Peace Turned to Poisoned Present
by Manuel L. Quezon III
An entire generation has come of age, free from the overpowering fear of a nuclear holocaust engulfing the world. While the world still feels fear — of terrorism, or environmental catastrophe, or new, exotic diseases — it has been, pretty much, liberated of the fear of instantaneous nuclear annihilation. Those who are my age, in their early to mid-30s, are perhaps the last generation to have grown up under the thrall of nuclear war.
Studying in the United States at the time, we read John Hersey’s book, “Hiroshima,” in school, followed by George Orwell’s “1984” -the year I read it happened to be the year of the book’s title, and many were the discussions on television and even in the schools, about whether the book’s prophecies had come to pass — and in a year or two, Sting’s “Russians” would dominate our listening on our Walkmans, as we earnestly discussed whether it was worth buying compact discs instead of maintaining our vinyl LP collections!
These were the years of the final act in the fifty year saga known as the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union was a very real country, ruled by a series of dying old men, who seemed incapable of matching the charisma of an old man, and their bitter enemy, Ronald Reagan. Reagan spoke of an evil empire; Sting’s rejoinder was, “I hope the Russians love their children, too.”
What Reagan and his nemeses — Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, a series of bloated old faces feebly waving from the Kremlin Wall, then borne in somber procession past the same wall to the strain of Chopin’s “Funeral March” by goose-stepping soldiers — had in common was the means to liquidate the entire planet in a matter of minutes. Not just parts of the globe, but all of it; this is what was different from yesterday’s fears and today’s anxiousness over terrorism. Terrorism can strike anywhere, at anytime, with means that, theoretically, can include some sort of nuclear device. The Cold War era, on the other hand, threatened to destroy the planet in a manner of minutes, or hours, after a period of crisis stretching mere days, weeks, or even months.
Still, while the fear was omnipresent, what was lacking was the ability among my generation, to personally appreciate what war really meant. We were not of the Vietnam generation: it took place when we were too small to understand. World War II was even more remote, and the wartime generation hadn’t yet been seized by their collective effort to memorialize their achievements.
War was film, perhaps “police actions” in the news, the glimmerings of a new industry that created videogames more often set in outer space than on planet Earth: detached, limited, manageable. Indeed, when it was seen at all, it was brief, and a cause for national pride: Britons delirious over reconquering a sheep-infested rock they called the Falklands and the Argentines (who lost) insisted was the Malvinas; America conquering a dot on the map called Grenada. Minimal strategic purpose achieved with the greatest public relations gains. Tom Clancy burst upon the scene and gave the world tales in which nuclear horror wasn’t so horrific, since American heroes could be replied upon to single-handedly defeat totalitarianism.
I believe the fear of nuclear war abated with the selection of Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union, obviously, but also with the global effort to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. That anniversary renewed public focus on the horrors of strategic bombing, for example. Kurt Vonnegut, author of “Slaughterhouse 5,” came once more to the fore, with a series of non-fiction essays and memoirs on his experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany, where he witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden. The other horrors of World War II — germ warfare, slave labor camps, programs of mass extermination and even the systematic looting of occupied nations — began to be discussed, and portrayed in mass media, on an unprecedented scale.
From 1995 to 2005, that process has continued. On one hand, the process involves a steady, though occasionally frantic, effort to get survivors of World War II, to tell their stories. On the other hand, the process of evaluating and synthesizing the meaning of the many events, developments, and trends resulting from that war, has also continued at a pretty vigorous pace. The Axis Powers -Germany, Japan, even Italy and their satellites in central and eastern Europe — and the Allies — America, Britain, their colonies, and the conquered European countries they freed — have both been subjected to soul-searching and questioning the likes of which has never been seen.
That process comes to an end, this year, with commemoration of atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the surrender of Japan to the Allied powers. The dropping of the atom bomb, after all, defined the Nuclear Age that followed the Age of the War Against Totalitarianism — even though, of course, totalitarianism, at least in its Communist form, survived the destruction of Fascism in 1945. The British author Gregor Dallas, in fact, described the period of the Cold War as a “Poisoned Peace,” the title of a book in which he argues that World War II never quite ended, it simply dragged on, until the reunification of Germany in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union.
We have today, no longer a “poisoned peace,” of course, but a “poisoned present.” The Cold War has been replaced by a Simmering War, a war periodically bubbling over with back pack, truck, and car bombs, threats of Anthrax, rumors of possible “dirty bombs” on the loose. A conflict-filled present so full of shades of grey, that the black versus white certainties of yesterday seem as unreal, as unimaginable, as a world in which the dominant nightmare was of the leaders of nation-states condemning all of humanity to death at the flick of a switch, the pressing of a button.