DANIEL Ellsberg’s chilling book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner has kept me riveted recently. How would the 2018 book have had any inkling of the Covid-19 disaster stalking the world today? And yet Ellsberg records an amazing human paradox we have lived with for decades, a paradox that toggles between unbridled blood lust and a mortal fear of dying, of seeking to expand human lifespan manifold, brimming with prospects of a greener, happier earth, and of being ready to blow it all up in smoke.
Consider a human ritual often seen in executing condemned convicts — the medical test performed before the prisoner walks to the gallows, or before the lethal injection or the electric chair. Saudi Arabia sedates them before publicly beheading the people it finds deserving of death. So humane. A haunting movie by Gulzar comes to mind, in which the army officer is to be hanged for murdering his wife, but the prisoner attempts a jailbreak and is critically shot. The doctors rejoice at saving the officer’s life but are stupefied to watch him being escorted to the waiting hangman right when he has completely healed.
In more ways than one, the invisible visitor has turned the world upside down.
Observe the bizarreness in a larger world. By unexpectedly rejecting the Security Council proposal last week to put a temporary freeze on ongoing military conflicts around the world in order to fight the pandemic jointly, the US, after initially agreeing to the draft, underscored a peculiar irony. The country is fighting with its back to the wall against the virus that has taken a prohibitive toll of American lives. But President Donald Trump, to use his own words, is keeping his nuclear options cocked and loaded for any eventuality. Ergo, should we survive the Covid-19 outbreak, which is not entirely unlikely, we could yet be dragged to the knackers en masse more sure-footedly. According to the ticking hands of the Doomsday Clock, which currently stand at 100 seconds to midnight, the possibility of a local conflict spiralling out of control looks nearly imminent.
South Asia has three nuclear-armed countries living cheek by jowl in a tense atmosphere. Around this time last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on his way to sweeping the elections after projecting his macho nationalism, replete with nuclear sinews, to claim popular support. For the first time in decades, Indian and Pakistani warplanes engaged each other. The news from the Line of Control today is not any more reassuring than it has been, the daily barrage of cross-LoC mortar shelling not being the best confidence-instilling condition between nuclear-armed rivals.
Modi’s handling of ties with China has not been the best India has managed either. On Saturday, according to Indian newspapers, there was yet another face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the Sikkim area. The particular news came a day after reports surfaced of a border dispute with Nepal flaring up into a diplomatic row. It concerned India’s plans to open a shorter road for Hindu pilgrims to Mansarovar in Tibet. His communally tainted immigration laws passed recently have offended Modi’s closest friend in the region, Bangladesh. The growing Chinese and US rivalry in Sri Lanka brings along an utterly new threat with it.
Ellsberg quoted Kennedy as quizzing his military chiefs at the height of the stand-off with Moscow, the answer to which had implications for South Asia. “If your plans for general (nuclear) war are carried out, how many will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?” The generals said 275 million would die instantly, rising to 325m in six months.
There was reference to impact on India and Afghanistan though they were not targeted. Pakistan was not mentioned. A hundred million additional deaths were predicted in Eastern Europe from direct attacks on Warsaw Pact bases. Another 100m could be killed from fallout in Western Europe, depending on which way the wind blew. “But regardless of the season, another hundred million deaths, at least, were predicted from fallout in the mostly neutral countries adjacent to the Soviet bloc and China, including Finland, Sweden, Austria, Afghanistan, India and Japan. Finland, for example, would be wiped out by fallout from US ground-burst explosions on the Soviet submarine pens in Leningrad.” All told 600m would be killed. “A hundred Holocausts.”
It is amazing how people who would never tire of flaunting their nuclear muscles as essential national identity, seem so mortally terrified at the prospect of death by viral pandemic. It is a terrifying prospect, no doubt, and it should strike fear for the ease with which it has crossed into practically every country in the world. In more ways than one, the invisible visitor has turned the world upside down. People are pondering a new normal as it were. Could we find a way to keep the skies blue and the air breathable as it has become recently, people are wondering. Can we do away with rampant consumerism to ease the burden on the environment? After all 7m die every year of inhaling polluted air. Can we cut our inequalities to tame our debilitating strife?
People are demanding better screening for the virus, more tests, improved medical preparedness to ward off the threat of death and disease that has been spreading since January. Lust for life is natural; so what goes wrong when it comes to suicide by nuclear weapons? India in particular stands out in endorsing untenable acts of global violence. When the rest of the world, including a huge number of Americans, were seeing George W. Bush as a pariah for being a warmonger, a Pew survey showed one country as loving him — India.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2020