For this column, rather than explore the trope of nuclear war, I set out to find an answer to the question that’s been knocking around in my head ever since — in August of 2016 — we found out that President Trump once asked his advisers, “if we have (nuclear weapons), why can’t use them?” I wondered, what fictional accounts of nuclear war and its aftermath are most highly recommended by people who think about national security for a living?
I thought I might find a rich vein to mine. I’ve long held that the fields of science fiction and political science share some common DNA: both attract people interested in coming up with big answers to big problems, both require a willing suspension of disbelief in coming up with alternative futures that other people can’t see. And to judge by my own experience in Washington, political professionals seem to have above-average interest in sci-fi and fantasy.
I cheated by starting with two friends who I knew shared my love of the genre.
Dan Drezner teaches international politics at Tufts University’s Fletch School of Law and Diplomacy. He has also written a book entitled “Theories of International Politics and Zombies,” in which, well, he takes various theories of international relations and applies them to a war with zombies. He had some great suggestions!
- The “A Taste of Armageddon” episode of the original Star Trek: “In which a war between two planets was reduced to a computerized simulation that required citizens to report for execution on a scheduled basis. The point was that by turning war into a civilized exercise, it became tolerable enough for both sides to let it continue without negotiation. Weirdly, it's an argument for the logic of mutually assured destruction.”
- Night of the Living Dead: It’s not about nuclear war per se, but it has a message about how people behave in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Drezner pointed out, “Unusually, the zombies are defeated in the end. Before that, however, all efforts at human cooperation to fight the zombies break down.”
My pal Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. Also he is a cat person who games. He actually uses a science fiction novel about nuclear war in his classes. He recommended:
- Warday: “Stylistically a predecessor of World War Z, written as a non-fiction future history, looking back at the war by two investigators making their way across a destroyed America, from California (relatively untouched, and the site of the U.S. government) to the New York ‘Red Zone,’ a salvage operation to pull apart what's left of the city. I still assign it to my students, even as it's gone out of print. It's quiet, factual, full of interesting details and documents as though unearthed by investigative reporters -- and that's what makes it so unnerving.”
- A Canticle for Leibowitz: “About a desolate future in which people are so angry at the way technology was used to destroy the world that knowledge is kept as a kind of secret treasure by religious orders. (Sound familiar?) What's most depressing is that the world learns from the last war... and then makes the same mistakes again anyway.”
- Fallout 3 and 4: “A twisted, retro, yet haunting take on the postapocalyptic genre. Even though it's just a game, it's hard for a New Englander to stand on the beach of Nahant and look at the beautifully realized skyline of post-nuclear Boston.”
All in all, I was feeling pretty clever about my conceit.
And then last Saturday, the whole world — and Hawaii most particularly — shifted from maybe imagining a post-apocalyptic future to suddenly planning on it, and I began to understand why many of the nuclear weapons experts I had contacted for recommendations responded with polite but tangible chilliness. One person at an anti-nuclear proliferation organization suggested I “Google ‘nuclear war books,’” where I might find “a number of fictional accounts…Good luck.”
Another think tank fellow told me, “I have long stayed away from fiction about nuclear war because it's frankly too upsetting.”
Jeffery Lewis, who Tweets as @armscontrolwonk, and teaches the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, suggested a few movies but then admitted, “It’s hard to do well, especially given that we have the real-life horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Basically, the people I had gone to for guidance about fictional accounts of nuclear war were not able to be that helpful because they were busy worrying about the real thing. Even those that wanted to offer assistance couldn’t keep their remarks in the realm of fantasy.
Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations, enthusiastically recommend Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, noting that it’s a favorite in the military, where apparently even officers reference favorite lines such as “There’s no fighting in the war room!” I responded to this revelation with “LOL,” but he shot down my virtual laughter: “This is dead serious. When you have POTUS wanting to whip out his ‘nuclear button’ to show that it's bigger than ‘Rocket Man’s’ we've entered a realm of satire come to life but with possibly deadly consequences.”
Alexandra Bell, Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, gave me a list that included most of the above as well as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and graphic novels The Watchmen, Where the Wind Blows and Barefoot Gen.
She speculated that syllabus I was putting together was probably a little dated: “After the end of the Cold War, writers (novels, tv or film) generally abandoned the topic of nuclear war. It makes no sense, since two existential threats to humanity are climate change and nuclear war.” But, she said, there's a “strange silver lining” to fact that our imminent destruction feels more and more like a real possibility: “People are talking about nuclear weapons again. I wonder if that will translate into more nuclear fiction.”
Can that silver lining prevent an actual mushroom cloud? Thoughts on the possibilities and limits of nuclear fiction having an impact on nuclear fact will come in another column.