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Thinking the unthinkable

From the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to the 1983 deployment of intermediate range missiles in Europe, there remained one single constant: nuclear war was “unthinkable.”  The existence on both sides of the Iron Curtain of stocks of nuclear warheads capable of destroying both sides in a matter of hours created the stalemate of “Mutually Assured Destruction.”  No matter how or where a “hot war” broke out, once started it was bound to escalate into global thermonuclear war.  Indeed, while the American neocons fantasised about escalation from battlefield nukes to intercontinental ballistic missiles via Cruise and SS20s, the Soviet Union made no such distinction – any nuclear first strike by the USA or its allies would be met immediately with the full force of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.  There would be no time for negotiation, just instant extinctive holocaust.

So here’s a question seldom asked: could nuclear annihilation be a good thing?

In the 1980s, Psychologist Norman Dixon constructed a rational argument in favour of nuclear war that we can embellish today.  It goes something like this:

We are all going to die.  The older we get, the more obvious this fact becomes as we can count more relatives and loved ones already in their graves as there are remaining.  And old age – especially old age in the West’s dysfunctional culture – is hardly a pleasant prospect.  The idea of eking out an existence on whatever meagre pension payments are still available, while our bodies no longer perform even the most rudimentary functions is hardly a prospect to be embraced.  In addition, many more of us are likely to succumb to degenerative brain diseases that, so far as we can tell, will destroy our personas even as the empty shells of our bodies await the arrival of the grim reaper.  Those “fortunate” enough to be spared this fate will most likely die a lingering and painful death from cancer or cardiovascular disease.  Being instantaneously transformed into a shadow on the pavement is surely a more merciful end than most people are forced to endure.

As a way of dying, then, being wiped out in the flash of a nuclear explosion is a lot better than many.  But there are also psychological and religious benefits.  One of the problems with death, particularly in Western culture, is that it is entirely banal.  It is akin to leaving a party when it is in full-swing.  Nuclear holocaust dispenses with the sense that we are missing out on the rest of the party precisely because when we go, we all go together.

What happens next depends upon whose religious views are correct.  If the atheists are right, then what follows is sweet oblivion.  Nothingness, with no “I” present to experience it.  And since I am not particularly bothered or upset by the billions of years of non-existence that went on prior to my birth, there is no reason why I should be any more bothered by the billions of years of non-existence to follow.

If, on the other hand, the Abrahamic religions are correct, then surely a nuclear holocaust marks the culmination of the “end days” after which we all go off to live in eternal paradise.  Let’s face it, this sounds like a much better deal than the endless grind in bullshit jobs paying inadequate wages that almost all of even the most privileged Western humans are forced to endure.  This, perhaps, is why so many young Islamists are attracted by the idea of the Jihad and the prospect of instant access to heaven.

Nuclear holocaust is even more attractive if eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism prove to be correct.  In the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, the prospect of returning next time even as a mammal is startlingly low.  The odds are that you will be reincarnated as some variant of the gut flora that live within the digestive tract of some other creature.  Returning as a human is statistically unlikely.  But even if you did return as a human, the odds are that you will live a short and brutal existence in some third world hellhole.  To be born to an affluent middle class Western family would be a stroke of luck greater than winning the lottery jackpot every week for an entire year.  And even if you were so fortunate, you would – presumably lacking any awareness of your past life – have to endure school yard bullying, ritual humiliation and dysfunctional parenting of a kind that has produced generations of English ladies and gentlemen down the ages.  After which you can look forward to years spent metaphorically brown nosing your way up the greasy pole to your inevitable divorce and mid-life crisis.  Nuclear war would put an end to this horror show once and for good; since no more life presumably means no more reincarnation.

To these arguments for nuclear holocaust made by Dixon, we might add two of our own, based on knowledge uncovered in the years since Our Own Worst Enemy was published..  The first is that we are a long way along the road to planetary destruction anyway.  Our inability to keep our reproductive organs to ourselves had led to a human population that is several times larger than that which can be sustainably supported.  It is not just that our consumption is crowding out almost all of the lifeforms that we coexist with, but also that our collective waste is rapidly destroying the habitat that we – and they – depend upon.  Much of that environmental devastation is already built-in because of the activities we have already engaged in; leaving our future looking not dissimilar to the aftermath of a nuclear conflagration.  And since none of us is prepared to act to change things, then the end to life on earth is going to happen anyway.  Nuclear war, at least, would get it over quickly.

Second, resource depletion (energy, minerals, soil, the food chain, etc.) is already happening.  In the course of a few decades, the human population is most likely going to shrink back below the level it was at the last time humans had to survive entirely upon renewable energy (wind, water and wood).  In effect, this means that roughly six and a half of every seven people alive today is going to have to cease existing.  As with personal old age, this species-wide decline is likely to be lingering and painful.  It will likely involve famine and disease; shorter lifespans and a return of widespread infant mortality.  Western niceties like democracy and the rule of law are likely to be early casualties as local warlords emerge as the only possible form of authority.  Why not, instead, bring this tragedy to an end now, at humanity’s high point; the point where the average Westerner enjoys a lifestyle better than any Emperor or King in days gone by?

I should point out that Dixon was not an advocate of nuclear war.  His purpose was to demonstrate that far from being “unthinkable” it is in fact possible to construct a sound argument in favour of a nuclear holocaust that wipes out all life on earth.  This being the case, it is essential that we abide by such things as international law before rushing to judgement and ploughing headlong into conflict with another nuclear armed state.

The dark side of Dixon’s book (together with his better known On the Psychology of Military Incompetence) is that our in-built fears and insecurities around precisely the kind of issues that nuclear war would resolve once and for good, are more often than rational thinking the spur to action.  In a string of military catastrophes and civilian disasters, unconscious insecurities of the kind that lead to chest-beating and machismo on the part of both male and female political leaders turn out to be the underlying cause.

This is especially worrying at a time when the Western world is led by one of the most insecure personalities ever to occupy the Oval Office.  With George H.W. Bush’s “crazies in the basement” – now grown up and dictating US foreign policy – determined to provoke a shooting war with Russia in support of their Al Qaeda allies in Syria, the narcissistic personality of Donald Trump, egged on by the weak and wobbly British prime minister, is most likely to be goaded into precisely the kind of ill-conceived military confrontation with Russia that devastated to Europe’s empires a century ago.

This time, however, there will be no reconstruction.  This time all that will follow is a barren, lifeless planet spinning through the vast emptiness of space.  Something that the billions of depressed humans who have contemplated suicide down the ages might, like Dixon, point out is anything but unthinkable.

As you made it to the end…

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