Comfortably numb

Why are we risking nuclear war instead of saving the planet?

Note: IPPNW will be holding an emergency online briefing on the risks in Ukraine on Saturday. February 19th, 3pm GMT (10am EST). Speakers will explore topics related to conventional war, damage to nuclear power reactors, and escalation to nuclear weapons. Speakers are: Linda Pentz Gunter (Beyond Nuclear), Dr. Ira Helfand (IPPNW & ICAN), and Barry S. Levy, M.D., M.P.H. (Tufts University School of Medicine), with facilitation by Dr. Olga Mironova (IPPNW Russia). Register now.

By Linda Pentz Gunter

“Hello? (Hello? Hello? Hello?)

“Is there anybody in there?

Just nod if you can hear me

Is there anyone home?”

Those echoing opening lines of the Pink Floyd song, “Comfortably Numb” keep wafting through my psyche as I watch the US, Russia, and China, amass ever more sophisticated, deadly and downright evil nuclear weapons capabilities. What are they thinking?

Meanwhile, tensions continue to mount at the Ukraine-Russia border, as Putin moves more armaments and fleets around and the US flies its elite 82nd Airborne Division into standby mode in Poland, part of 3,000 US troops now deployed to the region. 

All of this has sent US nuclear hawks, sounding more and more like General ‘Buck’ Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove, chafing at the bit to justify the further escalation and acceleration of the so-called modernization of the entire US nuclear weapons complex.

Kyiv, Ukraine. The country gave up its nuclear weapons. Now some argue it should re-arm. But in the current environment that could make a nuclear war in Europe more likely. (Photo: Photo by Petkevich Evgeniy from Pexels)

Meanwhile, there is even speculation that maybe Ukraine should not have given up its nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War as the Soviet Union collapsed. The Russian seizure of Crimea and the seemingly endless conflict on Ukraine’s eastern border has led some to urge a Ukraine nuclear rearmament. 

A nuclear-armed Ukraine, goes the logic, would allow it to “deter” a Russian invasion or, at least, any possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia in a grab for Ukraine.

But this thinking further exposes the hollow argument for deterrence. Nuclear weapons in Ukraine would have only one outcome — they would make the prospect of nuclear weapons being used in any current conflict more likely. (Then, of course, there is the ever-present danger of Ukraine’s 15 operating nuclear reactors — addressed in a January 30, 2022 article on these pages.)

The prospect that even a conventional conflict could break out in Ukraine is already horrific enough. But even the remotest possibility that this could progress to the use of nuclear weapons by any party, is positively nightmarish. 

If you don’t value sleep, then Ira Helfand’s article in The Nation lays all of this out in chilling detail. It’s like reading the script to an apocalyptical dystopian horror movie (the kind that sadly seems to be all too popular these days).

Helfand’s article, however, is the exception to most of the coverage, which discusses the prospect of accidental or deliberate nuclear war over the Ukraine situation in a mind-bogglingly impassive way, “comfortably numb” to the very real, horrific, humanitarian consequences were this actually to happen.

It’s as if, as IPPNW’s Chuck Johnson said to me during a recent phone call, “it’s all perfectly normal”. 

But to most of us regular folk, calmly anticipating the possibility of a nuclear war isn’t normal. It’s the definition of insanity. And it’s exasperating. Hello? Can you hear us? We have a climate crisis bearing down on us. A global emergency of, yes, apocalyptic proportions. 

It goes without saying that, as a species, we need to stop directing all our energies towards our collective extinction, both through our failure to act adequately and on time on climate, and by unnecessarily rattling nuclear sabres.

It goes without saying, but it needs saying. Again and again and really loudly. By all of us. Just nod if you can hear me.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

Headline image by Sam Cox/Creative Commons

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