We don’t have much to thank Vladimir Putin for but there was one thing for me last week.
My 13-year-old daughter’s class was called into a special assembly because the school wanted to address the “level of anxiety” circulating among students due to the crisis in Ukraine.
Lila came home and said: “Dad? What will we do if there’s a nuclear war?” How best to answer this?
“Well, Lila, it will very much depend on where we are at the time of the attack.
“If we’re at home in Buckinghamshire, we’ll be 30 miles from London, which is sure to be hit by two to four warheads.
“If we’re in Scotland, staying with your nanny down in Irvine, we’ll be 30 miles from Glasgow, which is also likely to get a warhead or two.
“Although we’d be just 50 miles from Faslane, the home of the UK’s nuclear arsenal and, therefore, certain to be subjected to a massive strike.
“All these warheads, by the way, darling, would be at least three megatons – many, many times more powerful than the 15-20 kiloton tiddlers dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“But even so, 30 to 50 miles from Ground Zero might be just a little too far away.
“If we’re in Bucks, there’s a chance the Russians might hit the RAF base in High Wycombe, just down the road, but I think we’d ideally want to get into either central London or try to head for Faslane. Just to be sure.”
“Hey? To be sure of what?”
“Of dying instantly, baby. Of being reduced to ash and smoke at the speed of light in the thousand-sun heat of the blast wave.”
“But… but… why would we do that?”
“Because, sweetest, at 30-50 miles away, things become trickier.
“Depending on the prevailing winds, we might survive for a few days, or even weeks, gradually getting sicker and sicker from massive radiation poisoning.
“We might get ‘lucky’ and survive for as long as a few months, as the food and water supplies run out, as disease spreads, as we fight off rioters and raiders, as we make our way through a world with no more music , no more books, no more films, no more flowers or trees or sunlight.
“A world where your reality is a spoon and a bowl and a blackened desert as far as the eye can see.
“A world where the living envy the dead. A world where I, your father, would quickly be faced with a difficult decision…
“Do I kill you all now – all my babies, you and your little sister and your little brother – while I still have the strength to do so? Or do I let us stumble along in the perma-night of the nuclear winter until we drop dead one by one?”
Of course, I didn’t say any of that. I just said: “Don’t worry Lila, I’m sure it won’t come to that.”
But worry I did. And do. Because we have seen what happens with angry, paranoid, insecure old men when they are boxed in, when they are humiliated on the world stage.
Imagine the January 6 attack Trump unleashed on his own capital city but with ICBMs.
But surely, I thought, I’m being paranoid? I turned to the experts to set my mind at ease. Bad move.
Fiona Hill is one of the west’s key Russia watchers. She’s studied Putin for decades, has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations and was a stellar witness against Trump during his impeachment proceedings over holding up aid to Ukraine.
In an interview last week, she was asked about Putin’s willingness to use nuclear weapons. “The thing about Putin is, if he has an
instrument, he wants to use it,” Hill said.
“Why have it if you can’t? He’s already used a nuclear weapon in some respects.
Russian operatives poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium. They used a weapon-grade nerve agent in Salisbury, England.
“So, if anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again.
Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, I would.”
I was back to picturing all those scenarios: likely targets, types of warheads, first strike versus counter strike, blast radii.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t spent this much mental time with the subject of nuclear annihilation since my teens, which neatly anticipated my daughter’s next question: “Why do we even have nuclear weapons?
“Why hasn’t someone done something about it?”
And I thought of Ayrshire in the early 1980s: the meetings we went to in community centers and school classrooms.
The badges we wore, the peace symbol.
The posters of mushroom clouds that went up on the Artex walls of our council house bedrooms.
Me and Fagen and Tiny and Basil and Keith and Larry and Andy and Jim and Louise and Maria and George and Craig and Alistair and all the rest of us on the marches.
Through Irvine town centre, through Glasgow, to Brockwell Park in London and even right up to Faslane that one time, where we could see the conning towers of the monsters cutting the water like huge black fins, suggesting the swollen belly beneath the surface, swollen with 16 Trident missiles, each one costing $30million, the payload of every submarine worth a couple of hospitals, each of
those 16 missiles loaded with eight individual warheads – 128 Hiroshimas, sailing along the Firth of Clyde on a sunny afternoon.
“Stop this,” we begged. “It only needs to go wrong once. Just one madman.”
“They’ve kept the peace for nearly 40 years,” they told us.
This was 40 years ago. “They” are all gone now. The missiles are still there, wallowing in the Clyde, fat and sleek and hellish and costing a fortune and capable of ending history.
“Why didn’t they listen to you?” Lila asked, her eyes damp now.
“People don’t listen to kids, darling. They won’t listen to you either.”
So thank you, Putin. For reminding me of my youth.
At least I got to have one.
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