Waking Up In A Nightmare

How shall we deal with the nuclear dragon we have created?

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 12
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Like most of us in our own lives, the rest of the articles in this issue don’t dwell on the nuclear context in which we all live. Yet it needs to be acknowledged, for without it they lose their full significance.

It wasn’t until I met and spent time with a visiting Soviet woman named Mila that I got fully in touch with the term "nuclear anxiety." Most of my time with Mila, I simply relaxed and enjoyed, but near the end a desparate sense of urgency came over me. Suddenly I was "American" and she was "Soviet" and the whole thing took on epic dimensions. I wrote a message for her on a scrap of paper to take back to Moscow: "We’re sick of being afraid of you. We must end this insanity. Love, Diana"

I don’t know what possible good I thought this would do, but it simply had to be done. Mila performed her own version of this when interviewed by a local reporter. With agonizing slowness, groping for the right English words, Mila carefully pronounced, "Governments play games, and WE suffer."

"Yes?" she asked, turning to me, and I answered with a resounding, "Da!" Now we were co-conspirators.

Since then, I have watched Americans and Soviets seize the moment with each other in just this way, over and over again. The emotional fervor of these small personal rituals of reconciliation is often intense. In a small Orthodox church in the Ukrainian countryside, I watched old women as they discovered that we strangers who had suddenly appeared were Americans. Oblivious to the service in progress, they touched our hands or kissed us, repeating over and over in Russian, "Peace, we want only peace. Please tell your friends. You are welcome here."

No one ever prepared me to deal with moral questions beyond those of a personal nature (not to lie, murder, steal, commit adultery). Am I responsible for the actions of my social group (ethnic, religious or national)? No one ever made that very clear, but it seems to me a question of great importance.

We Soviets and Americans have created a very special destiny for ourselves. Together we have ventured into a realm of collective moral bankruptcy almost staggering in its implications. We (Soviet and American) have decided that under certain circumstances, it would be morally justifiable to kill hundreds of millions of (Soviet or American) men, women, children. And we have devoted unbelievable wealth and energy to being able to do just that. With our active or aquiescent approval, a doomsday machine has been carefully constructed and put in place. Our only excuse seems to be that we don’t want to ever use it, but we must have it to defend ourselves. (We must threaten ourselves with extinction to defend ourselves.)

We, we, we….

Coming to grips with my own personal responsibility for all this is the problem, is our problem. I realize now that part of the ethical training which parents give children in all societies is a message about those kinds of things which we have agreed to ignore. In a society whose ethic is "every man for himself," children learn to walk past beggars and over sleeping bodies on the street as if they did not exist. In a society which limits freedom of speech, children learn to speak cautiously, to speak in allegorical language. In a society which has chosen to defend itself with nuclear weapons, children think about it as little as possible… and have nuclear nightmares instead.

In moments of poetic clarity, when I am able to focus even on this vast madness, I have imagined myself the embodiment of our collective defense. I awaken in a peculiar nightmare, discover myself in a bloodthirsty posture, arm raised to the kill, against countless thousands of people… perhaps filled with fear and seeking only to defend myself, but nonetheless poised for the kill. Yes, I know, it’s America’s defense system, but is it mine, or isn’t it?

It is impossible for me to imagine that I might be able to save the world from nuclear destruction. The idea of trying to do any such thing leaves me paralyzed, seems nearly absurd. But it isn’t so difficult to imagine that Mila and I and a steadily growing number of other Soviets and Americans could, in our friendship, reduce the nuclear reality to an unnecessary absurdity. Each simple human connection between Soviet and American erases a part of the psychological reality that created the nuclear nightmare.

So, here’s my dream. Fifteen years from now, may it be just as embarrassingly difficult to explain to my grandchildren why we once aimed nuclear missiles at all the cities of the Soviet Union, as it now is to explain to my children why we once thought black and white people should use separate bathrooms.

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