“What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening to use nuclear weapons. And we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons. The intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves. Nuclear weapons can kill a human being a dozen times over in a dozen different ways; and, before death — like certain spiders, like the headlights of cars — they seem to paralyze.
Indeed they are remarkable artifacts. They derive their power from an equation: when a pound of uranium-235 is fissioned, the liberated mass within its 1,132,000,000,-000,000,000,000,000 atoms is multiplied by the speed of light squared — with the explosive force, that is to say, of 186,000 miles per second times 186,000 miles per second. Their size, their power, has no theoretical limit. They are biblical in their anger. They are clearly the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet, and they are mass-produced, and inexpensive. In a way, their most extraordinary single characteristic is that they are manmade. They distort all life and subvert all freedoms. Somehow, they give us no choice. Not a soul on earth wants them, but here they all are.
And the trouble with deterrence is that it can’t last out the necessary time-span, which is roughly between now and the death of the sun. Already it is falling apart from within.”
Pulled from the introduction to Martin Amis’s collection of stories about the nuclear world Einstein’s Monsters.
Because Kingsley, Martin’s father, is in my opinion the funniest post-war writer, I have to include the following anecdote, which comes only a few pages later:
I argue with my father about nuclear weapons. In this debate, we are all arguing with our fathers… [he] regards nuclear weapons as an unbudgeable given.
Anyone who has read my father’s work will have some idea of what he is like to argue with. When I told him that I was writing about nuclear weapons, he said, with a lilt, “Ah. I suppose you’re … ‘against them,’ are you?” Epater les bien-pensants is his rule. (Once, having been informed by a friend of mine that an endangered breed of whales was being systematically turned into soap, he replied, “It sounds like quite a good way of using up whales.” Actually he likes whales, I think, but that’s not the point.) I am reliably ruder to my father on the subject of nuclear weapons than on any other, ruder than I have been to him since my teenage years. I usually end by saying something like, “Well, we’ll just have to wait until you old bastards die off one by one.” He usually ends by saying something like, “Think of it. Just by closing down the Arts Council we could significantly augment our arsenal. The grants to poets could service a nuclear submarine for a year. The money spent on a single performance of Rosenkavalier might buy us an extra neutron warhead. If we closed down all the hospitals in London we could…” The satire is accurate in a way, for I am merely going on about nuclear weapons; I don’t know what to do about them.
We abandon the subject. Our sessions end amicably. We fall to admiring my one-year-old son. Perhaps he will know what to do about nuclear weapons. I, too, will have to die off. Perhaps he will know what to do about them. It will have to be very radical, because there is nothing more radical than a nuclear weapon and what it can do.
I apologize for the extended break — personal business. I promise to try to make it up in the next few weeks.
- Bernard Baruch, who still, over seventy years on, can claim to have created the sanest proposal for dealing with nukes, argues we need an international law with teeth
- Also from Monsters: Is the world getting worse?
- Hooman Majd on the difference between Sunnis, Shias, Arabs, and Persians