Total Wipeout – Imagining Armageddon

Over the last week or so I’ve spent a lot of time picturing a desolate world of blackened ash under burning skies, with almost nothing left alive. (This fact is only subliminally connected to despair over the arrival of George Osborne’s thousand-year Reich.)

I’ve finally got around to reading a couple of books I’ve been meaning to get to for ages. The first was The Road by Cormac McCarthy (I know, it’s a decade old and they made a film of it with the Lord of the Rings bloke that was a bloke and not a hobbit or a wizard or whatever. No, not Sean Bean, the other one. I just never got round to reading it, OK?) The other was Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser. The first imagines a world after an unspecified Armageddon (possibly nuclear, though radiation isn’t mentioned); the second gives an awful lot of detail on how lucky we all are that a nuclear apocalypse was never set off by accident.

I had just turned seven when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, so didn’t grow up expecting to be vaporised any second, as the generation before must have done. Throughout my teenage years, the merciless red army that kept me awake at night as it crushed hope beneath its merciless jackboots was Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. And even the most hysterical football fan would struggle to say they were worse than a nuclear holocaust.

The prospect of Armageddon by some disaster has always held a ghoulish fascination for me, so the Schlosser book in particular was grist to my horrible mill. It is packed with stories of B-52 bombers laden with atomic or hydrogen bombs catching fire on the runway, or crashing, and in at least one instance a crew member accidentally dropped a bomb out of his plane after grabbed hold of the bomb-release handle by mistake. In one incident, in North Carolina in 1961, a four-megaton bomb fell from a burning aircraft and every arming mechanism on the bomb was activated apart from one single low-voltage switch – a safeguard that subsequently failed on a different flight a year later. A nuclear explosion would have been bad news for anyone within the blast zone, clearly, or anyone within a radioactive fallout zone that could have reached New York, depending on the wind. But maybe the biggest risk would have been a retaliatory strike on the USSR on the assumption that the US was under attack.

The book is full of stories of accidents, explosions, and military personnel ‘goofing around’ and getting high while handling nuclear weapons. One bomb disposal technician even apparently smuggled a dummy weapon out past security by slinging it under a tarp in the back of a pickup truck to disassemble in front of his girlfriend, with the training bomb taken from a bunker where real and dummy weapons were stored alongside one another. Interwoven between these stories is a blow-by-blow account of a missile that exploded spectacularly in its silo in Arkansas, killing one serviceman and injuring a number of others, although again without detonating its nuclear payload. The disaster occurred because one worker dropped a socket from a wrench that hit the missile and ruptured a fuel tank.

In some ways Command and Control is strangely reassuring, even though it portrays the history of American nuclear safeguarding as like a Marx Brothers farce presided over by the sort of people who’d keep a loaded gun next to their alarm clock with the safety off ‘just in case’. Despite all the slapstick japes the military was getting up to with dangerously under-safeguarded bombs, nothing ever went boom. It turns out it’s quite difficult to set off an atomic bomb accidentally, although for a very long time it was nowhere near difficult enough. And despite sensors falsely alerting commanders of an all-out attack because a technician put a war-game training tape in the machine, and despite senior generals actually advocating an unprovoked nuclear attack on the USSR from time to time for strategic reasons, the button was never pushed.

But as Schlosser points out, the litany of fiascos in his book relate primarily to the American arsenal, which for all its faults, has mostly had leading technology and a better general industrial safety record than, say, the USSR, China, India or Pakistan, not to mention marginally saner leaders than, say, North Korea. So although the specific risk is much lower that the whole of South East England will end up looking like a terrible barbecuing accident, there is still plenty out there for a worrier to obsess morbidly over.

Though I do like a good “what if” Armageddon scenario, partly fuelled by reading quite a few John Wyndham books as a teenager, I’m aware that in my version I’m always around to witness the aftermath. I’d always assume I’d be one of the survivors, scarred but unbowed, probably striding through the ashen landscape and heroically leading a band of predominantly-female stragglers who’d be enthusiastic to help me rebuild the human race. In actual fact, of course I’d far more likely just constitute part of the ash blowing around the place and getting stuck in the nostrils of someone actually heroic.

In Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic world, the survivors generally maintain stiff upper lips despite the peril, and enough of them maintain a basic level of decency to keep some form of civilisation together. It’s important for narrative to have some survivors, and not just a description of a shattered planet, observed by no-one. The Road is about as close as you can get to this latter model while still being an actual story with characters. The protagonists encounter no-one alive for much of the story, they’re gradually starving to death, and the few times they encounter other survivors, the people they meet tend to want to kill them and eat them. It’s hard to see how anyone left alive is doing anything but putting off the inevitable.

It’s not a happy book, but it’s very well written and it drags you along with it, wondering if somehow the author can conjure up a happy ending. *Spoiler alert*, he doesn’t. Not really. It’s bleak pretty much to the end, but an upbeat ending would have felt forced. Even the slight ray of hope they give the boy in the last couple of pages seems a bit contrived, though probably necessary. For the ending to be in keeping with the rest of the book he’d have had to be captured and harvested for his flesh by starving murderers or he’d just have had to lie down in a puddle of damp ash, bellowing like a wounded donkey and waiting for death. I’m not sure I could have taken that.

It’s an odd thing, and I’m sure it’s been pointed out elsewhere, that there seems to be nothing for anyone to eat in McCarthy’s wilderness but old tins and other people. Whatever the reason for his particular apocalypse (and he probably chose to keep it vague to stop this sort of pedantry) it’s hard to imagine what could have killed every single insect, worm, invertebrate and so on, while still leaving humans alive. Still, it’s a minor gripe and it doesn’t spoil the book.

Having read both of McCarthy’s and Schlosser’s books, I feel like I’ve maybe binged a bit on the hows, whys and what-nexts of the end of the world as we know it. Maybe now it’s time to move onto something lighter.

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