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(Not) thinking about the unthinkable

An essay about growing up in the shadow of the Bomb

I'm sure this has been discussed somewhere on the internet already, by people who are (at least on paper) a lot better qualified to talk about it than I am, but this is how I have come to think about this business of growing up in a situation where, on about 45 minutes notice, you and everyone you know will be dead. At best, American society as we knew it in the four decades from 1960-2000 would be radically changed. For various reasons, the worst case of complete biospheric destruction (whether through the gravely flawed TTAPS theory or otherwise) was no more plausible to me than it was to the Soviet leadership.

Anyhow...here's the thing. The Cold War was very real. Lots of money and millions of lives were spent on the "cold" part of it, developing, manufacturing, deploying and testing the weapons, developing theories about how to fight a nuclear war (including civil defense measures), and shaping organizations to carry out plans based on those theories. You could -even today- build an entire academic career on such theories, their history and their impact on the real world. You can - even today - walk around America's cities and see the remains of that era, if you look hard enough, and you can find other remains in the offices of the Federal and State governments, although most of those remains have long since been repurposed to other, more profitable missions that seem more sensible in these (relatively) peaceful times. The bottom line, though, was that at any minute, through some horrible failure of diplomacy or cold-blooded calculation, you would have something less than an hour to do something before the city you lived in went up in nuclear flames. Like Hiroshima or Nagasaki, only with a bigger fire. You could even whip out a slide rule (this being mostly in the days before convenient pocket calculators built into your phone) and figure out how wide the radii of total destruction/fiery immolation/mild radiation burns would be if those clumsy Rooskies actually managed to plant Ground Zero right smack in the middle of your fair city.

So how did one go on from day to day, knowing that it could all go up in an earth-shaking boom in an hour? How does one function under the Sword of Damocles? Pretty obvious, really. You make what plans you can, and then go on with the rest of your life as if nothing had changed, as if nothing was going to happen. There's words and phrases for that kind of behavior, and usually when the shrinks trot those phrases out, they're Not Happy. They're phrases like "denial of reality", "coping mechanism", and "cognitive dissonance". The bottom line is that when those phrases come out, it's a Bad Thing. You're being told that you're not facing up to reality and doing what needs to be done. Problem is, for the average citizen in those four decades, there really wasn't much you personally could actually do. Not many people had their fingers on the triggers, and for the most part they saw that there was no real way to negotiate or compromise the main points of the East/West conflict away. So the average American just went on with their life, keeping this nuclear war thing in the back of their minds, maybe having some idea of what to do if the balloon went up, more likely not; after all, life is hard enough.

The problem with this sort of thinking, though, is that if you pretend there's nothing wrong and that nothing is going to happen in the way of life-changing nuclear events, the pretense eventually becomes the reality and people begin thinking in magical terms. Nothing has happened, therefore nothing will happen. Since nothing will happen, why are we spending all this money on stuff that's never going to be used, people who are supposed to supervise its use, and training on how to use it? If preparing to survive a nuclear attack contributes to our ability to fight a nuclear war (which is immoral) isn't the survival preparation itself immoral? If greater vulnerability means (paradoxically) greater security, why are we working to make ourselves less vulnerable? These arguments were heard and acted on more frequently in the 1970s and 80s, though by the time Reagan came into office, they were sounding less sensible and more hysterical to more people. Perhaps the allure of ignoring the obvious had become less so; perhaps people were tired of the effort, because to quote Bill James, you pay a price for believing things that aren't true, and this is true of life in general, not just baseball. Cognitive dissonance makes you a little crazy and will bend your brain, sometimes into places you don't want it to go. It can make the idea "better Red than dead" sound attractive, at least if you don't look too closely at the implications of what living as a Red are.

So we find ourselves moving back toward the world of MAD, only with less rational people than the Politburo of the CPSU and CCP on the other side. Civil Defense is at this point only an amusing retro meme, and its successor a national embarrassment whose failures are loudly trumpeted and whose successes are largely ignored, because of course nobody is interested in good news. (Compare the national media attention focused on New Orleans during/after Katrina to the floods in the Upper Midwest a few years later for proof of this.) We have a thin missile defense now, much like we had for a brief time in the 1960s, but a lot of people in the current Congress and the White House would like to kill that too, even if it costs us Los Angeles to a North Korean ballistic missile someday. Maybe it's time we found something else besides cognitive dissonance to deal with life under the shadow of the Bomb, because while it seems to work just fine in the short term, the long term effects don't seem to be a good thing at all.

Envoi: some of you who came late to this LJ are probably unaware that my father finished his Air Force career at the Nuclear Warfare Status Division of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As I understand it, his job was to keep track of the progress of the SIOP, which I suppose would be like being the scorekeeper at doomsday. This was a high-stress job and arguably contributed heavily to some of his less attractive habits, and also gave me a lasting interest in the subjects of strategic nuclear war, ballistic missile defense, civil defense, and related topics. I expect to dish out a few more essays of this sort, given time.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
edwarddain
Sep. 17th, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC)
Yup, it really takes a certain living experience for people to understand what it was like to grow up in that time period. For the latter part of it (say, mid-80's and later) the magical thinking had reached the point where if you had to be born into a certain family situation or mindset to even "get it" (that's one of the reason's why my and sylvarthorne's relationship works despite the age difference - she was an Air Force brat).

Some good questions here. Thanks for posting!
wombat_socho
Sep. 17th, 2009 04:12 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. It took a little work for this not to devolve into a political rant about the magical thinking, or to veer off-topic into a discussion of how some parts of society get this, others don't, and why that is.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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