Remember the Bomb?
The Day After is a 1983 made-for-TV movie about the days following a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, set in the area around Lawrence, Kansas. It’s available on YouTube for free.
The film frightened the world. Ronald Reagan watched it and had the Joint Chiefs do the same. The Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, far from wanting to hide the horror the movie depicts, had it shown on state TV. It’s credited with steering Reagan’s nuclear policy and helping to lower the temperature of the Cold War.
It was so striking a movie, ABC prepared its audience in advance and then aired a panel discussion immediately after. People who watched it were mildly traumatized. One person commenting on YouTube recounts how the halls of his high school were silent the next day. If the people of 1983 had forgotten the horror of nuclear war to the point of being shocked to see a relatively mild depiction of it, Americans today must be doubly so. The truth is, the nuclear shadow never disappeared. Our eyes simply adjusted to a dimmer light.
It’s still a striking movie, unsettling now also because the early background and dialogue in the film are so similar to the present, emphasizing just how little has changed in 40 years. But some parts of the movie stand out for clarity they bring:
· After the missiles launch, a group of airmen assigned to the missile silos argue, some wanting to go down into the silo, knowing the operators inside probably won’t let them in; one wants to get in their truck as drive as far away as he can before the missiles strike; and some want to remain on duty as protocol dictates. The one who wants to get away shouts at them, The war is over! You get it? It’s over! And it is, without an American and Soviet ever encountering each other on a battlefield. To stay on duty following protocol is to stand on nuclear target, waiting for the air to explode overhead. The war is over, everyone lost, and there’s nothing even a million soldiers standing to their duty can do to change that.
· A farming family is preparing to host a wedding that day. The mother of the bride, after the missiles are airborne, continues to make the beds upstairs. She doesn’t listen to her husband implore her to go to the cellar, and when he tries to physically stop her, she fights him. He picks her up off her feet and carries her downstairs, and she wails in startlingly raw grief. She’s already mourning; the world she’s known will be dead in less than an hour. Not just people in their hundreds of millions, but human existence as she knows it, gone.
· Surviving farmers gather to hear the head of their co-op tell them what to do to begin rebuilding. Decontaminate the soil. How, one asks. Dig up the first six inches of topsoil. And do what with it, and what’s going to grow in the soil that’s left? The world can’t be repaired. It’s a return to the dark ages, to starvation, to winter as something to be existentially feared. There are other hints of this regression in the movie — horses replace cars, there’s almost electricity or fuel or water. It’s only been a few days and weeks, but already people die of infections that are longer treatable because there’s no one left to make drugs or to transport them if there were or clean water or a sanitary place to relieve one’s self, and far too many corpses breeding bacteria.
· Toward the end of the movie, the president broadcasts a message on the radio. But the president’s speech is wholly inadequate to the moment, and how could it be otherwise? There’s nothing he can do, let alone say, and that would be the case even if he weren’t to blame. The film doesn’t tell us who fired first, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no revenge to be had. There’s nothing a person could do to another that would be worse than what’s already been done. The one who fired second may as well have held hands with the one who fired first, because they destroyed the world together. It would be an oddly intimate shared act, if you pause to think on it.
· A woman giving birth in a hospital room crowded with stunned, inured survivors who hardly react to her screams, until the baby cries. There’s still barely any reaction from the people around her, just a few tears. Then the new mother wails, not in happiness and not in hope, but in impotent horror, that her baby was born into an unhabitable hell.
· As the movie progresses, there’s less and less dialogue. Speech, the foundation stone of human development, slips away. Maybe because of the trauma. Maybe because there just isn’t much to say.
Once the bombs go off, there’s virtually no mourning in the movie, it’s absence conspicuous. There’s no demonstrative grief for the dead, no one talking about going to look for their loved ones. It’s just accepted that they’re gone, and though they may be missed, no one appears to regret their absence. No one wants their loved ones to rejoin the living. The dead are the lucky ones.
Why isn’t there a no-fly zone over Ukraine? Why won’t the West send troops to Ukraine? Why does President Biden keep reiterating that he will not directly engage in fighting? Why won’t President Biden rattle the saber the way Putin is?
Because dictators stand a high risk of ending up dead if they back down. It’s why Saddam Hussein didn’t bow to U.S. demands in either Gulf War, because he stood an even higher chance of being shot by an internal enemy than of losing either war, and his losing the wars was all but certain. Cornered dictators lash out, gamble everything.
Putin might gamble that a nuclear exchange will be one sided, that if he’s going to end up killed by one of his own generals, why not take the chance that with Russian missiles in the air, President Biden will decide not to retaliate, that it’s all lost anyway, so why would the U.S. kill more. The Russians have a name for that strategy: escalate to de-escalate. Ramp us the destruction first so that others back down in the face of the damage and the risk of more. It’s not crazy; it’s actually quite shrewd. In the movie, that it’s not clear which side fired first clarifies the point: if one side destroyed half the world, why should the other side destroy the other half? What purpose was served? It harms everyone. No one won.
But may escalate to de-escalate doesn’t work as planned. Putin might launch a tactical nuclear weapon, and President Biden won’t retaliate for the same reason, so maybe Putin launches another and another until Biden has no choice but to retaliate for fear Putin will not stop, and however limited the retaliation, it could set off a spiral of retaliation that ends in a general exchange.
And none of that has to happen for a mistake to end the world, as one almost did several times during the Cold War when radar operators mistook flocks of birds and the like for inbound missiles. In one of those instances, the only thing that prevented a nuclear exchange was a missile officer who just didn’t believe the report of incoming missiles was correct. If someone else had been on duty — swapping out just one person for any other on the planet, one who would do what he was trained instead of exercising personal agency — and history would have ended. When tensions are high, mistakes become more likely.
And what of Ukraine, the thousands dead, the thousands who will die, a sovereign nation snuffed out? Thousands are not billions; occupations can be overthrown in a few years, but it would be a thousand lifetimes before the planet would recover from a nuclear exchange between Russia and the West.
But the chance of a nuclear exchange is so remote. Yes, it is, and risk assessment accounts for that: the probability of an event multiplied by the severity of its consequences is how risk is calculated. We each make that calculation without knowing it every day. The chance of a nuclear exchange is remote, but the consequences would be devastating, not in the overwrought use of the term but in the sense that everything would be lost, and the living would envy the dead. The probability of a nuclear exchange can never be low enough to make the risk of those consequences acceptable, no matter the alternative.
When I watched the missiles launched in the movie, I was caught off guard by this sense of wanting to reach out and pull them back. I could imagine the sense of helplessness a person would feel watching them, that instant grief of knowing everything you knew and understood had less than an hour to live, that nothing could change it. Those giant rockets rising in the sky, their size belying their speed and distance, and seeming so close and slow that you could just reach out … but you can’t. Maybe the grief would give way to comfort that in minutes, I wouldn’t feel anything at all ever again, and neither would any person I ever cared about.