I‘ve played music at the Hiroshima Day memorial ceremony in Ottawa quite a few times by now. It’s a somber honour, but my participation is also a bit coincidental. It just follows from the fact that once every few months for over a decade now, I go to a Quaker meeting. Some Quakers organize the Hiroshima Day memorial each year. One of them will predictably ask for a few songs. If I’m in town in early August, I’ll play a few I know.
The event is pretty small most years. Honestly, the cause of nuclear disarmament has felt righteous but marginal — maybe even kinda passé. Nuclear weapons represented an existential threat, sure, but it seemed distant — even if the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists insisted the Doomsday Clock was only a few minutes from midnight. Aside from nightmare scenarios involving accidents, it was just hard to imagine anyone deliberately using nukes.
Thinking this way was a mistake, I now see.
There’s an incredible amount of anger and emotion flying around now, but it’s important to be brave and face cold facts: we’re currently standing on the edge of a precipice. We’re probably closer to WWIII, nuclear war, and the end of life as we know it than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. (And we likely only survived that crisis, by the way, through the sheer obstinate courage of one Soviet submarine captain.)
While Putin continues to obliquely threaten any nation who intervenes in his invasion with Russia’s nuclear weapons, it wouldn’t necessarily take some deliberate act or declaration of war for all hell to break loose. All it would take would be for some Russian and NATO forces to spook each other and we could have a shooting war — with an unimaginably bad ending. (A world war has started over less before.)
And… look, I don’t mean to be alarmist here, but with governments in Ottawa past and present seeming pretty comfortable with the far-right and anti-Russian forces in Ukraine that Putin is pretending this war is about, we might actually be near the top of his hit list.
This isn’t to give credence to Putin’s ridiculous claim the invasion is about denazification. Don’t be a tankie. “The problem of the Ukrainian ultra-right must be solved, but it cannot be solved with Russian tanks,” as Russian members of Autonomous Action put it in Crimethinc’s translation. Sure, Ukraine has a neo-Nazi problem, but so do we, so does Russia, so does just about every nation. And if we’re playing a game of “pin the Hitler moustache,” any student of history knows it should land on Putin’s lip, so long as they’re even mildly familiar with the fate of Austria and Czechoslovakia at the hands of the Nazis.
All this to say, nuclear disarmament doesn’t seem that passé anymore. We failed to dismantle NATO and the world’s nuclear arsenal when they lost their purpose with the end of the Cold War, and now this failure has come back to bite us — and might just swallow us whole.
If you’re having trouble imagining nuclear war, it would look like this — just everywhere.
Of course, this failure was no accident. As principled journalists like Chris Hedges have argued, the military-industrial complex couldn’t let NATO and nukes go, even though there was no real reason to hang onto them when the Berlin Wall came down. After the death of the U.S.S.R. and the Warsaw Pact (NATO’s enemy and raison d’être), a zombie-fied NATO had to lurch on, eating the brains of the Eastern Bloc nations that it had been formed to oppose. To join NATO, these nations only had to spend 2% of their GDP on “defence” and “modernize” their armies and weapons so they could play along nicely with the U.S. military. The merchants of war grew fat and rich (well, fatter and richer) on the billions spent, and all was well. Except for one thing — what’s a military alliance without an enemy? How can you convincingly promise “security” if there’s no one to be afraid of?
Russia is the enemy that NATO and the West created, in many ways — just as much as it’s the creation of obscene oligarchs, corrupt Yeltsin, and ruthless Putin. Throughout the 2000s, NATO courted Ukraine and now it’s leaving her to die, having finally realized how badly it fucked up — how taking a single decisive step to, say, enforce a no-fly zone over the distraught, impossibly-brave nation would be tempting apocalypse.
None of this is to excuse or explain away the gruesome role Putin has played in this crisis — and the Russian elites who have supported him and grown fat in his shadow, or the international elites who have profited by enabling his regime.
There is a certain logic to Putin’s actions, despite the West’s will to always portray its enemies as deranged madmen who just hate freedom and democracy. Yet he also seems to have genuinely gone off the rails this time — or at least made a dire miscalculation after a lifetime as a cunning and cut-throat strategist.
Before the all-out invasion of Ukraine, Putin has generally seemed cruel but canny — always pragmatic in his pursuit of power, more of an opportunist than an ideologue. “Putin’s government represents the KGB without socialism,” as Crimethinc put it, acting as an effective “guarantor of dictatorships” from Syria to Belarus. Even if there’s only so much he could accomplish as the leader of a nation that barely counts as a world power anymore, he could run circles around any American President or Western leader who faced him, whatever their political stripe or acumen. Look at how he made Trump his patsy and duped Angela Merkel into making Germany reliant on Russian gas, for example — the two politicians could not be more dissimilar.
Yet Putin seems to have finally drunk the kool-aid of his own propaganda about restoring the glory of the Russian Empire.
Putin has become a true believer, sealed off from oxygen and reality in his information bubble, like so many of us during the pandemic.
To claim that Ukraine is not a real nation, that the Ukrainian people are really just Russians who don’t know it, that there isn’t even such thing as a Ukrainian language: this is the logic and rhetoric of genocide. We’ve seen it before in the mouths of national demagogues, as a prelude to war crimes and the darkest and most destructive moments in our history.
And while Russia might be a shadow of its Soviet self, it still has nukes.
What’s insane is that there probably was a moment in the ’90s when that could have changed — a long, magical moment when walls were coming down everywhere, when people could tell the truth without fear of reprisal, when Gorbachev’s notion of a “Common European Home” could be echoed in Bush’s “Commonwealth of European Nations.” It was a time when anything seemed possible, where Russia just might have let those nukes go. Sure it would have — if NATO had as well.
The U.S. and Russia could have built on existing agreements to reduce nuclear arsenals all the way down to zero, with verification protocols for mutual security. The next step would have been a meaningful international treaty banning nukes, instead of the toothless entity we have now, which mostly consist of nations who could never build nukes resolving righteously to never build them.
Maybe India and Pakistan would have then avoided bringing their nuclear weapons programs to fruition in the late ’90s. If mutual disarmament was on the table, China would likely have been happy to draw down its arsenal. After all, it’s been the only nuclear power with anything approaching a relatively sane nuclear policy. Since developing the bomb in the ’60s, it refused to participate in a nuclear arms race with the U.S. and U.S.S.R. More importantly, it has always been the only nuclear power firmly committed to a “no first strike” policy.
That leaves North Korea, Iran, and Israel. They would have been truly isolated, facing the weight of a world that had given up nukes. The right mix of cajoling, threatening, and rewarding likely could have worked wonders. Look, we could have figured it out, humans are a creative species. Having collectively overcome one existential threat, we could then have tackled this global warming thing scientists were shouting about.
That’s not the world we live in, though. NATO hung onto its nukes and so did Russia and China. Other nations built their own. The “international order” seems unable to accomplish anything important or meaningful. We face apocalypse on multiple fronts.
It seemed so harmless at the time, though. What was there to fight over? Let the overgrown boys in the military keep their toys, their bases, their exercises. Experts told us we had reached the end of history and of ideology. Liberal democratic capitalism had won. Now that humans had settled on the best way to organize themselves, everything was going to be growth and progress forever more. There would be no real need for conflict anymore. Two nations with McDonalds never fought wars with each other, we were told.
Want to hear an equally stupid lie? “You can’t win a war with a nuclear power.” That’s the lesson Russian schoolkids are learning as we speak, according to The Moscow Times. Of course, it isn’t true. Nukes aren’t a deterrent or a guarantee of victory, as evolutionary psychologist David P. Barash has argued with copious examples. Nuclear powers get into wars all the time and often lose too. Afghanistan and a few Taliban fundamentalists alone have kicked the asses of two nuclear powers.
“You can’t win a war with a nuclear power.” Let the implicit threat of that lying children’s lesson chill you. Putin seems to be on his way out — maybe. What if he decides to take the world down with him, though? Right now the world’s best hope seems to be that someone in his army of sycophants grows some spine and sense. The fate of the world might once again rest on a decision by a Russian military man to go against his training and conditioning.
We’re lucky we made it out of the Cold War alive, as a species and a planet. We’re lucky we passed the nuclear football to Trump for four years — and somehow he didn’t fumble it. If somehow we make it out of this crisis, for the love of god let’s stop tempting fate and get rid of these world-ending suicide machines.