Charlie Stross gets a mit annoyed with David Cameron wanting to turn the Great War into another feel good British kneesup like the Diamond Jubilee and tells him what the war was really like:
If you’d been 16 in 1914, then of your class at Eton probably 4-6 would have died (Eton boys ended up as officers: the death rate among junior officers was double that among the non-commissioned ranks). Another 6-8 would have been wounded—faces burned off, arms and legs and spines shattered, lungs scarred by gas until they coughed themselves to death in middle years—these are not pretty injuries, duelling scars or badges of honour: these are vile blows that turn strong young men into lifelong cripples (the sort of people who these days fail their ATOS work assessments and are denied disability payments two weeks before they die of their condition: but I digress).
Cameron is of course the modern equivalent of the people who started and profited from World War I and it’s somewhat fitting that he would think so lightly of it, considering how callous his early 20th century counterparts were about the war.
One of the reasons the punk generation reads dystopias like A Clockwork Orange as if they were their lives, and looks longingly towards the communist East in their aesthetics, is their depoliticisation. The generation of their grandparents was the one who survived the war, believed in socialism, was changing the world, joined political parties. Earlier, to piss off your parents, you’d join a communist party. By the 70s, those who wanted to change the world, were discredited and all that had left was the aesthetics.
If you look at any footage of West Berlin in 70s, you see a murky, sinister city, whose punctum, trauma, is the Wall. People gravitate around it. Living next to a prison, even if theoretically you’e not the prisoner, you can develop symptoms of suffocation. Seeing people regularly being killed over an illegal crossing of the Wall, not being able to walk through your city, imagining what there can be on the other side.
One of the things that defined the seventies, especially the second half of the decade, was the freezing of the Cold War into stalemate. The excitement of the fifties and the sixties, when war between the capitalist and communist blocs seemed just around the corner had ebbed away, Vietnam was just a memory and all that was left were petty little squabbles in Third World countries of no great interest to people in Europe or America. You can see that period reflected in Jerry Pournelle’s mil-sf stories of the period, with their background of a codominiom of the US and USSR ruling the stars for the next couple of centuries.
The late seventies and early eighties before the feverdreams of Reaganomics and yuppism took hold were a time without great dreams, a grey, dour, chilly time where economic depression and political stagnation looked to be permanent.The generation that grew up in the seventies was perhaps the first to really grow up with the Cold War as a constant, something that had always been there and that short of nuclear war would not go away.
And then at the tail end of the seventies there was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the first major crisis in the Cold War since Vietnam and there was a president in the White House, a southern Baptist, who was a ruthless son of a bitch despite his public image, who deliberately set out to create the USSR’s own Vietnam from this invasion. A few years later he would outflanked on the right by another born again Christian and actor, who was even more determined to suckerpunch the Russsians, fed as he was by Team B propaganda about the overwhelming might of the Soviet War Machine. In the USSR meanwhile, the leaders there were well aware of how vulnerable they really were and several times during the early eighties would creep close to starting the inevitable war themselves out of fear of being surprised otherwise.
The realists were in charge during this time and they all agreed that the Third World War was inevitable and that sense of realism is visible throughout popular culture in the late seventies and early eighties. Nihilism and cynicism ruled as we all expected to die in nuclear holocaust anyway. The idea that a youth revolt could avoid this, that the counterculture could offer an alternative had been shown to be false.
Is it this shared experience that paved the way for the neoliberal revolution of the eighties, as nuclear war receded as a threat? Perhaps.
It’s November 10, 1983. The Soviet leadership has completely misinterpreted the NATO exercise Able Archer as preparations for a sneak nuclear attack and preemptively launched a first strike the day before, hitting targets in Western Europe and Britain, but not yet in continental America. Completely nuclear armageddon is narrowly avoided, but if you’re living in Europe, you’re out of luck. Britain has been hit less but the attacks still have left millions dead and the national infrastructure devastated, not in the least because the electromagnetic pulses of all these nuclear weapons going off have fried everything electronic in the country: planes can’t fly anymore, cars and trucks don’t have petrol to run on anymore, while diesel and electric powered trains have also been fried or no longer have power to run. There’s only one transport system that has escaped the war unscathed: the steam locomotive.
Steam locomotives are after all 19th century technology, completely mechanical, without electronics to fry. So it’d make sense that in a rail dense country like the UK, they could be used after a nuclear war to help rebuild the country. Moreover, Britain has huge coal reserves, so no problems with powering them. Finally, Britain was late in switching from steam to diesel and electric powered trains, the switchover only completed in the sixties and seventies. There were quite a lot of modern, new steam locomotives that could be mothballed and kept in reserve.
On the face of it therefore, especially knowing that the UK had made extensive preparations for rebuilding a post-nuclear war Britain, the idea that, like Sweden or the USSR, that somewhere in Britain there were stockpiles of steam locomotives waiting patiently for the day after.
However, there are also some notable drawbacks in relying on the rail network as a means of transportation following a nuclear war. To begin with, we can suppose that most of Britain’s population-centers would have been hit during an nuclear exchange. Also gone – of course – would be the tracks leading to them; tracks that were specifically built to connect these settlements to other parts of Britain. Additionally, much of the “surviving” track could be very seriously heat-damaged, either warped by heat directly radiated from (probably) multiple nuclear explosions, or by the firestorms, which follow afterwards. The latter are likely to ravage large tracts of the U.K following a nuclear strike, and would inflict almost as much damage as the warhead detonations themselves! In regards to this, it should be remembered that most trackways have interconnected wooden components, which would both fuel and channel the direction of a fire along them (especially if they were exposed to a nuclear-generated “heat-blast”). Furthermore, shock-blasts generated by nuclear detonations are likely to radiate for miles from the explosion’s “ground zero” point. A force capable of smashing houses to rubble and matchwood is surely more than capable of dislodging exposed railway tracks!
Therefore, it is probable that the British railway network would require extensive repairs before it could even be seriously used again…
There are other reasons why, if such a steam reserve existed it would be not as useful than you might think and it can best be summed up by the below map, which shows the absorption of black carbon in the atmosphere (PDF) (and subsequent dropping of global temperatures) after a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.
Is nailed by Alan Moore in this 1986 interview talking about Watchmen and part of what he was attempting to do with it:
I know it’s only a tiny little comic book that goes over there every month and gets seen by a relatively small number of people, many of whom perhaps agree with us anyway, so it’s difficult to see what it’s doing, but I was consciously trying to do something that would make people feel uneasy. In issue #3 I wanted to communicate that feeling of “When’s it going to happen?” Everyone felt it. You hear a plane going overhead really loudly, and just for a second before you realize it’s a plane you look up. I’m sure that everybody in this room’s done that at least once. It’s something over everybody’s head, but nobody talks about it. At the risk of doing a depressing comic book we thought that it would be nice to try and … yeah, try and scare a little bit so that people would just stop and think about their country and their politics.
That was what growing up in the eighties felt to me, too young to pay much conscious attention to politics, but old enough to pick up on the fear, on the almost certainty that the bombs would drop sooner rather than later conveyed not so much through the news and such as through pop culture where the nuclear holocaust was present one way or another, as well as through the huge demonstrations against cruise missiles, the largest demonstrations ever held in the Netherlands and about as useful in the end as the later demos against the War on Iraq would be. Throughout everything, up to at least 1987 and Gorbachov, that dread was there and seeped into everything.
Watchmen was one of the best attempts in any artform to make this inchoate fear visible and I immediately recognised it when I first read the series back in 1989 or 1990, when we’d just passed out from under it. It’s the inevitability of it, the idea that if certain things happened, some unclear threshold was crossed, quite ordinary men and women would have no choice but to order the end of the world, more in sorrow than anger, believing to the end that “better dead than red” made sense.
Because of our baby boomer dominated media we tend to think as the fifties and early sixties as the time when we were most obsessed by our coming atomic doom, but the reality of it was that throughout that time the US could’ve easily destroyed the USSR without the latter being able to do much about it, while by the early eighties the weaponry had advanced enough, was ubiquitous enough, was complex enough that a nuclear war would no longer just be devastating, but fatal to the human race as a whole, could really end our world and looked increasingly likely to do so by accident or paranoia.
Air Power and Maneuver Warfare
Martin van Creveld, Steve Canby & Ken Brower
268 pages including index
published in 1994
Air Power and Maneuver Warfare is a strange book. At first it seems to be just a theoretical and historical overview of how air power and maneuver warfare fit together, but something seemed off from the start. This book was commissioned by the US Airforce’s Air War College just after the Cold War had ended and more importantly, the US military establishment finally started to be convinced of this. It’s a political document as much as a theoretical one, written for an audience that’s supposed to be familiar with the theory of “maneuver warfare” (sic) but who do needed to be convinced of the argument Creveld and his co-authors are putting forward.
Said argument seems to be that the US Army needs to move away from its historical attrition warfare, linear orientation towards a more flexible maneuver orientated attitude, to be better able to deal with the challenges a post-Cold War world will throw at it. Meanwhile the airforces also need to shift towards a more tactical support role for the army rather than being obsessed with strategic air warfae and air defence suppression. This latter is not a new criticism of course, as ever since the USAF became a seperate arm of the armed forces it has been accused of neglecting tactical air support. The irony of it all is that while van Creveld and his co-authors (politely) argue that the then current strategic orientation of the US Armed Forces is outdated and inadequate to deal with the complexities of a post-Cold War world, their own recommendations are just as much a product of Cold War thinking, assuming that potential opponents will need to be and can be defeated by conventional military operations.