Re-invoking Cold War Trauma:
Putting Hawaii Into Context
by Sahil Shah
“How many children in Hawaii thought they were going to die in a nuclear apocalypse today?” In such words, Martin Pfeiffer brought this past weekend’s events in Hawaii to a human level by reminding us of the unjust trauma caused by nuclear uncertainty.
Born after the end of the Cold War, today’s youth did not experience the daily terror of “duck and cover” drills whilst growing up. In addition, they did not experience the multiple missile attack false alarms that riddle the history of the twentieth century. Younger generations have had no context by which to comprehend the true existential threat posed by these devastating weapons until recently, as current events have prompted a re-examination of nuclear safety and security. Now, as more of the public realizes how nuclear security has largely been left within the purview of executive action and secrecy, more time is being invested in understanding America’s nuclear policies.
However, as American nuclear history — and the scale of fear that surrounds this history — has not been transferred to young people with any sense of humility, a weak internalization of nuclear risk has ensued. A narrative of continued American domination has led us away from the truth: the US won the Cold War despite its actions, not because of them. Ironically, Americans have drawn lessons from an angle of because not despite. By failing to truly contend with the past and educate young people on nuclear history, emerging generations have not been incentivized to take a more active role in urging governments to fulfil their obligations in hopes for a nuclear-free world.
Perhaps this was what was comfortable for all parties involved until now in the US, but that time is over. With the emergence of highly complex deterrence and new nuclear weapons states such as North Korea, the chance for miscommunication or miscalculation has proven to be all the more likely. While the politics of today are indeed putting us back on the nuclear brink, the risks of inflammatory rhetoric and retroactive decision-making have perhaps not been as strongly felt since the Cold War as they were this past weekend.
“EMERGENCY ALERT: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Shortly after 8:00 am local time Saturday, a false alarm was raised, signalling an imminent missile attack on Hawaii. Images of families huddled in their bathrooms and screenshots of their text messages to loved ones saying their goodbyes have infiltrated social media, metastasizing trauma in those who have now seen the threat of error in today’s security structures with each re-share. A heart-rate graph of a Reddit user from Hawaii quite literally showed the physical effects of such trauma. Amidst the noise caused by today’s global nuclear security portfolio, the incident in Hawaii has arguably the highest propensity to help us make a productive break from the status quo. The fear exhibited by all those affected in Hawaii resonates with others because they can imagine what it would feel like to be in the same situation.
The events in Hawaii demonstrate how our modern digital era may actually contribute to our potential for blundering into accidental nuclear war. Was it a hack? A software flaw? A slip of the hand? Regardless of the cause, technological or human error related to nuclear weapons have long-term political consequences on decision-making. These errors embed themselves into the consciousness of not only the public but also into the minds of those we rely on to make decisions for our security. In the wake of Hawaii, Max Fisher reminded us of a highly similar example of nuclear miscommunication due to a technical error during tense relations after the Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines flight KAL007 in 1983.
While many will place the events in Hawaii into tired political narratives on both sides of the aisle, two things should not be forgotten: (1) the importance of remembering the lineage of false nuclear alarms that have previously almost blundered us into accidental war and (2) the trauma created by such incidents. Suddenly, the biographical aspects of nuclear insecurity have been reinvoked due to the horror in Hawaii, and with it, the generational trauma that impending nuclear war has caused many to suffer around the world. The danger of repressing traumatic experiences is that we do not learn from our mistakes.
When we ask how to leverage today’s moment of crisis into a moment of opportunity, the simple answer is to listen. As Americans, we owe justice to those who have suffered the worst from our path to nuclear domination. From those afflicted with illness from working in our nuclear weapons complexes during the Cold War only to now be ignored to the many communities ravaged by over a thousand American nuclear tests and ultimate use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are plenty who deserve to be heard. We can no longer deny the biographical life — and intertwined trauma — that comes with nuclear weapons, especially in an age when we cannot tell whether error or terror will be our eventual downfall.
When biographical life is reassembled, retold, and restored into the public consciousness, we collectively remember. After all, in the words of Surer Mohamed, refusing to forget is our most precious form of resistance.
Sahil V. Shah is recent graduate from the University of Cambridge. He is a former researcher for Dr. William J. Perry and an emerging nuclear weapons expert working on nonproliferation and disarmament issues.