The Lurking Horror

“Jerome” by Randall Jarrell concerns psychoanalysis and begins: “Each day brings its toad, each night its dragon.” And each generation has its nightmare worry that haunts its conscious and unconscious life.

Mine had two. First was polio which closed the swimming holes in summer, and whose victims, our schoolmates, disappeared forever or returned warped and twisted by the disease. Our mothers marched for dimes and we trembled at the pictures of leg braces and iron lungs until the vaccine arrived. I spared us, but not unscarred. After that, no miracle of science could inoculate us against the nagging knowledge that unseen, microscopic enemies were everywhere and could kill us for their sport.

That was bad. Worse was the bomb. The first test and military use took place one year before the baby boom began, but the malignant growth of the peril kept pace with our generation’s. It too was accompanied by the constant fear that hidden enemies were everywhere plotting out incineration. Nixon and McCarthy told us so, Stalin imposed on half of Europe a new totalitarianism in place of one just defeated.

Our safety and salvation was supposed to come from the bomb, but in 1949 the Soviets got their own and we practiced kneeling in school halls and covering our heads. Having seen the mushroom clouds and newsreels of Hiroshima, we knew these precautions were laughable. In 1952, we did them one better with the hydrogen bomb, orders of magnitude more horrible, but they matched that by 1954 and a decades-long death race began.

The Hiroshima atomic bomb was the equivalent of about 18,000 tons of TNT or 18 kilotons. It leveled a city and killed 200,000 people, over half by radiation sickness rather than the blast. Hydrogen bombs could be hundreds, thousands of times more powerful, their yield calculated not in kilotons of TNT, but megatons.

By the late 1950s we no longer had to drop these from airplanes, but had created intercontinental ballistic missiles and Polaris nuclear submarines with which we could deliver nuclear destruction to any spot on earth. We graduated from cowboy and Indian toys to plastic models of these weapons of mass destruction. We could even take field trips to Nike sites to see the missiles that were meant to shoot down incoming Soviet bombers whose aim was to vaporize us.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought us alarmingly close to unleashing Armageddon. For a few days, every East Coast American city seemed 20 minutes away from vanishing in a bright cloud. This began a half-century effort to control testing, limit the number of warheads and generally minimize the risk of destroying millions of people and potentially most life on earth through radiation and climate effects. As a friend of mine used to chalk on blackboards in middle school: The bugs will inherit the earth.

But still the bombs accumulated and more countries joined the malign club – China, Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea. All through our lives the images of mushroom clouds, the news of new weapons systems, Cold War films and literature, international crises made the imminence of nuclear annihilation our daily bread and nightly dread.

And then beginning in the late 1980s light broke through the dark clouds. Unexpectedly, China became a capitalist country. The Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down. Some of the bomb plants went out of business, leaving poisoned earth and groundwater behind, Minuteman silos were gone and the Strategic Air Command obsolete. Perhaps we would die in bed, not in a flash of radioactive light.

Alas, our millennial children and grandchildren grew up with different dragons. Their young lives have been haunted by a new threat of extinction from climate change. They have suffered through the worst crash since 1929 and face a downsized American dream with blighted prospects. And they are haunted by the fear of random death at the hands of Islamic terror, having seen at an early age twin towers fall.

Mercifully these terror attacks have not been on the scale of our Dr. Strangelove era’s doomsday machines. But Iran strives to acquire such power, and religious zealots may be more likely to use it than the Communists ever were. They believed history was on their side and wanted to stay alive to see their ideology triumph on earth. Religious fanatics seek their reward in a martyr’s express ride to paradise and have no objection to blowing us all to kingdom come in the process.

A few nuclear countries have gotten out of the game including Libya and South Africa, but more want to join, and Kim Jong Un is a lot less stable an adversary than the relatively cautious, calculating men in Moscow and Beijing. It is not difficult to imagine him deciding to show he is not to be trifled with by lighting up Pearl Harbor, Seattle or Silicon Valley.

It would be suicide, of course, since he would face nuclear-armed carrier groups, stealth bombers and over a dozen submarines silently waiting to launch 24 missiles each, each missile tipped with 12 individually targetable warheads allowing each submarine to deliver a blast equal to 10 Hiroshimas to 288 targets or a bit over 4,000 cities in toto. It would be sufficient, as they used to say, to make the rubble bounce. It might also doom life on the planet. All because of one fat, childish tyrant.

Yet, all that stands between us and that is our own President. Does he really know how dangerous this game is? Has he really studied the subject? Are there no diplomatic or covert ways to rid the world of one temperamental boy king before his nuclear playthings become a threat to his neighbors? It seems like a more important issue to preoccupy the President than cutting taxes on rich people, repealing Obamacare, composing misspelled tweets to taunt CNN or The New York Times or shooting par.

We are encouraged to believe that there are grown-ups in the room in the persons of Generals McMaster, Kelly and Mattis, but if, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail, to a general every problem looks like a target. And they are trained to follow the orders of the commander-in-chief, no matter how ill-informed or misguided he may be. This week, everyone from Trump on down seemed to have misplaced the entire Carl Vinson carrier strike group with which they were trying to intimidate the North Koreans. In short, meet the new nightmare, remarkably reminiscent of the old nightmare.

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