Monday, October 29, 2007

Looking Back on The Day After

Growing up in the 80s, we were constantly threatened with nuclear annihilation. It makes it hard to be frightened of any of today's bugaboos.

Whatever happened to nuclear war?

Weren't we promised one, back when I was a kid? Back then, it seemed like every time you turned on the television set, they were talking about the chances of nuclear war with the Soviets. It was all over television, on the news, the soap operas, even on the sit coms- I remember Silver Spoons having a very special episode on the nuclear threat. We learned about nuclear war in school. Sting had a hit song constantly playing on MTV asking if the Russians loved their children enough to avoid nuking them, or us, or him. To be honest, I'm personally pretty ambivalent about the idea of Sting getting nuked.

But, it never happened. The Soviet Union collapsed when I was in High School and, after having gone through my childhood hearing about the great possibility that we'd be nuked, suddenly the danger had passed. What a total waste of time. Then we went through the early 90s hearing about the great possibility of world peace, now that the threat had passed. Again, I think we got ripped off. Now, we're promised that, if we don't band together and eat all of our carrots, the 'Islamofascists' will topple the West. Oh, please.

In 1983, when I was nine years old, there was a television movie called The Day After that aired on ABC. It was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and starred Jason Robarts and Steve Guttenberg. The movie took place in some small town in Kansas; during the first half we get to know a number of the residents, and during the second half, the town gets nuked and they all die of radiation poisoning. There was, understandably, no laugh track for this show.

The Day After was watched by more people than any other television program in the 80s- something like half of all adults watched it. We watched it too, although I don't remember being particularly frightened by it. Lots of people were scared out of their wits, including Ronald Reagan, thankfully enough. I recently rented it on DVD, and I can see why people were frightened by it. It was a pretty bleak film.

It was also a very controversial film. Republicans complained that the film was biased because it didn't give the pro-nuclear war side of the argument. This is perhaps the stupidest political argument made in the 80s, although the argument that a number of Republicans made that Maya Lin was a ''traitor'' due to her design for the Vietnam Memorial Wall is probably a close second. ABC aired a debate about the movie and nuclear war, in which William F. Buckley argued for the deterrence of Mutually Assured Destruction against Carl Sagan, who wanted to do away with nuclear weapons altogether. Ben Stein wrote an editorial in which he called for the networks to film a miniseries about the United States living under Soviet rule, which they did with the miniseries Amerika.

Nowadays, I don't think any of my students would recognize terms like Mutually Assured Destruction, and I doubt that I could explain the ideas behind them anyway. Thankfully, the idea of nuclear deterrence has become as outdated as the idea of a miniseries. Watching the movie now, I'm amazed at how traditional it feels. The first half looks like it should be starring Jimmy Stewart- It's a Wonderful Half-Life. The camera soars over fields of wheat, the strings are gorgeous, and the people are all loving Americans with trivial problems. The filming style is nearly invisible. Meyer does a good job of involving the audience in the characters' stories.

In the background of all this is a stand off between the United States and the Soviet Union over a fictional Soviet invasion of West Germany. We hear reports on radios and televisions, but the film takes a docudrama approach, so this is always in the background. It's amazing to see the 80s and remember how few public places had monolithic television sets in them. Now, libraries have them, and they always seem to be turned to CNN. If we were nuked now, we'd be sick of hearing about the nuclear war before it even happened. But the characters in The Day After live in that golden era before total information awareness. That is, until the half-way point, in which Kansas gets blown off the map.

The nuclear war looks a bit cheesy today- there's a lot of stock footage and explosions superimposed over photographs. You can watch it here. Incredibly enough, the military wouldn't allow ABC to use any footage of an actual nuclear explosion, so the blast is actually dye injected into a vat of oil, and shot upside down. It actually works fairly well.

The last half of the movie takes place after the bomb, as the survivors struggle to survive in the rubble of nuclear annihilation. Watching it now, I was impressed by how straightforward this section is. There's not a lot of cheap sentimentalism or canned inspirational scenes. Also, it's fairly realistic, all things considered. We can assume that all of the main characters die. Steve Guttenberg looks like shit by the end.

When I went to school the next day (the day after The Day After), several of my classmates were traumatized. Some were crying, others looked shell-shocked; my idiot friends and I thought it was awesome. We had watched a lot of post-apocalyptic action movies like The Road Warrior, so we were expecting that we'd survive the nuclear war and get to fight off mutants with nun-chucks or something. We really went through the 80s yearning for nuclear war and the adventures that would come with it. Someday I'm going to write a novel about this weird childhood.

The Day After is still an effective movie today, although it should be noted that the BBC docudrama Threads- which can be watched in its entirety here- is considerably more harrowing. The movie Testament also came out in 1983, and is similarly terrifying. All of these movies had the effect of making people terrified of nuclear war, including the President. Again, I wasn't afraid, but I lack the apocalyptic imagination.

A decade or so later the Soviet bloc collapsed and the nuclear threat passed with it. Movies like The Day After, Threads, or Testament became 'retro', thank god. Sadly, though, you don't hear a lot of country and western songs about nuclear war these days. People today are afraid of terrorists and the 'Islamic bomb', but what they're afraid of just can't compare to the nuclear holocaust. Somehow, having the largest nation on earth pointing hundreds of nuclear warheads at you, and vice-versa, and the leaders of both sides seeming totally ready to launch them, is a little bit worse than having twenty guys in a cave in Pakistan who want to kill us.

The worst thing we have to worry about now is whether or not Iran has the nuke, although we know damn well they don't, and if they might get the nuke, which we're pretty sure they won't. We're also told that it's actually worse now because the 'Islamicists' want to die, although we were told that the Russians wanted to die too. Excuse my lack of concern. Again, I lack the apocalyptic imagination. The lesson to be learned from The Day After, aside from that nukes are bad, is that worrying about apocalyptic death is a denial of life. It's a waste of time. Life has to be lived in hope for the future, not in fear of it. It's hard to tell just what the paranoid style of American politics actually creates, aside from very effective fiction.

Another Sky.


Brian Dunbar said...

We're also told that it's actually worse now because the 'Islamicists' want to die, although we were told that the Russians wanted to die too.

I do not know if Islamicists (I think that term's half-life is over) want to die - their religion is pretty bloody minded, if you take it literally.

But I just don't know.

MAD worked because the Soviets did not want to die. Anyone who really thought that back then (I know I didn't, and I knew that before Sting told me on the radio) was a thoughtless tool.

What got me going back when was not that war would start on purpose; that isn't war and only a madman would risk complete destruction* for Western Europe.

No, what got me was that if it _did_ it would all be a huge accident - as it nearly did happen at least once.

*Ralph Peters wrote an excellent novel called 'Red Army' - WW III from the Russian point of view. Excellent book. During the run up to war the Soviets are ready to nuke West Germany, use war gasses and generally be the Huns our worst fears said they were ... but were stopped.

Because the East German leadership got ahold of the war plans (intelligence leak) and got a little upset that all the fallout would make East Germany uninhabitable. They put a quick stop to that, forcing the Red Army to come up with a clever op-plan that did win the war for the Pact.

I do not claim that the Soviets would actually do this (how would I know?) but it's in keeping with the character of Generals who would risk nuclear war that contaminating East Germany is seen as acceptable in order to gain West Germany, the Low countries and hegemony over the rest of Europe.

The novel (if I may digress) is interesting in that the Soviets initiate a mind-f*** of the West German politicians and win the war.

They start the war then release tapes showing the results of war gas attacks (that did not happen) in West German towns, throw away a few divisions in useless assaults deep in the Allied rear to cause confusion, and imply that they'll regretfully gas more and more West Germans ...

The German pols fold just as the allies initiate a counterstrike that would set a faltering Soviet army on it's ass.

Anyway. Good book with a lot to say about the Soviets, how automation helps the military and how fog of war is a killer.

I am so glad we got through that time without lobbing bombs at each other.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I remember an accident being a big possibility too. Especially given how bad communications used to be.

I remember people worrying that Star Wars technology would make the leaders cocky. I was going to ask you if I was right in thinking that Star Wars was more of a pipe dream than anything else. But, I see an article about it on your page.

As for MAD, I don't remember thinking much of it. Admittedly, The Day After aired when I was 9, so my analysis of geo-political strategy was lacking. Honestly, I sort of lost interest in the issue after that. I remember thinking the US/Soviet tension was really more of an adult issue. Then it was over.

With the terrorists, it seems that there could be a greater danger than there was with the Soviets because they seem to think the afterlife will be a lot better than this life. But their numbers are a lot lower and their resources are a lot smaller than any army I can think of.

I guess the big question is- If a country like Iran gets the nuke, which probably will happen in our lifetime, would deterrance work with them? I think it would, but I get the feeling that a lot of people don't agree with me.

I will check out that book, though it might have to wait for me to read it. I have a five foot stack of books to get through right now.

Hiromi said...

There was also that Matthew Broderick movie War Games, in which not only did people worry about nuclear war, but hackers hacked by sticking the earpieces of phones into modems.

Rufus said...

I still haven't seen that one. Was that one with a crazy computer? It seems like crazy computers/robots were big in 80s movies.

Hiromi said...

It was one of those what-if-computers-kindasorta-get-sentient type computer movies.

And there was one other thing about the Cold War -- the suspense over Will Capitalism Win Out, or Will We Wear Grey Smocks and Call Each Other Comrade?

Now it's just "gimme triple skinny latte" in 50 languages.

but the one fear that hasn't gone away -- the fear of Big Brother. So I guess we're still in suspense to see whether all the promises of democracy come true.

Brian Dunbar said...

hackers hacked by sticking the earpieces of phones into modems.

Ah, the good old days. No, I'm not that old; when I got into IT those were antiques. My first few years in IT were spent fooling around with file servers connected via leased 2400bps lines.

I was going to ask you if I was right in thinking that Star Wars was more of a pipe dream than anything else. But, I see an article about it on your page.

Well that's a link to a description of a theater missile defense test, which isn't nearly as tough as knocking down hundreds or thousands of ICBMs.

A pipe dream? I'm just a guy from Wisconsin - all I know about SDI is what I've read. I think SDI was two things;

- A ploy to force the Soviets to compete in an area (high tech) that we excelled at and at which they sucked.
- A long-term program to produce a missile defense.

The former is just good strategy no matter what the game. The latter .. brother I don't like the doctrine of MAD for a lot of reasons. One of them is that it seems that a system whose failure mode involves incinerating millions of the enemies civilians is a bad idea.

The other reason is that MAD assumes continued excellence on both sides. Nobody is good forever - and only one side has to slip.

Being able to shoot down missiles seems like a better bet - defensive systems are at least more moral than weapons that incinerate entire cities at a go. As well you force the opposition to spend money on defense.

And too .. if we had gotten to field a 'Star Wars' SDI it would have meant a need for a lot of space lift, plus the means to maintain satellites in orbit. All of this implies a space launch fleet and capability that would make the 2007 edition of the Shuttle fleet and ISS look like a brace of Ford Tri-Motors next to a fleet of 747s.

Pity the Soviet Union didn't last long enough to make that a reality.

I guess the big question is- If a country like Iran gets the nuke, which probably will happen in our lifetime, would deterrance work with them? I think it would, but I get the feeling that a lot of people don't agree with me.

MAD is supposed to work when both sides have parity. But game theory isn't my strong suit. One problem with the weaker player is that he can't hit the stronger one as hard, which would give the strong player an incentive to hit the weaker before he can achieve parity. Iran can't achieve parity no matter how hard they try, but I don't see the United States taking advantage of this and smearing Iran and occupying it - as the theory would seem to call for.

Maybe it depends on what Iran actually wants? You won't see much of this in the popular press. Do they want to Islam to sweep the world with the Caliph located in Tehran? Certainly some elements in that country do. Do they want to be king of the heap in their region? It's not an unreasonable ambition. One problem is that a center of gravity for the world's economy is there.

I don't think they want to nuke the United States - but some elements in their country might not above shopping a nuclear weapon to the wrong party who would not hesitate to do the deed.

We do live in interesting times.

Rufus said...

Hiromi- It's interesting really- the world went from being bipolar to being effectively unipolar. At least mentally no other world is currently possible. I'm not sure that's really sunk in yet.

Brian- I don't really see the US occupying Iran either. I wonder how much this situation changes if someone invents a feasible eletric car. Maybe NASA should be working on that.

Brian Dunbar said...

I wonder how much this situation changes if someone invents a feasible eletric car.

Power has to come from somewhere - massive use of electric cars would transfer the pollution burden to a (currently) stressed electric grid.

Maybe NASA should be working on that.

You're trying to get my goat, aren't you?

Rufus said...

massive use of electric cars would transfer the pollution burden to a (currently) stressed electric grid.

It doesn't have to be electric. I just meant that perhaps the situation changes with Iran as soon as someone either finds an enormous untapped oil reserve or figures out a way to live without oil.

You're trying to get my goat, aren't you?

Oh, I uh, meant maybe the Army core of engineers should be working on that!