Friday, October 13, 2006

Back to The Bomb Again

An atomic bomb is an anachronism; at least, it ought to be. It entered our vocabulary close to the end of the Second World War. It dominated global realpolitik for the next fifty years. Just when we thought the new economics had made it obsolete, it's back with a vengeance. The world's newest player: North Korea, joining that very exclusive club of nuclear countries with two underground detonations just this week. It's the last gasp of the Cold War, and it just might breath life into the next.

No one under the age of twenty has lived through the Cold War. Those of us who did probably remember it in its gaudy colors, dominated by larger-than-life icons both fictional and real. John F Kennedy, Fidel Castro, the Berlin Wall, Mao Zedong, Nikita Kruschev, Leonid Brezhnev, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, James Bond, Dr. Strangelove, and Rambo. Looking back they all look so silly and harmless. We might ask ourselves what we were so afraid of.

Behind those symbols was The Bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in popular memory, it was something very real and very frightening. The United States, the Soviet Union, and China each built up an arsenal that could engulf the world in fiery holocaust several times over. Mutual Assured Destruction, they called it. Mad, indeed.

Yet it wasn't so much from The Bomb itself where the troubles lay, but rather from the environment that it created. With the superpowers safely locked in their nuclear standoff, the conflict shifted to proxy wars that could be fought with relative impunity. We know their names: Korea, Viet Nam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Afghanistan.

If even these countries seem remote, look what The Bomb wrought us. Ferdinand Marcos flourished because of the Cold War, his crimes against the country overlooked in favor of the regional balance of power.

Now we're back to The Bomb again. Perhaps North Korea is just using The Bomb as another tool for leverage in its game of international brinksmanship. Yet the palpable danger lies in the country's unpredictability. It's not just that North Korea has destructive designs on its neighbors, it's also the real possibility that North Korea will peddle its nuclear weapons to those who do.

If North Korea has The Bomb, then how many steps will it be to the next nuclear power? Who will be next? Will it be Iran? Will it be Syria? Will it be Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda? The question is not one of If, but When. Like as not, the response from the United States and Israel will not be gentle.

So we're on the edge of another age of uncertainty. Will tenuous sanity and bare instinct for survival win over zealotry and cultural ascendancy? No mere clash of economics and ideology now, but one of faith and sense of destiny. The Bomb, unfortunately, has outlived the Cold War. The next one could be very, very hot.

God help us all.


  1. The likes of Ferdinand Marcos is back... and it's not because of The Bomb. This time it's in the name of War of Terror. 50 years of Cold War never produced as much casualty as 5 years of War on Terror.

    And it looks like the War on Terror might go on for another 45 years...

  2. Thanks for the comment, Benz. Yes, the War on Terror is quickly reaching disastrous proportions. See Sir Richard Dannat's comments.

    Some points I would dispute, though: (1) the proxy wars of the Cold War did have very high body counts, and we shouldn't discount those. (2) I think there's a greater recognition that propping up dictatorships contributes more to terrorism, what with the tangled web of financial money laundering. On the other hand, that dictatorships still do thrive is more a result of muddled policies.

  3. Why the big hype about nuclear technology, can germ warfare not be even more horrific? A simple test tube could wipe out a whole continent.

  4. Hi, Mick, thanks for visiting.

    Nuclear weapons sound so passe, but in comparison to other means of mass destruction, they have the advantage of historical demonstrability.

    Germ warfare, for the moment, is still theory. The anthrax attacks in the US a few years ago had very limited scope and seemed to be targeted instead at specific individuals. Even the dreaded Ebola seems to have a self-limiting effect.

    The most recent international germ scenario that comes to mind, one that comes close to what you posit, is SARS. Widespread effects covering several continents, quite contagious during its early stages. But as you can see, the effects have also been limited.

  5. I don't think there has been a succesful use of biological wepaon on a large scale. The Japanese Imperial Army tried it in China during WWII but I'm not sure if it was effecive.

    A virus/bacteria/parasite that kills too quickly does have a self-limiting effect. Successfull virus/bacteria/parasite weakens but doesn't kill. Common colds, flu (usually), parasitic worms...