EDITOR’S NOTE: This was WFB’s November 10, 1962, “On the Right” column.
Many arguments are nowadays posed, and opinions influenced, by gaudy references to the extent of the devastation that would ensue upon a thermonuclear exchange in a third world war. I have heard lecturer after lecturer describe in macrocosmic terms, almost as if they took pleasure in describing all that gore, the meaning for the United States of a thermonuclear attack on us by, say, ode hundred ten-megaton Russian missiles. I can hear the words of a man who spoke last week . . .”at
least a hundred million deaths . . .starvation and contamination for most of the rest of the population . . .reduction of our economy to a primitive level . . .” I shall spare you more, especially the description of the physical appearance of an incinerated child in Hiroshima. There are few things more gruesome.
Still I ask: what actually is the relevance of all that talk? (Which is used primarily by pacifists and collaborators and those who plead for disarmament at any price .) We know the meaning of violent death intuitively, do we not? Even so we are committed, as individuals, as a nation, and as a civilization, to the proposition that death is the price on e
must be prepared to pay to oppose certain kinds of threats . Granted if there were a war today, there would be more deaths–far more deaths–than were caused by yesterday’s war. But what is the meaning of that statistic to the individual dead man? None–he knows not whether he died alone, or in company with a hundred million others. What is the meaning of it for the survivor? None that goes beyond that abysmal grief of personal loss, experienced well before the nuclear age by, for instance, the frontiersman’s wife whose husband and children were massacred by the Indians. An individual human being can sustain only so much grief, and Olen bereavement becomes redundant. If my wife, son, mother, brothers and sisters are killed, I have little capacity left to grieve over the loss of my college roommate’s uncle. What, then, is the meaning of tha t statistic for civilization? Civilization has no feelings, and knows no pain: it is we, the dead and the survivors, who feel the loss, or advancement of civilization. And here we come to the nub of the question.
What we are asked by those who devote their energies to describing the effects of nuclear war to consider then, when you analyze it, is less human suffering, than the loss to humankind of so many of those things that lived on and on even when generation after generation of human beings died: the intangible things–the sense of community, and of nationhood; the tangible things–the cathedral at Chartres, the museum at the Prado, the White House, the Vatican, the Bodleian Library . It is, I think more the sense of these losses than the concern for human life which hard analysis betrays as lying beneath the unreasoned hysteria of many of our contemporaries: and indeed, when we contemplate shattering, say, the stained-glass windows of Chartres, we know that unlike the extinction of human life, we contemplate extinguishing something which, because it was not afflicted with mortality, might otherwise have gone on and on, to refresh and console the people, right through empires risen and fallen, barbarians repulsed or submitted to, the appearance and disappearance of the 100th French Republic.
And yet that is a pagan’s analysis. Because human life, even though it cannot last beyond a few score years, is more valuable than all the perdurable treasures of the earth .
It is necessary, when we listen to a Norman Cousins or a Steve Allen or a Sidney Lens or a Bertrand Russell or a Kenneth Tynan going on and on about the horrors and scale of nuclear death, to force ourselves to face explicitly what we know intuitively. And that is this: that if it is right that a single man is prepared to die for a just cause, it is right that an entire civilization be prepared to die for a just cause. In contemporary terms it can scarcely- be disputed that if ever a cause was just, this one is, for the enemy combines the ruthlessness and savagery of Genghis Khan with the fiendish scientific efficiency of an IBM machine. As we have seen, the collective bereavement is not more than the sum of individual bereavements and cannot therefore, in human terms, outweigh in quality or in intensity the pain that has always been felt, throughout the history of the world, by individuals who did not place mere survival as their highest value . It is important to plumb these arguments, so as to escape the net of those facile little cliches which reduce complex issues to disjunctive jingles. Better Dead than Red is an inaccurate statement of the American position, listing, as it does, non-exclusive alternatives. Properly stated it is: Better the chance of being dead, thin the certainty of being Red. And if we die? We die.