Monday, January 16, 2017

The Speculated Aftermath of Global Nuclear War

     I could go on about literary allusions in 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' which would be fun but I want to discuss his predictions about our future. While I was growing up, the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over us all. The nukes are still here but the powers that held them seemed to realize that there was no winning a nuclear engagement. So the Iron Curtain fell, Russia became if, not an ally, no longer our enemy.
     Part of the reason for nuclear pacts between Russia and the U.S. was due to the emotional impact of a 'made for television' film called "The Day After" made by Nicholas Meyer. Meyer had the idea of showing in as realistic way as possible what the aftermath of a nuclear war would look like. It appears from articles written about the production that he faced an uphill battle in showing the best guesses with no embellishment of any kind. It aired on ABC on November 20, 1983 to the largest audience a movie ever had. Its record stands. I was one of the audience that day.
     Walter Miller started his story six hundred years after the war with few snippets of information of what took place to devastate the planet. The reason for the 'flame deluge' is not given except that the Church taught that pride lead to world leaders ignoring their wise men and using the weapons given to them that were to guarantee lasting peace. Miller states the war ended within weeks or days. The film would give it but less than one day. Cities became puddles of glass, surrounded by vast acreages of broken stone. The strikes killed all life human, animal, fish and avian near the cities. Fallout killed large numbers of the rest. The few survivors roamed in search of safe places to live. In the years following, there was plague, hunger and madness and then came the Simplification, in which anyone who had any kind of learning was blamed for the bombs and killed.
     Meyer's film deals with the immediate aftermath of the war. He created a number of characters near a small city, Kansas City, and a possible prelude to war is reported in the background on radio and television as these characters go about their lives. Twenty-five years separate the creation of the two stories. The film is an accurate snapshot of a point in time six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It does not try to predict the future, it attempted to show what would happen if war broke out that year. For those of us following today's news, the U.S. mobilizations near the border of Russia and the invasion of Germany give one that sense of deja vu. The U.S. claims to hold the moral high ground and that it holds the right to police the rest of the world's nuclear ambitions and yet it is the only country to have used a bomb against a civilian population.
     Unlike Miller, Meyer knew the strikes would not just target large urban centers; they would also target military installations like missile silos, which were located in remote rural locations, so the devastation would be total. Meyer follows a few survivors as they bury their dead and slowly one by one succumb to radiation sickness.  The last scene is of one of the women giving birth in a clinic with no doctor and her scream at the sight of her child, who is not shown. It is a chilling for those who saw the intercontinental missiles leave and knowing they had 30 minutes at most before the response came. A professor rigs up a geiger counter and listens as the numbers climb, "Here it comes", he says.
    Miller felt that the radiation would cause many children born in the aftermath to be mutants and monsters. The aftermath of the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not show this to be the case. There was a slight increase in some defects but no two headed or otherwise deformed children were born. Agent Orange, a tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, used as a defoliation agent in the Vietnam War created worse defects in the offspring of those exposed to it.
     Meyer, too, felt that the radiactive fallout would doom people to a short life and a death by cancer although the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lived full lives and experienced only a slightly higher level of cancer. Of course the entire surface of the world had not been carpeted with bombs, nor is it to be expected that the entire world surface would be destroyed. Some countries will not be targets.
    In 1982, Jonathen Schell published The Fate of the Earth, a look at nuclear war and its aftermath. He began by explaining the science behind nuclear fission, and the destructive effects of a bomb which, unlike a conventional explosive, has many. At the moment of explosion, the heat would be as hot as the stars and the pressure many times that of the atmosphere. Immediately radiation, i.e. gamma rays, would stream out as an electromagnetic pulse. Above the earth, this pulse would have the effect of knocking out electrical equipment by inducing a huge surge of voltage but that has never been tested. When fusion and fission have worn themselves out, a fireball takes shape. It absorbs xrays from the environment as it grows which then radiates back into the environment as a thermal pulse, a wave of blinding light and intense heat. This lasts about ten seconds and as it expands it emits a blast wave in all directions, flattening all but the strongest buildings and condensing air from the surrounding environment to create the mushroom cloud. A crater would be formed and the dust and dirt would mix in with the cloud. This dust and dirt is what will be the fallout as it returns to earth. Then there are the secondary effects on society and the environment which Schell (and Miller) thought might be even more destructive. There is also delayed worldwide fallout, the lofting of tons of debris from earth into the atmosphere and a resulting nuclear winter, and the third longterm effect would be the destruction of the ozone layer. He felt the primary concern was not how many people would die in the initial blast but if the ecosphere, particularly the ozone layer, could survive. He admitted to the true results not being known; it would still be better to speculate than to find out by experience.
     He went on to describe first hand accounts from survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the added info that the bombs did not touch the ground so very little dirt mixed into the cloud and the fallout was thereby minimal. Schell predicted that much of the U.S. would become a republic of grass and insects as these would survive the high doses of radiation. For most of life, he states a nuclear war would be a global extinction event.
      So the questions for most are - would there be any survivors and would that life be worth having and there is no answer for those.
     Ironically in the film, a pastor thanks God for destroying the destroyers of the earth. The president undaunted, releases a broadcast stating there had been no surrender, no retreat from principals of freedom and democracy. At a meeting of farmers discussing a government pamphlet to reconstruction generates some anger at the incongruities of the information but the film maker does not speculate if there would be a later backlash against science. One suspects people will be too desperate for medical aid and other comforts to want to destroy what little is left. 

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