In the shadow of the Bomb

Seventy years ago nuclear weapons were used for the first (and hopefully last) time in anger.  This event not only ushered in the nuclear age but also signalled the beginning of a new war, which some would argue continues until this day.  Of course, there’s a strong case for saying that the Cold War began in 1917, when a real alternative to both dynastic and bourgeois ideology  emerged out of the ruins of the Russian empire.  Except, of course, much of this ‘cold’ war was actually quite ‘hot’, and continued to be up until the ‘official’ end of the War in 1991:  just think of the Russian civil war, the civil wars across Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, the Second World War itself, Korea, Vietnam, the wars in Africa and so on.

Be that as it may, there seems to be something especially poignant about the Bomb (as we children of the Cold War used to call it); the idea that we could all be vaporised or irradiated with just a two minute warning is both the stuff of science fiction and the stuff of nightmares – and yet it was all too Real.  The irony is, of course, the shadow of the Bomb still hangs over us all; Russian and the United States still have their massive nuclear arsenals pointing at each other, and many other countries, including the United Kingdom have their own, albeit much more modest, ‘deterrents’.

Perhaps the interesting question is why so few people seem to worry about this nowadays, and maybe one reason is that they think the (Cold) War ended years ago. Perhaps they think it can be safely archived along with, amongst other things,  ‘World War One and Two’, ‘the Twentieth Century’, ‘the pre-Internet age’, and ‘History’.   Maybe in that case, just to give one example, someone should point out that the Internet itself is a product of the Cold War: it was designed to withstand a nuclear war so the United States could keep on fighting.

In another post I wrote about ‘Cold War paranoia’1, but in many ways that seems a too simplistic way of describing the culture of the nuclear age.  That’s not to say that there wasn’t (and still isn’t) a great deal of paranoia floating around in terms of geo-politics and a general culture of mutually assured distrust.  But can we really argue that this is a product of the Cold War, and that somehow the world was less paranoid and distrusting prior to 1945?

What does it mean, subjectively, to be brought up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation?  Is it simply that most people have learnt to live with it?  Or is it that most people think it will never happen?  The irony is, of course, the nuclear arms race was (and still is?) based on this assumption, i.e.  that they would never be used, so why worry: the aptly named MAD doctrine.2  In other words, preparing for the war that will/can never happen…Kafka would definitely have approved…

I’m not sure this can be defined as paranoia, even in the strictly clinical sense.  The paranoid subject attempts to construct a (delusory) belief system in order to fend of total disintegration.  But in my view, with the (post) Cold War/nuclear age we are dealing with something qualitatively different; something, in fact, more akin to the madness that both the paranoid and the neurotic subject, in their own way, are trying to ward off.

Nuclear war, like the Holocaust, and, in many ways, like the Great War, represents a complete rupturing of history, of the Symbolic order itself.  The difference being, of course, those other ruptures actually occurred, if only lasting a relatively short time (however devastating their effects and legacies).  With nuclear war, the rupture is forever (hopefully) postponed but forever anticipated.3  Nuclear war is the war that may (never) have been. 

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  2. Mutually assured destruction []
  3. Unless you happened to be unfortunate enough to be living in Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the summer of 1945 of course. []