Last night, I had one of the most horrific nightmares I’ve ever experienced. I dreamed I was in some sort of a control room in which earnest looking operators tended to flickering computer terminals. Beyond them lay a panoramic window which overlooked an open landscape which was mostly sand, interspersed with a few trees. Suddenly, there was a large nuclear detonation: the sky turned blood red, a large white mushroom cloud rose up in all its terrible majesty, and as the shockwave visibly built up, I shouted, “That’s it, we’re dead.”
The force of the blast then rolled out towards me. I dreamed that I crouched down behind a chair, and as the wave hit, I felt my body dissolve. A grey mist was all I could see. One minute I was there, the next, I didn’t exist at all. It was at that point, thankfully, I woke up.
It took a few minutes for me to regain my composure in the darkness. I found that I was breathing quickly and had to slow my heart rate. No, I hadn’t died, I reassured myself; I was lying in my comfortable bed. A few plaintive cries of birds could be heard in the distance, a small gust of wind touched the blind covering the open bedroom window. My respiration slowed. All was well in my bed and in my quiet town. Eventually, I shut my eyes and I fell back asleep.
I can only assume that the nightmare was triggered by the shenanigans associated with Iran’s nuclear programme; as has been widely reported, their new reactor is about to come onstream, and cranks like John Bolton have given Israel only a matter of days in order to stop it from going live. But if we think about it, the nightmare I described is not a mere matter of nocturnal fiction, an invention of a mind that has overdosed on too many news programmes. Nuclear weapons are there to literally make enemies disappear: cities, homes and people can all be scattered into the ether in a matter of moments. Perhaps one of the most horrific aspects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were the human “shadows” which outlined where a human being once stood; worse were some of the deformities to children which resulted as well. The Cold War world was one in which an even more terrifying scenario of nuclear annihilation was a very real possibility. It was bad enough to think of Soviet missiles exploding over London or New York; the world rightly breathed a sigh of relief when Gorbachev ended the stalemate. But rather than having learned from the experience, now nations of all kinds want in on the same club. Following the fearful example provided by America and the Soviet Union, the new entrants to the nuclear gang want to be able to tell other countries in the manner of a hoodlum, “Mess with us, and we’ll wipe you out.” Even Britain, a medium sized power with a very limited budget, wants to continue to hold this ace up their sleeve.
Yet, we secure nothing by retaining these nightmare devices. The terrorists who took control of the planes on September 11th were not at all deterred by America’s ability to blow up half the earth. The problems in Darfur, Afghanistan, and Iraq cannot be solved through using such a crude and devastating weapon: how can one use them to destroy bad ideas? All the expense and posturing has no real purpose behind it; it is solely an irrational measurement of national virility. At best, the weapons will sit in their silos, costing billions, cold metal and hot uranium resting quietly within concrete walls, never to be disturbed nor even aimed in anger. At worst, there are those with apocalyptic visions who want use these devices to bring about Judgement Day. This basic calculus is the clearest indicator as to why they need to be gotten rid of immediately; it used to be that the balance between America and the Soviet Union was represented by the acronym “MAD”, as in Mutually Assured Destruction. Now holding on to them can be called nothing other than “mad” in the non-acronym sense.
However, I don’t have a terrible amount of faith in us as species. We seem to want to believe in easy solutions to our problems whenever possible: we like the idea that we’re not causing climate change, we want to think that the free market will solve all our problems, we seem to just want to watch television and eat fast food and not think too much. In this context, being able to make any enemy turn into a pile of incoherent goo or a shadow sounds attractively simple. Press a button, bang, he’s dead. You won’t even have to clean up the bones, not that you could go anywhere near them. If he gets the same weapon, fine, then you’ll both keep your hands at your sides, so long as you’re both not insane; fortunately, the Communists weren’t. But the more that nuclear weapons proliferate, the more likely it is that someone insane will get them. “Containment” is not enough: there needs to be a commitment from all those who presently have nuclear weapons that they will be eliminated. With that firm promise, those who aspire to such weapons will be the ones caught on the wrong side of world opinion. Economic and political sanctions then become that much simpler to implement as nations like Iran are that much more easily turned into pariahs. North Korea is a good example of how a nation behaving aberrantly can be punished: the regime is slowly suffocating, despite its retention and flaunting of a crude nuclear capacity.
But we won’t abandon nuclear weapons. It’s far too easy to retain the balance of terror; we may be too set in our ways and have too little faith in our ability to make civilisation mean something, even if it is merely the prevention of suicide. While nightmares like mine are thankfully rare, they still have the capacity to persist. Worse, they still have the potential to come true.