Perestroika and detente were supposed to remove the shadow of nuclear war from generation X. Now its back with a vengeance
The new nightly ritual is this: weve made a pact not to check social media in bed. I get my dollops of US news on the couch beforehand, shared from American friends on Facebook and usually captioned in tones of worldly disgust, tired sadness or sickened shock at how the US president is wielding his weapons of war.
Political commentators on Twitter are at least maintaining a thunderousness to their reporting, but its the acts of the president that echo in my head. The mother of all bombs pounded into Afghanistan, really? A casual obliteration of a Syrian airfield, youre sure? Threats to North Korea? North Korea? And Thursday, Trumps out provoking Iran.
So each night, the attempt is to fold the world into the rubber flap of my iPhone case and somehow fall sleep. Anxiety, however, doesnt pack away so well. Since the election of Donald Trump, my brain runs electric with potential catastrophe even as it should just fade to black.
Im not alone because an Essential poll published in the Guardian this week has fear of aggression by our own ally, America, freaking out Australians more than the manoeuvrings of an expansionist Russian government, or the empire-building Chinese.
Why wouldnt we freak out? Its not only because weve spent decades recruiting ourselves to the American military madness of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. Weve known since 2012 that North Koreas missiles might be pointed at us, and trusting our national safety to US leadership who cant get our own leaders name right seems … foolhardy.
Of course, foolhardy is the Trump administrations clearest foreign policy theme. The whole world knows he tweets in his own sleepless hours of the night. The tweets are emotional and bombastic, and now hes president, hes actually the president they have consequences.
The fear of so many is not of falling asleep, but of waking up to discover Trumps digital bellows felled a city, or that his games with new military toys have enacted a hostile play that can never be reversed. Can anyone believe that protecting human life on Earth is the priority for someone who claims that climate change is a hoax? Or who threatens nuclear North Korea with something unanswerable and then pops off to Mar-a-Lago for some golf?
My sleep is now so light that if my phone buzzes, I bolt upright in bed. At my age, notifications at midnight should provoke the crazy fear that dear old mum has had a fall not that the New York Times may be announcing the outbreak of nuclear war.
I opposed Donald Trumps election, and passionately, but the depth of my present fearful resentment isnt because hes a climate change denier (though he is), a misogynist who calls women pigs (though he has), or a kleptocratic slumlord spending big on fancy office curtains while cutting Meals on Wheels (though this is the observable nature of the man).
Its because the cold war is supposed to be over. Perestroika, glasnost, strategic arms limitation treaties and nuclear detente began to quell the terrifying childhood of generation X. Before the fall of the Berlin wall, our childhood was spent writing letters, pleading for world leaders to disarm. Terrified, we packed crude bug-out bags for cruder backyard fallout shelters, and heard in the sound of all sirens the doom foretold byThreads on TV, or endless films like The Day After, or books like Z for Zachariah, or the graphic novel Where the Wind Blows which we read not as a comic but printed prophecy of our imminent annihilation.
And now it turns out that when Trump promised to make America great again, the era hes sought to recapture is pants-shitting fear that dogged the world for two decades that followed the Cuban missile crisis. And while his deceits of his electorate are already many, and so many of his contradictory campaign promises impossible for him to fulfil, it is his betrayal of a belief that the nuclear shadow had passed us that should condemn him forever if he does not actually manage to kill us all.
Pundits will debate what one bombing campaign means, or a new threat means, whether its bluster or bluff, whats strategy and whats accident, whether its sabre-rattling or some semblance of a plan, whether it will work, whether it wont, what will happen next. Maybe it is all talk. Maybe saner heads will prevail; they have before.
But I cant sleep for what I see, whether I shut down my phone or not. Its a man with no government experience placing his government on a footing for a three-front war. A man whos never spent a day in public service obliging that public to offer its sons and its daughters to haphazard conflict. An administration so careless of history, it doesnt bother itself to acknowledge the world-changing magnitude of tragedy felt by the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Anxious, wide-awake, huddled in my cottage in the night, my partner soothes me and repeats: Were safe here. Were safe.
I no longer feel it. Do you?