The Very Possibility of Nuclear War
I have said over the past two weeks that the war in Ukraine has left me “speechless”. But I have not been entirely forthcoming about the deepest causes of this condition. It is true that I am horrified by all the destruction and death; I am worried about people I know and care about trapped inside Ukraine (and inside Russia); I am conventionally worried about the ravages of conventional war. Yet my deeper dread does not stop with conventional war, but with what this war may become if it escalates.
To say that I have been speechless is not to say that I have been stunned or that “words fail me”; rather, I have many words, but I am afraid to use them. I have always been prone to a sort of magical thinking about the things that frighten me most, as if there were some conjurative power in my speech by which it would bring the thing invoked into reality.
For the past several years this irrationality has been most pronounced in regards to my health. Most notably, I live with an unrelenting fear of cancer. To be perfectly blunt, my genetic profile, my family history, a number of my earlier lifestyle choices, all mean that for me it is more a matter of “when” than “if”. I live every minute of my life in cancer’s shadow, and part of the way this condition manifests itself is in bizarre word avoidances and substitutions. When I am speaking French I cannot say the word concert, since its pronunciation is too nearly homonymous with cancer. So I find ways to talk around it: “Shall we go to the performance musicale this evening?” In English I can’t use the verb “to cancel”, and so I search in vain for adequate alternatives: “to void”, “to negate”. My genetic profile and my age —as well, I suppose, as some of my opinions— have also made me an ideal candidate for “cancelation” in our contemporary sense. I often experience my life as a showdown between two possible scenarios: getting canceled, and getting “cancered”. Naturally I would prefer the first one: social death is nothing compared to death itself. Perhaps, if I were to die a social death, I tell myself sometimes, then I could finally begin living. Get into carpentry or fishing or something.
I have only scraped the surface of my system of word-avoidances and replacements. In English and French I am unable to use a huge number of terms that bear some relation to the disease. I cannot say “stage” or stade, since this term is used to describe the degree of metastatic advance in a patient, and so I make do with partial equivalences: “phase”, phase, “level”, niveau, etc. Whenever ontology comes up, I brace myself in the fear that someone, likely a student, is going to say “oncology” by mistake.
Now you might be surprised to see me writing about these matters, because in order to do so I have not only to mention the terms that I have just told you I cannot mention, but to marinate in them as I write, which will inevitably be for the better part of a day. This is a confrontation with my fear that has been neither recommended nor discouraged by my psychoanalyst, though as I understand it the approach is something like what I might be told to do if I were, say, an arachnophobe, and I were to undertake a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy to relieve this condition. So today I am paying a visit to the spider pavillion of my own psyche. As a rational being —notwithstanding superficial appearances— I know what will happen as a result of this exercise: exactly the same thing that would have happened if I hadn’t done it. What I think, what I say, does not matter for the fate of my body, let alone for the fate of the world.
The ride we take to our destiny can however be pleasant or stressful depending on the things we learn to tell ourselves along the way. I find that my carcinophobic condition really does have much in common with fear of spiders. The objective probability of my being harmed by cancer is vastly greater than that of being harmed by an arachnid, and yet, by invoking its name, by speaking of it outright, I do find that I start to feel I am the master of it, even if it retains the power to determine the hour of my death.
This is a familiar theme from ancient philosophy: you are a fool if you ever managed to convince yourself you are immortal, and so to look your own death in the face is at once to apprehend the full meaning of your finite life and to open up the possibility of living well, in a way that befits a mortal like you. Death will always win, but as Christopher Hitchens said, while himself dying of cancer, you can at least strike a few good blows against it, in the form of affirmations of the invincibility of the human spirit, as you are falling towards the mat.
What works for spiders and cancer, however, may not work for nuclear war. To look the prospect of it in the face does not feel, at all, like a victory over fear. It is one thing to face up to and to accept your own mortality, it is quite another to confront the prospect of a world-historical hecatomb.
I can remember well, in September, 1983, when the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airlines passenger flight, and the Reagan administration moved to a war-footing of the sort I had not seen in my previous eleven years. There was constant talk on the news of nuclear arsenals, of first strikes, of fall-out and bunkers. This was not the Cuban Missile Crisis, but something like a final echo of it, and it forever implanted in my soul a bad case of the Cold War jitters. It is around this time that I mutated from a basically happy and easy-going boy into an anxiety-wracked mess, which I have remained ever since. We can of course point to other causal factors —incipient puberty, my parents’ recent divorce—, but it is hard to leave world history out altogether. I remember Christmas that same year, our usual holiday ritual of inviting family friends from San Francisco, with twin boys my age. We’re sitting in my room talking about nuclear war. We evoke the Nazi archeologist from Raiders of the Lost Ark whose face melts when he opens the treasure chest; we laugh about a scene we had seen on TV (or perhaps a scene we had staged with our own action-figures and a lighter), of Gumby or Mr. Bill being reduced to a puddle of burnt liquid plastic. One of us suggests that after a nuclear war it must be like having to hop around in a black concrete parking-lot, barefoot in the California summer, as we wait for our parents to unlock the car: like that, times a billion. We laugh and laugh. We continue to laugh, and then I say some dumb protophilosophical thing: “You just have to laugh, otherwise it’s unbearable.” My words were still basic, but the thought behind them would be both infinitely terrifying, and evidently permanent: the conditions of our existence are an unrelenting nightmare, and humor is the only partial salvation on offer, a sort of momentary this-worldly transcendence.
A few weeks ago, in late February, my partner and I took a little weekend excursion to Normandy. Walking on the beautiful beach beneath the white cliffs of Dieppe, I was of course compulsively checking my phone. Someone had posted to Twitter the verbatim transcription of Putin’s announcement that day that Russia was prepared to use all weapons available to defend itself, at which point he paused and added: в том числe и ядерные / including atomic weapons. What a strange word, I thought — ядерные, a nominative plural adjective derived from the noun ядро, “atom”, from the proto-Slavic ędro, meaning “kernel” or “core”. Then I looked up, saw a few stray people at a distance, a dog, some seagulls. I thought about the 1959 apocalypse film On the Beach with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. But my beach was not in Australia; it was in France, and everything that matters to me is in the northern hemisphere.
The next morning we went to the central café in Dieppe, ironically named Tout Va Bien. There was a working-class man next to us reading the dieppois newspaper with an enormous headline: “Poutine brandit la menace nucléaire” (“Putin Wields the Nuclear Threat”). I couldn’t speak. I could feel my heart-rate soaring, as it does when I am flying through turbulence and the most I can do is freeze a dumb fake smile onto my face and ride it out. As the hours passed I began to notice a peculiar shift in me: it had been a full day, ever since I read that phrase в том числе и ядерные, since the last thought of cancer had crossed my mind. The new global crisis had, at least temporarily, cured me of my hypochondria.
It’s a Pyrrhic victory of course, and I would be relieved to go back to the simpler days of only fearing for myself. I would not say that the fear of nuclear war is simply like the fear of my own death multiplied by 7.5 billion. It is not billions of times more intense, but it is qualitatively different, since, again, one does not feel as though facing up to the prospect of it can count in any way as a measure propaedeutic to a true acceptance of the terms of our mortal life, which will then lead to a period, however brief or long it may be, of mortal thriving and eudaimonia. While the end of one’s own life is written into the script from the start, one has to work much harder to arrive in any sort of cosmological frame from which the end of human life on earth would “not be so bad”: other life forms will continue to thrive under radically altered ecological circumstances, and those life forms are miracles of creation too, one can tell oneself; there are almost certainly other planets inhabited by complex beings, and perhaps at least some of them will manage not to blow themselves up; and in any case, let’s be honest, time is almost certainly illusory, or not at all what we think it is, and so for our world to end “at time T”, as the philosophers say, in no way negates the reality of everything that happened at time T-minus-1. The past is real. Every event, properly understood, is eternal. In some sense, I am still laughing in my bedroom with my friends in 1983; nothing can ever make that unreal, not even the end of the world.
As I said, these are comforting thoughts, in their way, but it is a great deal harder to arrive at them than to recall, for example, that my nieces and nephews will continue to have happy life experiences after I myself have died a natural death.
In the 1970s there was a rather flat-footed debate between the philosophers Thomas Nagel and Mary Mothershill as to whether death can be a meaningful topic for philosophers to explore. I forget which one of them took which side, but either Nagel or Mothershill insisted that it could not, since death, as many other philosophers have pointed out, is not an event of life, but rather its limit. In some peculiar way that is either deeply true or deeply sophistical, no one ever dies, since whoever is dead ipso facto is not. As an old aristocratic woman dying of cancer assures a young Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions, after she inadvertently passes gas while he sits by her bedside: “Femme qui pète n’est pas morte” (“A woman who farts is not dead”). And similarly for anything else you might do: not just farting, but also thinking, doubting, willing, worrying, having experiences of any sort at all of things that matter to us.
Ecclesiastes tells us that “A wise man thinks much of death” (7:4), while Spinoza by contrast tells us that “A free man thinks of death least of all things”. Presuming that one must be wise in order to be free, we see here what seems to be a basic conflict between philosophy and faith as regards this most important of questions. Philosophers often warn not to “think of death”, but what they mean is not to worry about death, since, again, death is not an event of life and so strictly speaking it is not our problem (“What music do you want them to play at your funeral?” Laurie Anderson was asked once. “Not my problem,” she rightly replied). But this does not prevent philosophy from advising you to prepare for death; indeed Socrates maintained that all philosophy amounts to such preparation. To prepare for death is to structure one’s life in full recognition of its finiteness, without mistaking death itself for an event of life.
When we move out from the scale of the individual life to that of the hecatomb, we see a consistent failure to grasp that nuclear annihilation is not an “event of history” alongside others. This failure is conveyed in the surreally off-key headlines we have seen recently in the New York Times, which effectively speak of the prospect of nuclear war in the same light tone in which they might also invite you to help some vapid rich couple select a one-bedroom condo. An anticipation of this surrealism has long been a feature of this same newspaper, when we are invited to hear about some poor fellow’s medical symptoms, and then to try to diagnose him. “Is this Park Slope resident’s rectal burning: (a) a polyp; (b) a fistula; (c) just what happens when you eat too many hot peppers”? I honestly cannot understand what kind of mentality it would take to enjoy a feature like this. But somehow there’s an audience for it, so the Times just keeps delivering.
I have more or less trained myself to avert my eyes from both the condo-search and the diagnostic-quiz features, but I was not prepared to strategically avoid seeing the March 16 headline: “As Russia Digs In, What’s the Risk of Nuclear War? ‘It’s Not Zero’”. I honestly do not know what the right tone to strike would be. I do not want my headlines about nuclear brinksmanship to be either jocular or alarmist, and I think pretty much any sincere effort simply to present the facts risks falling to the one side or the other. I suppose this is just another way of saying I do not want to have to see headlines about nuclear brinksmanship at all. The Times, however, with its clever Q&A approach, the resort to such an educated and affable formula as “not zero”, embeds this article in a landscape of normalcy, as if camouflaged alongside other features of infinitely less consequence, as for example the one about the American businessman who decided to keep his Papa John’s franchises open in Russia throughout the boycott, since, when it comes down to it, “Russians love pizza”.
My current feeling is this: fuck nation-states, fuck territorial sovereignty, fuck heroic resistance, fuck the NATO redline, fuck worship of charismatic individuals like Zelensky who would lead us into something to which we would never commit if he were not young and handsome and a talented rhetorician. There is only one thing that matters, and that is not having a nuclear war. It would be better for Putin to annex the entire continent of Europe, it would be better to have a century-long reign of brutal Putinite totalitarianism from Vladivostok to Cherbourg, than to have a nuclear war. It seems to me that this is just obvious to anyone who thinks about it honestly for even a second. And yet the White House press corps has been bombarding the Biden administration with inane demands for a no-fly zone, as if consequences did not matter, or as if the possibility of nuclear escalation were just one consequence alongside others, were just another event of history, rather than the end of history.
Here is what else I am thinking: it is fine that I am mortal. I am a philosopher and I am by now fairly advanced in the work of preparing for death. It is at the same time insane that I, along with everyone else currently living, have spent my life with a gun to my head, one that might go off at any second, by impulse or by mistake, and nonetheless I am expected to lead a normal life of condo-searches and investing in mutual funds and whatever else. This is not part of the deal of human existence; this is not what Socrates advised you to prepare for, or what Ecclesiastes counsels you to meditate upon.
Unlike the individual mortality that is our existential lot, this is aberrant and unacceptable. If we had our priorities straight, nuclear disarmament would be the exclusive focus of everyone who continues to hope for a happy future for our descendants. Instead, we let the events of 1989-91 convince us that the danger had subsided, we allowed ourselves to be distracted by lesser worries that came and went according to fashion. And then the gunmen saw us getting a bit too comfortable, and they showed us their weapons again, and reminded us our lives are hanging by a thread. Putin’s announcement, concluding with в том числе и ядерные, was the announcement of a global hostage crisis, like the school in Beslan, like the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, but multiplied by billions.
The junior LARP-ers of the White House press corps can pretend that it is in our power to do whatever we want right now, in the name of the great virtues to which Zelensky has appealed, but God help us if anyone with any real power should forget for a moment that we are, all of us, hostages, and this constrains our actions considerably, and alters the formula for what might under other conditions count as courage.
The activist media hacks who are pushing for war are living in a fantasy world. They literally do not understand that their own lives are not a movie. They need to be marginalized, ignored. The idiot liberal consensus in the United States, which has moved overnight from domestic covid-hygiene theater to a deliriously foolhardy war-footing, is, after Putin, the most dangerous force in the world. God damn them, and God keep the rest of us safe from those who come by their convictions so easily and swiftly that they are unable to contemplate how things might go wrong when these convictions become policy.
That is all I have to say for now. Perhaps I will be seized with a fit of superstition, and will end up deleting this. But at least at the present moment I find that this compositional exercise has helped me somewhat in the way CBT recommends to arachnophobes that they pay a visit to the spider pavillion. God bless spiders. God bless cancer. And thank God for death. For these are all esteemed members in full of our beautiful Creation. But God damn nuclear weapons, and the people responsible for their production and proliferation. They have no place in our world, and a life is no life at all when it is spent as a hostage in their glowering shadow.
And, on that cheerful note, some announcements:
There is a very nice review of my new book in 4Columns, by the one and only Eric Banks.
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