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Welcome to the Ukraine Moment.
Face it, we’re living in a world that, while anything but exceptional, is increasingly the exception to every rule. Only the other day, 93-year-old Noam Chomsky had something to say about that. Mind you, he’s seen a bit of our world since, in 1939, he wrote his first article for his elementary school newspaper on the fall of the Spanish city of Barcelona amid a “grim cloud” of advancing fascism. His comment on our present situation: “We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history.”
And don’t try to deny it! What a mess! (And yes, I do think this moment is worth more than a few exclamation points!)
Admittedly, I’m not an active, thoughtful 93 year old. I’m a mere 77 and feel like I’m floundering in this mad world of ours. Still, like my generation, like anyone alive after August 6, 1945, when the city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a single American atomic bomb, I’m an end-of-the-worlder by nature. And that’s true whether any of us like it or not, admit it or not.
In fact, I’ve lived with that reality — or perhaps I mean the surreality of it all — both consciously (on occasion) and unconsciously (the rest of the time) since my childhood. No one my age is likely to forget the duck-and-cover drills we all performed, diving under our school desks, hands over heads, to prepare for, in my case, the Soviet Union’s attempted atomic destruction of New York City. We followed the advice, then, of the cartoon character Bert the Turtle — in a brief film I remember seeing in our school cafeteria — who “never got hurt because he knew just what we all must do: he ducked and covered.”
As the sonorous male narrator of that film then put it:
“The atomic bomb flash could burn you worse than a terrible sunburn, especially where you’re not covered. Now, you and I don’t have shells to crawl into like Bert the Turtle, so we have to cover up in our own way… Duck and cover underneath a table or a desk or anything else close by… Always remember, the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, wherever you may be.”
That was life in 1950s New York City. On my way to school, I would pass the S-signs for “safe places to go” (as that cartoon put it) or later the bright orange-yellow and black fallout-shelter signs (millions of which were produced and used nationally). And like so many other young people of that era, I let The Twilight Zone nuke me on TV, went to world-ending films in my high-school years, and read similar sci-fi.
I was only 18 and in my first semester of college when, on October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy went on national TV, not the norm then, to address us all (though I heard his speech on the radio). He warned us of a
“secret, swift, and extraordinary buildup of Communist missiles — in an area well known to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere, in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy — this sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil — is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country.”
Now, mind you, I didn’t know then that the U.S. military already had a Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, to deliver more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world. That included at least 130 cities which would, if all went according to plan, cease to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured (which probably underestimated the effects of radiation). Nor did I know then that, in the 1950s, American officials, at the highest levels, focused endlessly on what was known as the “unthinkable,” all the while preparing to plunge us into a planetary charnel house.
Military and civilian policymakers then found themselves writing obsessive sci-fi-style scenarios, not for public consumption but for one another, about a possible “global war of annihilation.” In those new combat scenarios, they found themselves and their country on the horns of an unbearable dilemma. They could either forswear meaningful victory — or strike first, taking on an uncivilized and treacherous role long reserved in our history books (if not in reality) for the enemy.
Still, as the Cuban Missile Crisis began, for Americans like me, everything for which we had long been preparing to duck-and-cover suddenly seemed to loom all too large and in a potentially unduckable fashion. And believe me, I was anything but unique when, as the U.S. Navy launched its blockade of the island of Cuba, I wondered whether the “unthinkable” was now in the cards.
Welcome to the Nuclear Age, Part 2?
And here I am so many decades later. The world, of course, didn’t end. I never actually ducked and covered to ward off a nuclear attack in what passed for real life. In those years, that SIOP remained as much a fantasy as anything on The Twilight Zone. And though neither superpower actually dismantled its nuclear arsenal when the Cold War ended in 1991 with the implosion of the Soviet Union (quite the opposite, in fact), nuclear weapons did seem to retreat into the ether, into Bert the Turtle’s fantasy world, until… well, I hesitate here, but I have to say it: the invasion of Ukraine.
Only the other day, CIA Director William Burns, once deeply convinced of the dangers of offering NATO membership to Ukraine and long warning of a Russian backlash against such a policy, publicly suggested that, sometime soon, Vladimir Putin might turn to atomic weaponry in his disastrous war there. Admittedly, he was talking about so-called tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons (each perhaps one-third the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima), not the monster nukes in both our arsenals. Still, welcome to the nuclear age, part 2.
And, of course, that’s just to start on a situation that feels as if it could implode. After all, the war in Ukraine has already reached mind-boggling levels of criminal brutalityand destructiveness and you can feel that where it truly goes, no one truly knows. A recent Russian diplomatic note to Washington, for instance, warned of “unpredictable consequences” if the Biden administration kept arming the Ukrainians. Meanwhile, the Russians all-too-publicly tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile, which President Vladimir Putin said would make the country’s enemies “think twice.” Worse yet, it seems as if the global situation could burst out of control in an altogether unpredictable fashion, if Putin begins to feel that Ukraine is a lost war.
Above all, since Cold War, part 1, ended, a second world-ending possibility has been piled atop the first in almost comic fashion.
In fact, I have the urge to cry out, “Duck and cover!” and not just because of those nukes that might sooner or later be brought to bear on Ukraine, leading to who knows what and where. After all, in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, who would have guessed that, more than three quarters of a century after the dropping of that first atomic bomb (followed, of course, by a second one on Nagasaki and the end of the most horrific global war ever), there would once again be war in Europe? Isn’t that the oldest story of all?
And don’t expect good news soon either. In fact, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the war in Ukraine won’t even end this year, while CNN reports that “some members of Congress and their aides are quietly making comparison to the Korean War, which lasted for three years.” And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who once thought Russian invaders could take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in 72 hours, now evidently believes the war there could last “at least years for sure.”
Really? The Korean War? Such an old, old story (and another war where the nuclear threshold was at least approached). And once again, the world has split into two blocs in what could almost pass for a parody of the original Cold War, with each side already struggling for support from countries around the planet.
The Fate of the Earth?
If I were making all this up, let me assure you, it would be considered the worst-plotted “take two” imaginable. Oh, let’s see, those humans didn’t learn a damn thing from almost destroying the planet and each other back then! So, they decided to do the whole damn thing all over again. Only this time, they’ve thrown in an extra factor! Yep, you guessed it, another way to destroy the planet! (Duck and cover!!)
Yes, indeed, this strangely old-fashioned comedy of horrors is taking place in an all-too-new context, given a factor that wasn’t in anyone’s consciousness back then. Of course, I’m talking about climate change. I’m thinking about how the planet’s top scientists have repeatedly told us that, if fossil-fuel use isn’t cut back radically and soon, this planet will all-too-literally become a hell on Earth. And keep in mind that, even before the war in Ukraine began, global carbon dioxide emissions had rebounded from pandemic drops and hit a historic high.
And it could only get worse in the chaos of the Ukraine moment as gas prices soar, panic sets in, and all-too-little attention is paid to the dangers of overheating this planet. I mean, none of this should exactly be a secret, right? If, for instance, you happen to live in the American Southwest or West, parts of which are now experiencing the worst drought in at least 1,200 years and successive fire seasons beyond compare, you should know just what I mean. The worst of it is that such new realities, including, for instance, hurricane seasons to remember, are essentially the equivalent of movie previews. (And mind you, I’ve barely even mentioned the ongoing pandemic, which has already taken an estimated 15 million lives on this planet.)
It’s sadly obvious what should be happening: the great powers, also the great fossil-fuelizers (China, the United States, and Russia), should be working together to green energize our world fast. And yet here we are, fighting a new war in Europe launched by the head of a Saudi-style petro state in Moscow playing out his version of Cold War II with Washington and Beijing — oh, and in the process, ensuring the burning of yet more fossil fuels.
Brilliant! Excuse me if I stop a second — it’s just a reflex, really — to yell: Bert, duck and cover fast!
Oh, and lest you think that’s the worst of it, let’s turn to the globe’s second-greatest greenhouse-gas emitter of this moment (and the greatest ever, historically speaking). Right now, it looks all too much like the Democrats could go down fast and hard in the 2022 elections, and possibly in 2024 as well. After all, coal merchant Joe Manchin and the congressional Republicans have sunk the president’s Build Back Better Bill and so much else, ensuring the Democrats of all too few accomplishments as the midterm elections approach. And the polls already reflect that grim reality.
Whether you’re talking about former Gen Z supporters, Hispanics, or, well, you name it, President Biden’s approval ratings seem to be spinning toward a pollster’s version of hell as the war goes on, inflation surges, and the price of gas shoots through the roof. In fact, only the other week, his administration, which came into office singing its own climate-changing praises and promising, as the future president said on the campaign trail in 2020, “no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period,” just opened bidding for new leases to do just that.
Meanwhile Donald Trump, the man who pulled this country out of the Paris climate accords and the greatest party boss in memory, luxuriates at Mar-a-Lago, raising sums beyond compare and paying no price for anything he’s done. If his party takes over Congress and then the White House, it’s not complicated at all. Just light a giant match and burn this planet down, assuming Vladimir Putin hasn’t already done that.
Call it hell on Earth and you’re anything but exaggerating. The “unthinkable”? Start thinking, my friend. The fate of the Earth, once the title of a classic book on the nuclear nightmare by Jonathan Schell, could soon be little short of a post-Trumpian joke.
My advice and I mean it: duck and cover!
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.