"We died with the dying:
See, they depart and we go with them.
We are born with the dead;
See, they return and bring us with them."
— T S Eliot
During the Korean War, when troops from the People's Republic of China entered North Korea to repel the US invasion, General MacArthur conducted a quick strategic re-thinking. Let's invade China, he said. Let's drop the big one. "Oriental psychology," he insisted, was such that it would only "respect and follow aggressive, resolute and dynamic leadership".
During the Vietnam War, the US government looked into the use of nuclear weapons to decisively finish off a determined, disciplined revolutionary nationalist movement that was actually in the course of decimating the US army.
During the Second Cold War, US weapons policy was informed by the most alarmist neoconservative prognoses about red danger, triggering a nuclear arms race. The United States president was a man who interpreted biblical prophesy to mean that the United States was destined for nuclear confrontation with the Communist antichrist. His Secretary of State wanted to bomb Cuba and "turn that island into a fucking parking lot". His Pentagon repeatedly war-gamed a nuclear war with the USSR, and readied the US military for a "protracted" nuclear war in which the US must prevail. It took a mass anti-nuclear movement to put a dampener on the nuclear arms race.
You can see these little moments, alongside the Cuban Missile Crisis, as a series of near-misses for the species. Millions of lives, perhaps all of human life, depended on those misses. After all, this is what definitional about what these extinction-level events, be it ecological collapse or nuclear war. It isn't just about ending a lot of lives in an unjust and tragic way. It is about ending the possibility of life. The one tiny spot in this vast, mostly lifeless universe -- as far as we know or have any right to guess -- where life has emerged. And we have come uncomfortably close, several times, to extinguishing it.
A lot hangs on that 'we'. Because after all, most of 'we' had little to do with it. These were decisions made by bureaucrats and military personnel acting within certain lines of strategic and jurisprudential logic. That logic is, as we can plainly see from the MacArthur case, not so much exempt from ideology as a concentrated form of ideology. We could even describe it as, since it impelled its bearers toward the brink of megadeath, a kind of fanaticism.
'We' are the hostages, the human shields, of a thermonuclear protection racket. There is no purpose to a nuclear weapon other than to annihilate major population centres. The weapons are pointed at us, by the rulers of the states in which we live. And they tell us that the gun pointed at our heads is for our protection, when it is the administration of death, of extinction.
And yet 'we', or some of us, a minority perhaps, are also eminently available for this transaction. Enthusiastic, sadomasochistic participants. The thermonuclear state probably doesn't have a huge popular constituency. But the other side of politics, usually working for the side of reaction, has nothing to do with the usual norms of enlightened self-interest, nothing to do with "rational choice".
That other side works according to the logic of the unconscious. A friend reminded me earlier of the Spanish fascist slogan, 'Viva La Muerte'. Which, translated, means 'Long Live Death'. Think about the logic of that slogan. It is completely contradictory, containing no sense of logic or sequence or temporality. It is a slogan that comes from a place outside of reality, defying the laws of physics: hence its peculiar poetic resonance. It wants life in death; death in life. Unconscious death-wishes often work that way.
And this is the world into which we are inducted when we hear from fellow citizens for whom, happiness is a gun pointed at your head. Citizens for whom, it is the job of a political leader to hold that gun there and be willing to pull the trigger. It is a world where death and supremacy rules. Where people don't mind dying in a nuclear blaze as long a migrant doesn't get to claim benefits.
This isn't a world half way around the planet. It isn't even a world half way down the block. It is the world we live in, dying.