We Were All Equal In The End

And as the windshield melts
My tears evaporate
Leaving only charcoal to defend.
Finally I understand the feelings of the few.
Ashes and diamonds
Foe and friend
We were all equal in the end.

– Pink Floyd, “Two Suns In The Sunset

Effects of a nuclear test, 1955, Nevada

Years ago, I swore that I’d never begin a blog post or an article with a quote from a song. Yet, here I am, quoting from the Pink Floyd song, “Two Suns in the Sunset”. There’s a reason I’ve been hooked on this song for several decades: it reminds me of the nightmares I used to have as a kid growing up during the Cold War. In my dreams, there’d be a sudden flash and a mushroom cloud on the horizon. then a horrifying silence in which I was gasping for breath.. and that was it. The world was gone, and I always woke up surprised to find that the world as I knew it was still there, and the men in power hadn’t decided to complete the deadly game of chess that they’d started in the late 1940s.

If you haven’t already guessed, this blog post is going to be partly personal, and partly about policy and history.

I’ll start with the personal stuff.

“You stretch the frozen moments with your fear…”

Two weeks ago, I woke up with a strange pain underneath the edge of my left ribcage, and a strange feeling of anxiety that wasn’t really connected to anything except perhaps to a slight shortness of breath. As the day wore on, the pain became sharper, my ability to draw a breath became more difficult, and I started to feel pretty sick. By about 1 am the next morning, I was in enough pain that my husband insisted that we go to the ER.

To make a long story short, they did X-rays, CT scans, and (luckily) spotted what was wrong. It was the last thing I expected, since I don’t have any of the usual risk factors associated with what they found: a series of blood clots in my lungs, also known as pulmonary embolisms, which can be fatal if not treated. Most of the clots are in the left lung, but there are also some in my right lung. They admitted me to the hospital overnight and got me started on a regimen of anti-coagulant drugs (one of which I had to inject into my belly — not fun at all).

A week later, I started feeling pain under my left ribs in my back. Not just an ache; it was more of a “someone kicked the hell out of my ribs” pain. It turned out to be something relatively rare, and rather serious: one of the clots had cut off blood supply to part of my lung and had resulted in tissue death, also known as a pulmonary infarction.

I’m off to see a hematologist next week, to see if this is all due to a clotting disorder (genetic, autoimmune, whatever they find out). I could have thrombophilia; no one knows yet, but we’ll find out. All I can say at this point is that I’m still in pain, I’m very tired, and I’m feeling quite guilty that I’m unable to write the usual hardcore arms control policy analyses that I’m used to writing. It’s going to take weeks for me to recover, if not several months, so I’m rather frustrated about that.

However, things like this experience usually lead to a few revelations. It sounds corny, but it’s true. For one thing, it has put a lot of things in perspective for me; I see some of the huffy, ridiculous flamewars online that might have gotten me worked up a month ago, and now I just don’t care. I shove them aside and think about the bigger picture, and I remember how it felt to have trouble breathing, and how the fear was so much like what I used to feel in my nuclear bomb nightmares. There are silly issues to worry about, then there are issues like “will I live to see next year?”, and more importantly, “will mankind manage to keep up its record of not annihilating itself, despite all these weapons and antiquated Cold War-style policies we still have?”

Which leads me to the policy part of this post. Yes, it really does tie in with my health problems.

“And I think of all the good things
That we have left undone…”

Over the past four years, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger have written a series of op-ed pieces for the Wall Street Journal, starting with “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” on January 4, 2007, in which they outlined measures by which nuclear-armed nations could gradually reduce their arsenals, with the ultimate goal being a world free of nuclear weapons. They rightly pointed out that the world is no longer the relatively simple world of the Cold War years, with the nuclear threat being bipolar; rather, the world is a much more complex and dangerous place now. The more nuclear weapons we keep, the greater the danger that such weapons may fall into the hands of extremists, or so the four authors argued.

They’ve written several other op-eds on the same subject since then. The one they published today [pdf] addresses nuclear deterrence, and is entitled: ”Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation: The doctrine of mutual assured destruction is obsolete in the post-Cold War era.” Doubtless, you’ll see lots of commentary on the op-ed in the next few weeks, and for that reason, I don’t really want to go into detail with my own analysis of their opinion (my friends David E. Hoffman and Cheryl Rofer have already done so, and I suggest you read their pieces).

However, the authors’ discussion of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and its irrelevance in today’s world resonated with me in a way that it may not with other analysts. Here is their central thesis:

Today, the Cold War is almost 20 years behind us, but many leaders and publics cannot conceive of deterrence without a strategy of mutual assured destruction. We have written previously that reliance on this strategy is becoming increasingly hazardous. With the spread of nuclear weapons, technology, materials and know-how, there is an increasing risk that nuclear weapons will be used.

It is not possible to replicate the high-risk stability that prevailed between the two nuclear superpowers during the Cold War in such an environment. The growing number of nations with nuclear arms and differing motives, aims and ambitions poses very high and unpredictable risks and increased instability.

They go on to propose:

… that nations should move forward together with a series of conceptual and practical steps toward deterrence that do not rely primarily on nuclear weapons or nuclear threats to maintain international peace and security.

Their ideas are definitely worth examining, so I highly recommend reading the whole op-ed.

What struck me personally was that their proposals are things that are achievable within our lifetime, because they’ve diagnosed the cause of what is a potentially lethal, catastrophic threat. They point out that it’s not just the nukes that are the problem:

The first step is to recognize that there is a daunting new spectrum of global security threats. These threats include chemical, biological and radiological weapons, catastrophic terrorism and cyber warfare, as well as natural disasters resulting from climate change or other environmental problems, and health-related crises.

They’ve provided a diagnosis: the world has become more complex, more dangerous, and the weaponry has become more sophisticated over the years. Diagnosing the problem leads to their proposed solutions, which include securing all nuclear material as soon as possible, among other things.

I’d like to live to see the world powers work together to neutralize these problems. Until my recent brush with a truly frightening medical problem, writing about nuclear Armageddon and other assorted WMD disasters didn’t feel real, somehow. But somehow, being unable to take a full breath, and finding out that part of my lung is now dead… somehow that made the Earth, the human race, seem that much more vulnerable to me, and our capacity to harm ourselves and others feels less academic now that I’ve had a near-disaster with my own vital organs.

I’m not much of a writer when it comes to this sort of emotional thing, but I’d like you to bear in mind what I’m trying to say: danger, whether to your own body or to the earth via weaponry, is real. It’s not academic, it’s not just an op-ed, and it’s not a video game. It’s also not hopeless… if we can somehow manage to work together.

I’d like to think that we can.

This entry was posted in Cold War History, General, Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Weapons, Personal, Proliferation. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Unstable Isotope
    Posted March 7, 2011 at 18:05 | Permalink

    Really great writing. Yes, sometimes it does take a life or death experience to put things in perspective. One thing I’ve learned is some things are just not worth the energy. The world will not end if you just leave something alone. Just keep the ultimate goal in mind.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:07 | Permalink

    Perhaps you should write about the personal more often :-) I think you did a fabulous job linking your very real experience with the larger global issue. And I agree – it is never hopeless.

    While I miss your voice while you are recovering – please please take care of yourself.

  3. Posted March 12, 2011 at 11:01 | Permalink

    As someone who “tilts right of center” (OK maybe even into “wingnut status”) I have always appreciated the amount of time, energy and effort Page has put into her writing: translating complex issues and “techno jargon” into “plainer English” for us “non-techno geek types”.

    That kind of writing takes hours and hours and hours to research, write, edit, and post.

    If there is one thing that bothers me, whether it comes from the “Left” or the “Right” (or whatever) is the “you’re wrong and I hope you PAY FOR IT SOMEHOW” mentality I see screaming out in the “flame wars” of Social Media.

    Unless we as a people can disagree without wishing each other ill, we will never be able to work out the answers to the complex questions we all face.

    Get well soon Page

  4. Derek
    Posted March 12, 2011 at 18:14 | Permalink

    Your writing really resonated with me. My mother spoke of many of these fears and themes after her heart attack at age 37. Such an intimate encounter with one’s mortality can have a profound effect on one’s worldview.

    I wish you good health and speedy mending. Please take care of yourself. And when people offer to help, accept it. They are asking for a reason, because they care. And it is a way of coping with a situation over which they have little ability to fix.

    Be well. We’ll all still read whatever you have to write, be it personal or political.

  5. Andrew
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 23:23 | Permalink

    Excellent writing, and it is true, there is nothing like a brush with death to bring the things that matter in your respective life into clearer focus. The world is indeed a much more dangerous place; I am writing this during the evening of Nov. 10, 2001, and the recent events surrounding the release of the IAEA report re. the Iranian nuclear weapons program gives me great pause for thought. They are well on the way to developing not just a crude nuclear weapons capacity, but are apparently pursuing a program of being able to develop a warhead that will fit on a missile (there is no other reason to pursue development of Exploding Bridge-Wire detonators, hydrodynamic modelling, and advanced high-explosive detonation timing methods, when their chosen fissile weapon material is U-235, which is easily usable in a crude, ineficient, gun-type weapon like Little Boy)I don’t know if we will ever abolish nuclear weapons; that genie is really quite impossible to put back in the bottle, since it is empowered by processes that are fundamental to our universe. I do know that our differences, our politics, are so immature and hostile that it makes the use of nuclear weapons in particular much more likely if nation-states with a grudge come to possess them. On top of the other problems with this world i.e climate change, depletion of resources, poverty, hunger and everything else, it makes me wonder if we really do have a chance at a future. Peace, to everyone.


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