The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why we obsess over the details of a nuclear apocalypse

Speculating about doomsday scenarios can provide a paradoxical comfort

Russian ICBM launchers move during the Victory Day military parade, marking 71 years after the victory in World War II in Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2016. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, amid media reports that NATO might send surplus fighter jets to aid the embattled defenders and might even allow them to operate from nearby Polish airfields, I found myself posting on an online forum where the move was being hotly debated:

“Here’s a scenario,” I wrote. “Ukrainian-piloted jets flying out of Polish territory strafe advancing Russian troops with heavy loss of life. Eight hours later the base in Poland (a NATO member) is obliterated with a low-yield nuke. What happens next?”

With a handful of keystrokes, I was working through my own anxiety. But I was also telling a story, however crude. I had the outlines of a (thankfully) still-fictional near-future world. I had plot, setting and chronology. Most of all, I had narrative tension: What happens next? I was, as I had just typed, creating a scenario. I was far from the first to do so.

When you read news analyses with titles like “Four Ways the War in Ukraine Might End” or “Four Scenarios for the Pandemic’s Next Act,” you’re reading a genre that originated in 1950s-era Cold War think tanks, collectives of brainiacs whose jobs were to think the unthinkable — and to think it not just in the abstract, but to play it out, step by step. In such speculative games, World War III has already been fought and refought a countless number of times, whether with pen and paper on legal pads or with computer chips. These games for thinking the unthinkable were known as scenarios to the people who played them. Because a nuclear war could only ever be rehearsed as a hypothetical, think tanks like the RAND Corporation treated the current geopolitical matrix as a kind of jukebox, constantly arranging and rearranging variables to work through endless permutations of possible futures. None of the scenarios would ever be exactly right, of course, but they allowed the nuclear war planners — who may have been only deceiving themselves — to believe they had some control over events. As the history of this genre proves, scenarios can’t predict the future, but they can help us come to terms with the anxiety of a volatile present.

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Scenarios are instruments for war planners and policymakers, but they are also forms of fiction. They tell stories about what might be, about possible worlds. Often, the think tank scenarios went into great detail about the chain of events that could trigger a nuclear war, inventing plot twists and developments that could be mistaken for newspaper headlines. Historian Peter Galison aptly described them as “state science fiction.” Eventually, the scenarios began to leak out of the Cold War think tanks and became woven into the fabric of popular culture. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, “Dr. Strangelove,” was the first glimpse for many of this dark, twisted world of “fail safes” and “mineshaft gaps.” The character of Strangelove was based on a real person, the nuclear wargamer Herman Kahn who was working for RAND when he wrote a 700-page treatise called, modestly, “On Thermonuclear War.”

Kahn’s was a specialist text, but by the 1980s, thinly veiled nuclear war game replays had become improbable bestsellers. A surreptitious glance at a fellow commuter’s reading matter might have revealed a paperback copy of “The Third World War: August 1985” (1978) by retired British NATO general Sir John Hackett, or Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” (1986), which narrated a similar Soviet offensive into Western Europe with an ensemble cast that was (not quite) worthy of Tolstoy. Both books were bestsellers that spawned dozens of imitators, helping to inaugurate the techno-thriller genre, which has proved its vitality in the face of rising global tensions: In 2018, Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear affairs expert, published a “speculative novel” entitled “The 2020 Commission Report On The North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The U.S.” Presented as the faux government document of its title, Lewis’s novel unfolds an alarmingly plausible series of missteps in which the then-incumbent Trump administration blunders into a nuclear exchange with Kim Jong Un. (Lewis makes the bold literary move of narrating the aftermath of the nuclear attacks using descriptions quoted from Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.) Other recent fictive outings have covered possible conflicts between the United States and China, and even Putin’s Russia — no less a literary light than Ken Follett, who recently tried his hand at the genre in his 2021 potboiler “Never.”

Scenarios can sometimes prove eerie for their resonance with the real world. In Hackett’s book, once the military front in Europe settles into stalemate hard-liners in the Kremlin make the decision to destroy a single British city with a nuclear-tipped missile. It is a warning: come to terms now, or risk the fate of the world. Forty years later, this gruesome calculus is what nuclear planners refer to as “escalate-to-deescalate.” Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising,” meanwhile, has a happier ending: When the Soviet premier demands that his generals use nuclear weapons at the front, he is deposed by a palace coup, and a moderate successor calls for a cease-fire. Exactly the same wishful speculation is on offer right now, even as experts caution it is unlikely.

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Most scenario writing does not claim to predict the future. The genre is more supple and sophisticated than that. As with the best science fiction, the object isn’t really the future. It is the present. In these tense times, it is not surprising we find ourselves turning once again to this dark genre to speculate about what might be coming next. But even that speculation is really about winnowing down the many possibilities that weigh on the present, the better to help us manage the paralyzing excess of uncertainty. William Gibson, who is known for his prescience, put it this way through the words of Hubertus Bigend, a character in his novel “Pattern Recognition”: “We have no future because the present is too volatile. We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios.” The measured tone and clinical detail that is characteristic of the scenario as a genre serves as a kind of antidote to the 24/7 torrent of our news feeds, allowing us to pause and take stock.

Going a step further than Gibson, Richard Grusin, a media studies scholar, introduces the term “premediation” to refer to the news media’s tendency to anticipate and normalize possible future developments. He would probably argue that headlines like “Will NATO intervene militarily?” condition us to accept what would have seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago — NATO and Russian troops in combat with one another — precisely because of the constant repetition of the scenario.

Gibson and Grusin are both interested in the proliferation of scenarios covering a range of possible futures, anticipating and warding against the surprise and trauma that any one of them might bring. “How the War in Russia [sic] could turn into a Nuclear Conflict: Three Terrifying Scenarios,” one tabloid trumpets. But for Grusin, the terror is also part of the point: Premediation is about the comfort of anticipation, but it is also about the maintenance of a constant low-level buzz of anxiety, a posture of fretfulness and unease that power-brokers work to exploit.

Gibson and Grusin both published their work after the 9/11 attacks, a moment when, at least within the United States, we realized the world was indeed a volatile and dangerous place. In the two decades since we have seen this volatility play out over and over again, both in the natural realm (pandemic, environmental catastrophe) and the political, including such previously “unthinkable” events as Charlottesville and Jan. 6, 2021. Nassim Nicholas Taleb influentially referred to certain kinds of events as “black swans”: improbable eventualities with enormous consequences. Premediation is a defense mechanism against black swans, guarding us against the trauma of being surprised by the unexpected. Not unlike the way, perhaps, our minds inevitably run through all of the possible outcomes when we notice a funny new mole. “It’s probably nothing, but … ” If we’ve already thought the worst, we say to ourselves, then surely it can’t actually come to pass.

Through fiction and storytelling, scenarios prepare us for a range of possible outcomes, from the everyday to the apocalyptic. The future, we trust, will eventually conform to one of them, more or less, somewhere along the spectrum. And when it does, having already read the story once, we’ll be that much more ready for it. If someone somewhere is able to nod and declare, “I told you so,” then the scenario is also the implicit promise that we’ll be around to hear them say it at all.