Opinion: Time to revisit the horrors of nuclear war

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I chose not to listen to Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union address. My attitudes towards him are based more on personal values than political ideology.

But over the following week, I heard a startling excerpt from his speech in which  Trump threatened Russia and China with a nuclear attack if he felt the need for such a response. Considering his unstable, erratic and egomaniacal nature, the term “need” enjoys a wide and frightening leeway.

His speech was followed by a segment on PBS about the upgrading of our nuclear arsenal, which will cost the American taxpayer more than a trillion dollars over the next three decades, money we could better use elsewhere. The talking heads on PBS were debating the pros and cons of the upgrade and why such a plan existed in the first place.

Nowhere was there a discussion of the unspeakable horrors of what a nuclear war would unleash. I’m sure we’ve all seen photographs of the Hiroshima bombing. The weapon dropped on that city was a pipsqueak compared to the yields available today.

Perhaps one had to have grown up during the Cold War to understand the terror I felt in my bones upon hearing the above commentary. Throughout my childhood, a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was a deep fear lodged in the minds of all Americans.

No doubt existed that such a war would be a catastrophe resulting in indescribable destruction. It would also be sudden, with only fifteen minutes of warning. Somehow, the American people accepted such a dismal fate.

Fortunately, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which came closer to our annihilation than most realize, brought the leaders of both nations to their senses enough to generate two decades of détente and the lessening of the nuclear threat. It regained life in the 1980s as a result of the saber-rattling of President Ronald Reagan.

That time, however, people began to speak out against the inevitability of an atomic war. In 1983, the ABC network broadcasted “The Day After” about World War III and its aftermath, a show watched by 100 million Americans.

Although relatively anemic in comparison to the frightfully graphic 1965 BBC production of “The War Game,” a “documentary” with the same theme, it got the message across. So did the report by concerned scientists that any nuclear exchange, however limited, would likely cause a nuclear winter which, along with widespread radiation poisoning, would reduce the human race to “medieval levels” of survival.

A more detailed education was provided by the book “Warday,” published in 1984 by the authors Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka. Although a work of fiction, the story was factually researched and was so well-received that members of Congress referred to it as a warning against nuclear conflict.

In the story, the authors journey across a much-changed America five years after a “limited” nuclear exchange with the Russians. Although only three American cities are destroyed, the radioactive fallout from bombs aimed at our Midwestern missile silos, poisons the food supply of the heartland.

What results is a famine that kills more than 25 million people. The following year, when the annual flu epidemic hits, the severely weakened population has no defense against it. What remaining hospitals and medical services exist are overwhelmed. Another 20 million perish.

In all, total American deaths from the strikes and afterwards account for almost a quarter of the population. The survivors have to contend with radiation sickness, new illnesses, widespread poverty and the destruction of their political, social and financial institutions.

The good news? We win the war – not that it matters.

Luckily for the human race in the 1980s, American and Soviet leaders recognized the aptly named concept of MAD, or “Mutually Assured Destruction.” Whoever pushed the button first would unleash a simultaneous response resulting in the utter destruction of both nations and most of the world.

We have, however, devolved over the past 30 years. The unthinkable is again thinkable and doable. In 2003, we went to war against Saddam Hussein because he supposedly possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Currently, similar WMDs are in the hands of the likes of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un: 14,000 warheads to be exact. Such a reality should make us reconsider the words of Robert J. Oppenheimer as he watched the first atomic explosion at the Trinity site here in New Mexico in July 1945.

“Now I am become Death,” he quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred Hindu text, “the destroyer of worlds.”

Daniel A. Brown is an artist, writer and former public school teacher living in Arroyo Seco.

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