Into the Arena!
My thoughts on the bomb....

Barrington J. Bayley

This article is available here by kind courtesy of the author. Originally published in Vector, October 1983. Copyright Barrington J. Bayley, 1983. Read This.
Many people will not know that I was trained for nuclear war. No, I wasn't arming the bombs or speeding bravely Stalingradwards in a subsonic bomber. I was to be on the receiving end. But not quite, either. With luck, and the lengthy prewarning politicians then and now insist will precede nuclear attack (with what justification I have never been able to fathom) I would have received my reserve call-up notice and to be placed outside the target areas.

This was in 1957, still close enough to World War II for atomic war to seem, well, almost natural. The cold war, then, had a paranoid quality it is hard to appreciate now. A few months after the time I was speaking of, I was hauled out of a pub by Scotland Yard on suspicion of being a Soviet Spy. That was what you got for discussing atomic tests in West End pubs in those days - some eavesdropper had made a phone call. (Wanta hear the whole horror story of my life? Previously I had also been a guinea pig at Porton Down, where I was dosed with nerve gas.)

What happened was that at the end of our two years national service loads of us air force blokes were sent on a month-long course in firefighting. After nuclear attack a lot of the country would be on fire, and it was to be our job to put it out. It was a pretty good, interesting course (though my most vivid memory is of the instructors trying to stifle their mirth at my falling over the hoses I was supposed to be running out), and the preparations, I thought, were impressive. As you can imagine, rather more water would be required to deal with the conflagration than was likely to be found in any particular spot, so it was to be pumped from the sea, through a network of pipelines we were to set up in hours. We practised clipping together lengths of big polythene pipe as they were thrown out of the back of a lorry, connecting them at intervals to very effective portable pumps powered by an adapted racing car engine, or something like that.

Remember the Green Goddess fire engines that were trundled out during the firemen's strike? This scheme is the reason they were there. We were trained on them, and a vast number were stashed away somewhere to await the Day. I shudder to recollect it. Any sprog among us who had ever driven anything, whether he had a licence or not, was allowed to take the wheel of one of those things and go careering about the countryside.

Five strikes were anticipated: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, and I forget where the fifth was due (I will not unkindly suggest making doubly sure of either Glasgow or Birmingham). It was assumed they would be big bombs. My memory is hazy over the details, but I seem to recall that no operations were planned within a radius of thirty-five miles. After some weeks, we were told, teams might be sent in to take a look.

Why only five bombs? Because five were sufficient, from the enemy's point of view. But really, because many more than that and there was scarcely any point in laying these plans...

Well, here we are a quarter of a century later, the Green Goddesses are out of date, I don't know what happened to the Great Firefighting Scheme but I imagine it has been quietly discarded, and the bombs still haven't arrived. What went wrong?

Seriously, it has occurred to me to move my family and myself to Ireland and relative safety. (We live next door to an army depot at present. Half a mile off course and the SS20 warhead could detonate directly over my chimney). But in Ireland my children would have to go to catholic schools run by the church, would have to be attending confession and mass and whatever all the time, and would be raised in the looniest society on Earth.

Faced with the choice between Irish religion and the Bomb, I elected to stay here, and at least give them a chance.

Still, I have this nightmare. By some horrible mischance I have survived the nuclear holocaust. But so have hordes of Greenham Common peace women, all smugly screeching "We told you so!!"

That would be more than a body could bear.

To be properly serious, I have two attitudes to CND. I admire the people who have put their effort into it over the years. It's good to know somebody is trying to save civilization. Perhaps it will influence the thinking of future generations. But, I must observe, that is all it can do. It cannot remove the peril that we are going to face. In all probability that peril will be removed; but by parties and means which, I suspect, would not meet the approval of some of CND's supporters.

The most that CND can achieve in the practical sense is the disarmament of our own country, and that is neither here nor there. Our standpoint then becomes a simple pacifist one: if we are attacked by a nuclear power we shall instantly surrender. Then the enemy will only hit us with one or two bombs, as a punishment or a frightener, or if we are submissive enough, perhaps not hit us at all.

But that does not spare us from the future enemy who decides to annihilate Britain purely from the motive of hatred; or because it is easier to have us all dead than to have to deal with us again at a later date. And, notwithstanding our view of ourselves as jolly good fellows, the world has plenty of people who hate us. My personal preference is that they should continue to fear us, also.

(There is, to be sure, a more general argument for renouncing nuclear weapons: 'Even if the enemy annihilate us, they at least will have survived, and civilization will be able to continue. After all, suppose I am commander of a missile-carrying submarine. My country has just been utterly destroyed. I have received the order to carry out my duty and wipe out the majority of the Soviet Union in retribution. Will I launch my missiles, murdering men, women and children by the hundred million? No, I don't think so. I think I might be more inclined to shoot the members of my crew who attempted to see to it that the order was carried out. But for that reason alone, I am the most unlikely commander of a Polaris submarine.)

Of course, there are wars and wars. Some are no more than scuffles, usually over some piece of territory somewhere (such as the recent scrap in the south Atlantic) where the winner takes the prize and the loser retires with bad grace to lick his wounds, muttering that there will be another time. The Argentinians could have felt no nervousness that we might nuke the Buenos Aires (we wouldn't do that, would we, chaps?). Then there are more serious wars over who if anyone is to dominate or rule the region where the belligerents both live. These can get quite bitter, and Europe has been the scene of many of them. Finally there are wars to the death, where one nation seeks to obliterate another. Such was the Hitler was against the Slav nations of eastern Europe.

It is was type 2 that the current argument seems to be centred on. Myself, I think the whole debate is a non sequitur. The only logical aim I can see in the currently peddled political line of 'multilateral disarmament' which means mutual disarmament by the western alliance and the Soviet Union, or of 'raising the nuclear threshold', is 'let's find a way not to use nuclear weapons so we can have a bloody good war, like we used to.'

Ask yourself what's new about nuclear weapons. The razing of cities, the wilful extermination of populations, the destruction of civilization? None of these things are new. They are not even nearly new. They are old, old traditions.

Two things are new, and I will take Newness no. 1 first. It is that all this, instead of taking a long time, can now be accomplished in half an hour; and at present, no one can defend himself against it.

But isn't that all to the good? Events that take a long time to develop are much more likely to come about by accident.

There's a supposedly true story of a contest of nerves between an English officer and a French officer. Each was to sit on a barrel of gunpowder and light the fuse. The winner was to be the one who stayed on his barrel longest.

The Englishman's nerve broke first and the Frenchman won. But that was because he knew that, actually, the barrels were empty.

Would the death-struggle between Germany and Russia have taken place if both those countries had been armed as we now are? No, it would not. But don't take my word for it. Listen to the master of terror himself: Adolf Hitler, the man who described 'the overwhelming fear of imminent death' as the most effective political instrument.

When Peenemunde finally got the V2 working Hitler, like most Nazi leaders, went to have a look at it. Now the big feature of the V2, as the Germans saw it, was its invulnerability: once launched, there was absolutely no defence against it. Hitler immediately decided that here was a war-winning weapon. Disappointed that it could carry only one ton of high explosive, he declared that he wanted 'annihilation effect', and ordered a first salvo of 30,000 missiles to be fired against London (only 10,000 had been manufactured by the war's end).

At the same time, Hitler made an interesting remark to his aide. "From now on wars will become impossible. Humanity will not be able to bear it."

Though not knowing whether the atomic bomb was even practicable (a mixture of accident and funk on the part of the German physicists seems to have kept him in the dark about that) he had correctly prophesied the nuclear age.

It is largely on Hitler's reassurance that I fail to feel that we are tottering constantly on the edge of annihilation. One has to distinguish here between the irrational and the merely wicked. Despite being 'a monster of wickedness', as Churchill called him, Hitler was rational. Of course, it might be debatable whether the war-preventing properties of the Bomb are in all circumstances a good thing. A few decades-worth of technical progress would have held Hitler back from his fatal adventure, ensuring the survival of Nazi Germany, with the consequence that the doctrine of the master race would today be respectable and fashionable, as Marxism is... Be that as it may, I base my lack of real alarm on the belief that the leaders of North America, Western Europe and the Soviet Union, however else they might be criticised, are at least as rational as Hitler. Some evidence of their rationality comes from the fact that the 'arms limitation' agreements are in reality the reverse - what they ensure is that there remains no defence against nuclear attack: no anti-ballistic-missile system, no first-strike-without-response; that the weapon the rocket engineers put in Hitler's hands stays invulnerable, that there is gunpowder in the barrels, and if you're stupid enough to light the fuse then you bloody well stay on till the end.

The trouble is, we then come to Newness No. 2...

Newness No. 2 is only slowly emerging. It is that the capability for mass destruction ceases to be the special preserve of large, powerful nations. It becomes available to all, even to poor, ill-organised states, or to private armies.

There is no guarantee of rationality in the weltering world at large. Racial nationalism (the political foundation of those two small nations said already to have equipped themselves with nuclear arsenals), fanatical religion, wanton violence, holy war, insane pride, crazed dictators with as little regard for the survival of their own countries as for anyone else's, emotionally unstable, with every kind of mental aberration - the wide world has them all, and the Bomb will shortly be at their service.

It is mainly countries like ourselves, long possessors of these weapons, who proceed to sermonise on how abhorrent they are. Others can't wait to get their hands on them, such as the black African professor - I think a Nigerian - who recently gave a series of talks on the radio. The titles - 'Africa's Humiliation', etc. etc. - give some indication of their tone. Turning on the radio for some background noise one day, I found myself listening to one of these talks, in which he outlined what the future history of Africa was to be. First on the programme, of course, was the revolution in South Africa, after which (one could glean from his tone of satisfaction) the whole continent would be in the hands of the Negro race, which was as it should be. About the next stage our softly-spoken professor was equally unequivocal. Africa must develop the nuclear bomb. The nannies of white northern children, he said, used to tell them that if they didn't behave a big black man would come and get them. "What the world needs is a big black man waving nuclear weapons to frighten northern politicians into doing as they are told."

This educated savage should be heeded. He's pointing us into the future. And he's not arguing: he's telling us.

From what direction might our peril come, as the 21st century rolls along? An Ayatollah, enraged by some British insult to Allah and the Prophet, sending his nuclear Sword of Islam to cleanse the Earth? A grinning Idi Amin, munching on human liver, bent on exterminating the white race so that Africa can take its place in history? Will it be a future Galtieri, maddened with machismo, and having another go at the Falklands, who pre-empts our possible recovery operation by doing what I was trained for in 1957, namely zapping London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham - or Glasgow?

There are people who will object to these cameos because they are at odds with their wishes for the future. But no one's wishes have anything to do with it: they are only selective filters for gaining a false picture of the world. It's easy to know what's liable to happen in the future: just look at what happened in the past, or is happening now. Who would have thought the rulers of a country would institute a programme to exterminate between one third and one half of its own population? Yet that happened recently in Cambodia.

There was nothing unique or unprecedented about the Nazi death camps: that's what you've got to understand in coming to terms with the Bomb. As for war, it's as natural as rain. Man has an instinct for war. To believe otherwise is a species of religious delusion, like believing that the natural food of the tiger is grass. (A recent article in Watchtower, the journal of Jehovah's Witnesses, explains that before the Fall of Man the tiger lived on grass. The entire animal kingdom was vegetarian, and will be again when God remakes the Earth.) Man is what he is: at his worst, the worst of the beasts in a savage world, capable of every conceivable ... shall we say, unpleasantness?

Longterm peace is what is unnatural. It can only be maintained by artificial means, against the will of prospective belligerents. Actually, the horrors I have outlined above should be self-correcting. It is not unimaginable, for instance, that the loopy dictator of some parched, primitive state, whose illiterate subjects subsist on mealy meal and scratch the earth with a stick, could find the wherewithal to despatch a few thousand cheaply made nukes, skimming over the land and sea in almost costless doodlebugs from a Japanese cash-n'-carry, to devastate a continent. All the nations of the world are at his mercy!

Who is going to put up with that?

Because of it, one can predict with fair probability the political shape of the 21st century. It will resemble the 19th, in being an age of empires. The imperative of security will cause the major powers, whoever they happen to be at the time, to divide the rest of the world up between them, and rule it -- firmly. It really is rather hard to see how else the world can be made safe.

Untrustworthy, unstable countries will doubtless be ruled outright. To others, varying degrees of 'limited sovereignty' can apply, ranging to almost complete independence - but with one well-understood condition. 'If it even begins to look like it has crossed your minds to arm yourselves, we shall occupy you by lunchtime. Or if we are feeling impatient, nuke you in our morning tea-break.' (Put the samovar on, Ivan)

It could be worse. There have always been empires; there are empires now, and there's no reason to think there won't be more empires in the future. What will happen nest is another question; history is persistently mutable. One argument CND has, I believe, is that if nuclear weapons continue to exist then the worst will happen sooner or later. If that is so then the case is hopeless, because the only way for them to disinvent themselves is to destroy the societies that know how to make them.

I've heard that this business of keeping the natives quiet was the sort of thing the British used to do fairly well. But not any more. Whose 'sphere of control' will we belong to in the next shake-out, I wonder?

Put the samovar on, Ivan...

copyright Barrington J. Bayley, 1983

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