In the beginning of October, 40 million Russians engaged in three days of drills in preparation for a nuclear or natural disaster. Last week, Vladimir Putin instructed Russian officials overseas to bring all their relatives home. India and Pakistan are escalating their decades old conflict in the Kashmir. Syria and Iraq seem quagmires that more and more powers are determined to sink their feet into. The United States authorised firing of cruise missiles into Yemen in response to a “failed” attack on their warship. Saudi Arabia’s financial links to Daesh were made clear this week, to which the USA collectively shrugged. China is aggressively extending its claims in the South China Sea. The USA seems determined to play Trump out to the end, potentially permanently fracturing their collective commitment to nationhood. North Korea is playing with increasingly sophisticated nuclear missile capabilities. Russia is investing again in an upgraded and expanded nuclear arsenal, Britain is doing likewise, and both US Presidential candidates are committed to the same. The world has certainly been in better shape geopolitically, and some analysts of international affairs have whispered World War III and second Cold War.
Most of my schooling was during the 1980s. The phantasm of a nuclear war and the following nuclear winter was ever present, even here in Aotearoa New Zealand. I watched grainy pictures of Chernobyl, read in the newspaper about the Three Mile Island meltdown, and saw pictures of French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll. We had to read Z for Zechariah by Robert O’Brien as a study text, I devoured When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs, I read series after series of post-apocalyptic teen novels, and graduated to Stephen King’s The Stand. I watched the dark mini series The Day After, and eventually, of course, Terminator 2. The impending apocalypse inspired most of the pop culture that formed me. When I drew stickmen (always men) battling, as the toll from hand to hand fights and battles grew, eventually I would complete their devastation with a nuclear bomb that looked like a crude Big Boy.
As a child, I don’t remember ever conceiving of my death in a nuclear holocaust. I always assumed I would be one of the survivors: I’d board up the windows, stuff the chimney with material, cover the table with all of our sheets, and hide under there with all of our non-perishables during the initial attack. Then I would create an unwieldy but necessary suit of rubber gloves, overalls and gas masks to venture out into a devastated radioactive wasteland with a rifle to find other survivors and rebuild some semblance of life. Of course it would be tragic; but also an exciting adventure.
Twenty five years later I have four children and a wife now, and I live a life that would seem unimportant to Putin, or Trump, or Clinton, or Theresa May, or John Key for that matter; but it is a life that is full of love and light and joy and good things in Tauranga Moana. My eldest daughter is 13 and she was given a nice cap by an admirer, and I am glad and I gave her a little ribbing about it but made sure she knew that I celebrate these steps into a bigger, adult world of relationships. I am at a kapa haka weekend at a marae with my second daughter and I am tired but I made a really nice deviled sausages and chocolate self-saucing pudding which the children keep coming to me and thanking me for.
And tonight I feel the weight of a line said by followers of the Lord of Light in the series A Song of Ice and Fire: “the night is dark and full of terrors.” Just a line in a book and a television series; but perhaps a narrative for our uncertain world. As a father, the potential for my children’s existence and future to be snuffed out at the whim of barely elected leaders is an exquisite torture. Pawns, collateral damage, the cost: all words to describe how unimportant our deaths in a war or military action would be to our political masters.
My children know very little about nuclear wars, nuclear holocausts or nuclear winters. They are aware of children in other countries suffering, they have seen pictures of bloodied and damaged children, and they have asked for me to explain it to them. Whenever they ask these difficult questions I am reminded of Matthew 18:3:
Truly I tell you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Their questions are a humiliation. They unmask our impotence as responsible adults, voters in a civil society, members of a nation, and a global community, to act as humans in relation to conflict. If this is the case for conventional war, how much more does this apply to nuclear war. What madness drives us to create our unCreator?
Aotearoa New Zealand was a voice of reason in the 1980s with a principled stand against nuclear proliferation. We were at the forefront of what became a cacophony of voices against the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Today, we are comparatively quiet, even muted, happily following along behind the leaders, our tail wagging. My mother always used to say, “if your friend went and jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” Salient words. We need to lead again for the sake of our humanity.