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An Age of Existential Uncertainty

I grew up during the Cold War, when, in elementary school, we still participated in bomb drills. A bell would ring or horn would blow and we would duck and cover, or in some teachers’ classrooms, just put our heads down on our desks.

From the videos of utter destruction caused by nuclear weapons, I couldn’t see how any of these drills would be helpful (apparently duck and cover did offer some protection). I simply assumed it would be better to be resting when I died than not.

Although we lived in a small Louisiana town, in the middle of nowhere really, we were about 30 minutes away from Barksdale Air Force Base, where President George W. Bush would, years later, take refuge after the attacks on 9/11. As children, it felt like we were in the military arena, particularly every time the jets overhead latticed the skies with contrails or produced a sonic boom.

Even people of modest means in the area built bomb shelters. Armageddon was in the air.

America and the Soviet Union were locked in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction: There were so many nuclear weapons that if one side used them to launch an attack, we were told the other would immediately respond, prompting the annihilation of both countries and possibly the world.

This idea offered some assurance, but not enough. The idea that a mistake could be made lingered like a combustible fume. It haunted. In the popular 1983 film “WarGames,” a high school hacker accidentally connects with NORAD computers, and, thinking he’s simply playing a game, almost instigates a nuclear war.

I find it hard to explain to younger people what it felt like to live all my formative years with such uncertainty, with the belief that the world might end at any moment. I don’t know how to explain what it felt like to fill a time capsule in the sixth grade and bury it, not just as a classroom exercise, but with the gnawing feeling that all we knew could be obliterated and that all that future generations might ever know of us could be contained in a single capsule.

Fear became so ambient that it became ordinary; it was defanged. The fear wasn’t debilitating. To the contrary, it seemed to produce a sense of bucket-list adventurousness, even among children. What would you do if the world could end tomorrow? It was simultaneously oppressive and liberating.

Then, in 1991, when I was nearly at the end of college, the Soviet Union collapsed and splintered, and the Cold War came to an abrupt end. That is around when Ukraine and other former Soviet republics became independent states.

That is also, I believe, the last time I thought seriously about mutually assured destruction.

After three decades of freedom from that kind of worry, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, still smarting over the demise of the Soviet Union, has reminded us that many of the nuclear weapons that once terrified us still exist, putting real limits on our ability to confront and control rogue behavior.

In an interview that aired in December, Putin lamented the fall of the Soviet Union, which he had previously called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. “It was a disintegration of historical Russia,” he said in the interview. “We turned into a completely different country. And what had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost.”

Putin wants that back. The invasion of Ukraine is part of that vision.

Putin confessed in the interview that not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, when inflation in Russia reached double digits, he sometimes moonlighted as a taxi driver to supplement his income. “It is unpleasant to talk about this,” he said, “but, unfortunately, this also took place.” 

Now, he has reversed the humiliation of those hard times. Some experts believe that he could now be the wealthiest man in the world. I believe this makes the 69-year-old more dangerous, not less.

Putin now has little need of the shallow pleasure he’d get gathering unto himself more material objects than he already owns. Instead, he may now be consumed by the thing that preoccupies many of the world’s greatest men and women late in life: the building of legacy, the making of history, the casting of a long shadow.

Putin doesn’t just want to win a war or take a region, he wants to make a point, he wants to be the wings on which Russia rises again. His ego feeds his aggression, and that is why it is hard to imagine him accepting a loss in Ukraine.

Any form of victory for him will only add to his appetite. Why would he stop with Ukraine, or a portion of Ukraine?

And, of course, the West is restrained by the fact that Russia is not only a nuclear power, with roughly 6,000 nuclear warheads, but it also has the world’s largest nuclear stockpile, an arsenal even larger than that of the United States.

Putin keeps gesturing at the possibility of using those weapons. Those may be hollow threats, but it’s impossible to be 100 percent sure.

What I feel more sure of is this feeling I can’t shake: that we are drifting into a new age of existential uncertainty.

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