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Op/ed: Why We Obsess Over the Details of a Nuclear Apocalypse

Doomsday Speculations, Paradoxically, Can Provide Comfort in Uncertain Times, UMD Scholar Says

By Matthew Kirschenbaum

Russian ICBM missile launchers move during the Victory Day military parade marking 71 years after the victory in WWII in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2016.

Russian ICBMs roll through Red Square in 2016 in a Victory Day parade. Working out doomsday scenarios on paper, writes a UMD scholar, is a time-honored way to come to terms with a frightening world.

Photo by AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File

When English Professor Matthew Kirschenbaum saw the news about the possibility of transferring surplus Polish military jets to Ukraine to help fight off the Russian invasion, his wargaming side kicked in. Soon the digital humanities scholar and editor of “Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming” had posted a scenario in an online forum in which things go awry—badly—and Russia launches a limited nuclear strike.

Rather than an exercise in wallowing in despair, he writes in an essay in The Washington Post, such activities can be unexpectedly comforting, because telling yourself a range of stories—including scary ones—about what could come true is a way to help feel prepared for what actually does.

When you read news analyses with titles like “Four Ways the War in Ukraine Might End” or “Four Scenarios for the Pandemic’s Next Act,” you’re reading a genre that originated in 1950s-era Cold War think tanks, collectives of brainiacs whose jobs were to think the unthinkable—and to think it not just in the abstract, but to play it out, step by step. In such speculative games, World War III has already been fought and refought a countless number of times, whether with pen and paper on legal pads or with computer chips. These games for thinking the unthinkable were known as scenarios to the people who played them. Because a nuclear war could only ever be rehearsed as a hypothetical, think tanks like the RAND Corporation treated the current geopolitical matrix as a kind of jukebox, constantly arranging and rearranging variables to work through endless permutations of possible futures. None of the scenarios would ever be exactly right, of course, but they allowed the nuclear war planners — who may have been only deceiving themselves — to believe they had some control over events. As the history of this genre proves, scenarios can’t predict the future, but they can help us come to terms with the anxiety of a volatile present.

Scenarios are instruments for war planners and policymakers, but they are also forms of fiction. They tell stories about what might be, about possible worlds. Often, the think tank scenarios went into great detail about the chain of events that could trigger a nuclear war, inventing plot twists and developments that could be mistaken for newspaper headlines. Historian Peter Galison aptly described them as “state science fiction.” Eventually, the scenarios began to leak out of the Cold War think tanks and became woven into the fabric of popular culture. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, “Dr. Strangelove,” was the first glimpse for many of this dark, twisted world of “fail safes” and “mineshaft gaps.” The character of Strangelove was based on a real person, the nuclear wargamer Herman Kahn who was working for RAND when he wrote a 700-page treatise called, modestly, “On Thermonuclear War.”

Read the rest of the essay in The Washington Post.

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