of our child and our grandchildren, only 12, 8 and 2? The thought is unbearable. Unthinkable. But now we can’t stop thinking about it.
Back home, fortified with drinks, we talked about the madness of the whole world, nearly 8 billion of us, and now about the very existence of the species, hostage to the whims and moods of this one man. If he’s not mad – only power-hungry, if there’s a distinction – it seems like an insane situation, though all too common in human history.
We manage to play the fool, in black humor mode.
“Hey, nuclear winter is the solution to global warming. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t do anyone any good, as the old saying goes.
“It will be a shame if we don’t see the result of March Madness.”
After a Putin’s War hit on MSNBC, we’re cleaning up the palace with a few episodes of Seinfield. And so to bed, noticeably less convinced that there will be a tomorrow.
The present fundamentally changes with the very notion that there may not be a future, for our species anyway.
I notice that the end of the world was not on the agenda of the two Wellfleet Select Board meetings that took place during Putin’s war against Ukraine. Apparently, we are not yet ready to revive the “duck-shelter” or designate fallout shelters.
I guess one might take comfort in the focus on renewing licenses for the upcoming season, confirming committee appointments, and paying for an elementary school sprinkler system.
Brent Harold, Cape Cod Times columnist and former English teacher, lives in Wellfleet. Email him at [email protected]