Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto whose latest books are On Risk, The Ethics of Architecture and The Adventurer’s Glossary.
Just over 100 days into its campaign of dreadful throwback violence, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is mired in grisly conventional warfare, creating scenes familiar from Second World War movies. But it has now entered a new and more dangerous stage. Vladimir Putin’s expansionism is well-known and globally condemned, and yet so far remains oddly ineffective. Meanwhile, this old-fashioned war slips into news-cycle oblivion.
It is noted, then often dismissed, that the Russians command a bulging nuclear arsenal: But not even Mad Vlad would use them! This, however, is a mortal threat to the planet, with potential consequences well beyond supply chain issues, or energy and food prices. While thousands of Russian and Ukrainian troops and millions of Ukrainian civilians are coping with bullets, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and air strikes, the very real nuclear threat in play has been occluded, even denied. This is a grave failure of imagination that may cost us all.
Nuclear weapons exist largely in the imagination, after all. That may sound bizarre, given the post-1945 stockpiling and proliferation, the delicate balances of Cold War politics, and the more recent expansions under Mr. Putin. More than a decade after, the nuclear-free world imagined by U.S. president Barack Obama has proven a hope-fuelled damp squib. The Anxious Atomic Age numbers are down, but the Arms Control Association estimates that there are more than 13,000 nuclear warheads resting in silos or aboard submarines right now, controlled by nine countries. The U.S. and Russia account for about 90 per cent of this total.
So yes, the weapons themselves are anything but imaginary. But what I mean is that nuclear weapons are powered by a sort of mythological status. Imagine a sword of devastating effect, used in anger only twice with shocking results, then forged over and over but kept in secret or floating armouries. The mere presence of such otherworldly weapons, which weaponize matter itself, is enough to deter their use. At least, so the argument goes: Mutually assured destruction, or MAD, is the inevitable result of resorting to such volatile measures.
Back in the 1980s, when I was a college student, this was the greatest source of anxiety I can recall young people experiencing. My friend Wax, an anti-nuke activist, could never digest the enormity of that particular acronym: “They call it MAD themselves!” he would marvel. That was before the U.S. developed a non-nuclear blast-radius behemoth known as MOAB: the Mother of All Bombs.
So we went on marches, wrote editorials and talked about provoking situations, the doomsday clock standing minutes from midnight, and where we might meet for a final goodbye when the sirens sounded. Apocalyptic scenarios both possible and actual dominated pop culture. John Hersey was a bestselling author; The Day After became the highest-rated television film in history. I myself wrote both a senior thesis and a master’s dissertation on depictions of nuclear holocaust in novels: a budding academic’s form of coping with dread, I guess.
All of that seems as distant and out of sync with our times as the pre-internet world it clouded, when people still wrote letters about their fear, always went to the movies in person, and bought magazines and books in physical places (with cash, no less). Nowadays, we prefer our cultural images of human obliteration to feature robots or zombies – vivid but domesticating metaphors for viruses or environmental collapse that ignore the proximate monster we have ourselves created.
Nobody longs for fear and trembling, but our collective indifference to the nuclear threat that still looms over us is inexcusable. There are many potentially civilization-destroying things to be worried about, but we might include in the top tier this apparent relic from the past. Climate change may burn us up if we are not careful, but nuclear war could blow us up, with a far faster timeline to boot. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ doomsday clock, which accounts for the full array of threats against us, currently strands at a scant 100 seconds to midnight – the closest it has ever been.
Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein issued their anti-nuclear manifesto in July, 1955, two-thirds of a century ago. “We have to learn to think in a new way,” they argued. “We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?”
This lesson has not been learned. The new way of thinking is nowhere to be seen in the Kremlin or on the bloody battlefields of Ukrainian towns and cities, their refugees still streaming toward possible safe haven. Conventional war, strategists say, is sometimes a gateway drug; its very nastiness – the destruction of human tissue in pursuit of political policy, as critic Elaine Scarry has put it – develops a perverse incentive for the decisive blow, the coup de grâce.
None of us will survive such an escalation. In 2013, China signed a pact to offer security guarantees to Ukraine in the event of a nuclear attack, a fact complicated by its failure to condemn Russia’s recent ground invasion. The Biden Administration, while full of diplomatic deploring and economic sanctions, does not want to commit too far itself, lest it get drawn into an escalation willy-nilly. Nobody knows what North Korea might do, perhaps including the North Koreans themselves.
Meanwhile, I see that a Texas doomsday-bunker and bomb-shelter company has claimed that sales have surged since Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s not for everyone, that recourse, and perhaps it is paranoid. But spare some mental attention to the prospect of nuclear war. It is an entirely rational, and urgent, act of imagination.
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