The cold war science fiction movie War Games had a very cold yet direct message to its audiences and the dispatch remains important to us, even more so, at this point of time too. A nuclear war has no clear winners and thereby, referring to Sun Tzu’s key principle in the Art of War, “a battle where no one wins must be avoided.” A nuclear war and its implications have always been a source of inspiration for several authors and filmmakers. It stems from a deep fear of a “mutually assured destruction” of civilization as we know it.
The Doomsday Clock has been a representative of how far we are from a situation of nuclear war. The Doomsday Clock is updated by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists based in Chicago and it has been maintained since 1947. The hypothetical global catastrophe is represented as “midnight” and the minute hand represents how far we are from that midnight. In 1991, post the Soviet collapse, it was the furthest away from the midnight, 17 minutes. The clock has been turned and has changed positions several times, 23 times to be precise, but never has it been more alarming than recently. In 2018, the clock was said to be only 2 minutes away from midnight due to the “looming possibility of climate change and nuclear war”
It is funny how Metal fans can relate to it, as epitomised by a famous Iron Maiden song which was quite rightly called “2 minutes to midnight”. The chorus of the song carries a blatant warning:
“The Hands that threaten Doom
Two minutes to midnight
To kill the unborn in the womb”
Now, I will not be referring to any political commentary by any world leader in reference to why this has been the most alarming period of human history. But this opportunity will be used to highlight why exactly we are not going to survive a nuclear holocaust if such a situation does arise in the future. We have come a long way since Dr. Oppenheimer’s infamous commentary after the success of the nuclear bomb testing, when he is supposed to have said (allegedly quoting the Bhagavad Gita) , “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”
Yes, we have become destroyers of worlds. The rate of development of nuclear technology peaked amidst the rising tensions during the Cold War, when certain ideologies involving the then Soviet Russia and United States put both of them in a collision course. It was an alarming period of time, but the tension peaked during the testing of the Soviet RDS-220 hydrogen Bomb, commonly known as the Tsar Bomba. The aspect which was truly alarming was that the bomb was named, in a rather unpopular manner, as Kuzma’s mother. This was believed to be a reference to Nikita Khrushchev’s statement in United Nations General Assembly in 1960, when he claimed that he would “show United States Kuzma’s mother”. He was intending to broach a Russian idiom which translates to, “we will show them”.
The Tsar Bomba was the most powerful explosive ever detonated, yielding a staggering 50 megatons of TNT. In fact, the initial plan envisioned of 100 megatons of TNT but that never happened, fortunately. The bomb was detonated at Sukhoy Nos cape of Severny Island, part of Novaya Zemlya. It was too big to be placed in a missile and too heavy for the planes to carry it with enough fuel. It was thereby carried in a release plane and the pilot Durnotsev and his crew were only given a dismal 50% chance of survival. The surprising fact was that the bomb which was expected to hit the ground was prevented from doing so by its own shockwave which reflected it back. The fireball was 8 km wide and was visible almost 1000 km away.
The mushroom cloud was about 64 km high—that is around 8 times the size of Mt. Everest. All buildings around a 55 km radius of ground zero were completely annihilated. It is said that a participant saw the bright flash from 270 km away with dark goggles and still felt the thermal pulse. In fact, the shockwave travelled the world around 3 times before it finally subsided. It was truly an alarming period of time in the midst of the show of power between nations.
But this is where the truly sinister shock is found. If an evaluation of the true capabilities of the Tsar Bomba is done, using the NUKEMAP software by Alex Wellerstein, if 10 of these bombs are used at key locations all around the world, around 2 billion of world’s population would get eliminated almost immediately. This does not even account for the long lasting effects of radiation and 3rd degree burns which several people will, inevitably, ultimately succumb to. Even a small scale nuclear war would have devastating effects on the planet. A research article by Dr. Mills proposes that even a local regional nuclear conflict, such as the India-Pakistan conflict would have devastating tolls on the planet’s ozone retention and protection capability. The ozone level would inevitably get decreased to alarming levels never before seen in human history, which would lead to a sudden fall in the Earth’s temperature, leading to possible frosts. Surface temperatures would go on decreasing for more than 25 years due to thermal inertia. This combination of cooling and less protection from the ozone layer would lead to enhanced UV rays from the sun, putting pressure on global food supplies that could lead to a global famine. This is only based on the assumption on equal use of artillery from both the sides though—which is clearly a very generous conjecture.
Nuclear war would have devastating effects on the planet’s resources and thereby would have a range of climatic effects which would surely spell doom for human civilisation. It is time we finally realized that there are no victors in this war. However, even the eradication of nuclear weapons places us in a catch-22 situation: There are no ways for the safe disposal of these weapons and a failure to handle them would only place them in the wrong hands. The technology which was expected to solve the energy crisis during the initial days of research has ended up being a nuisance of its own. War Games resonates with us as a cold reminder of a dystopia which lies beyond a nuclear catastrophe, that is if we survive it at all. Maybe with all the words and warnings, we could finally strive to push within us a sense of realization and maybe avoid the danger while there is still 2 minutes to the midnight.
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