Watchmen reminds one of a forgotten threat


More Americans watched the Watchmen this past weekend than any other movie. Though primarily valuable as an artistic work, this film should spur us all to reconsider a threat many seem to have forgotten: nuclear holocaust.

A substantial majority of UI students are too young to have any memories of the Cold War. Not having lived through an era in which leaders in the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics stood poised to press buttons that would have brought about the end of human civilization, young people today cannot fully identify with the existential angst underlying the original Watchmen comics. After profiting from the series’ highly successful run in 1986-87, the comic books’ publisher complied all the installments into a graphic novel on which the new movie is based.

The main characters in this blockbuster action picture may be comic-book heroes, but the story is set in a world with problems too big for any number of vigilantes to solve — a world on the brink of global nuclear war. Despite the Cold War’s quick end following the stunningly rapid unraveling of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact alliance, we still live in a world containing enough nuclear weapons to vaporize all major cities almost simultaneously. And in the years since politicians in Russia and the United States stepped back from the brink, the only former Soviet republic to maintain its nuclear stockpile, the number of nations possessing these doomsday weapons has grown.

Only the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (China, the United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom) are publicly known to have hydrogen bombs. These are the most powerful explosive devices humanity has yet devised, and none of them have ever been used in a war. The atomic devices the United States used to incinerate the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II were fission bombs. Though their power has been radically eclipsed by that of the hydrogen bomb, fission warheads are still capable of wreaking nightmarish havoc, particularly if used in dense population centers such as the world’s largest cities.

In addition to the five countries possessing both basic types of nuclear weapons, several others have fission bombs only. India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all designed, built and tested these weapons. Israel is widely thought to maintain a nuclear arsenal, but that country’s government keeps the exact nature of its stockpile a mystery. Some other countries, such as Japan, have the technological capacity to create such devices in relatively short order. Finally, Iran is moving in the direction of building a working bomb as it continues to run the centrifuges needed to enrich nuclear fuel.

Today, experts who speak out publicly about the dangers of nuclear weapons tend to focus on the possibility of terrorists or a small rogue state using one or a small number of these dangerous devices to wipe out a limited target and create worldwide panic. But the possibility of a full-scale exchange of hundreds or thousands of warheads between major powers remains real. Such an apocalyptic event may be less likely than it was during the Cold War, but its consequences are so great as to make it a real concern regardless of its improbability.

Eliminating all nuclear weapons, even though it might seem like a good idea on its face, could have negative unforeseen consequences. Many argue that knowledge of the scale of the destruction on both sides that a nuclear war would cause has prevented nuclear powers from ever going to war against each other. Thus, maintaining a nuclear deterrent may actually be one of the best ways to prevent another war between the world’s most powerful nations. Yet, the danger of living in a world filled with nuclear weapons is also too great to tolerate.

The best course of action would be for all nuclear powers to negotiate an agreement that would reduce each country’s arsenal to the minimum level necessary to maintain its value as a deterrent against great-power war. All the world’s countries could also empower the United Nations to take a bigger role in monitoring everyone’s nuclear stockpiles in order to ensure their security. Making progress in these areas may be difficult, but it’s in our species’ best interest to do so.

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