99 Red Balloons Just Flew By

I have no nostalgia for the 1980s. The music was poor and got worse as the decade went on. The fashion likewise. The politics of the era – yuppies, conspicuous consumption, haves and have nots kicking off towards the huge disparities we still see today – was especially egregious.

I spent almost all of that decade in Belfast, a city at the centre of a slow-burning civil war in those days. Watching TV at night could be interrupted at any time, and often was, with a police warning for shopkeepers to return to their premises and check for bombs. Fun times.

One of the ironies of the era personally was that I was much, much more scared about the possibility of getting nuked than the very tangible daily probability that I might fall foul of Belfast’s sectarian violence and terrorism. For this particular fear, I partly blame Threads, a docu-style drama from the BBC which aired in 1984 and depicted a not so Orwellian but definitely dystopian near future in which the city of Sheffield experiences the aftermath of nuclear war.

We’ve kind of forgotten about nuclear anxiety since then. The fall of the hyperpower duopoly at the end of the Eighties definitely played a role in that. Somehow we overlooked the proliferation of nuclear weapons since, and the fact that there were more complications, more possibility for a war by error.

And other events took centre stage. We got a whole new kind of threat to worry about post-9-11, and especially in the last few years, as black swans mounted up to the extent that it began to seem like we were living in an alternative reality, the prospect of good old-fashioned Cold War-era nuclear destruction seems to have fallen off our collective radars.

It shouldn’t have.

United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM, for short) is a somewhat fuzzy entity and likely does not loom large in most people’s psyches. It’s an arm of the US Military, charged with a range of responsibilities, which includes those exquisitely banal euphemisms “strategic deterrence,” and “global strike”. In short, if the US ever comes under nuclear attack, or deems a nuclear attack to be necessary, USSTRATCOM will be centrally involved.

“Peace”, they say, “is our profession”, but one always nervously ponders the Orwellian inversion potential in such mottos. “War is peace”, after all, was the motto of Minipax, Oceania’s War Ministry.

All the more concerning then to notice a tweet from said USSTRATCOM, as they look forward to the year ahead, and find oneself plunged back into the nuclear anxieties of the Eighties:

In an increasingly multipolar world, and one where hostilities are apparently growing daily, there is an ever-multiplying list of potential flashpoints which could lead to nuclear escalation. No longer is it simply a case of America and Russia: rogue nation North Korea and its murky and paranoid leadership has a nuclear capacity; angry neighbours India and Pakistan now possess nuclear arsenals; so does Israel, surrounded as it is by states hostile to its existence; its sworn enemy Iran is desperately trying to become a nuclear power; and the internal politics of Britain and France, the other two overtly nuclear states, have almost never been as fractious as now.

I don’t wish for my son to experience a version of my nuclear anxiety from the Eighties on steroids. Even moreso, I worry that we may be closer now to a nuclear event than we ever were then. We need to take that USSTRATCOM warning very seriously. We need to find a way to rid the planet of nuclear weapons.

The detonation of only 100 missiles would likely lead to the end of life on this planet. Two years ago, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that there were a staggering 13,865 nuclear weapons stockpiled, of which 3,750 were deployed with operational forces.

We’re only one mistake, one terror act, one escalation of belligerence away, in Kashmir, in Israel, in Korea, in Taiwan, in the Arctic, in the Ukraine, in so many potential flashpoints, from annihilation. The doomsday clock has crept up to 100 seconds to midnight, closer than it ever was during the Cold War.

I feel like I should be styling my hair in a mullet and wearing my ‘Frankie Says… War! Hide Yourself!” t-shirt even saying this, but as I said, I’m not nostalgic for the Eighties.

But we need to ban the bomb for good.

Leave a Reply