The near misses that spawned 207 nuclear war songs

nuclear-war-bomb
Hydrogen bomb explosion – image by www.pixabay.com

Ok, it’s a rough tally and not all of the songs about nuclear war on the Wikipedia list below were written in the 1980s. But many of them surfaced after the nuclear missile conflict near-miss of 1983. Millennials and even Gen Yrs may have been agog at the two nuclear missile false alarms broadcast in Hawaii and Japan recently, but there are precedents.

In October 1962, Russian naval officer Vasil Arkhipov intervened in the imminent launch of a nuclear torpedo, thus preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 from escalating. At the time, US and Russian naval fleets were posturing in waters off Cuba, where Russia was building missile silos.

Arkhipov, a naval officer aboard a B-50 Soviet submarine, somehow knew something his captain did not; that the depth charges being dropped by the US destroyer Beale were practice rounds, designed to deter. As other US destroyers joined in the “mock” attack Captain Valentin Savitsky, assuming World War III had broken out, ordered that the sub’s 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo be prepared for firing. This required the permission of three on-board senior officers, but Arkhipov refused. Had the torpedo been fired (at the aircraft carrier USS Randolph), this would inevitably have triggered US retaliation.

Last year the BBC interviewed retired Soviet Colonel Stanislav Petrov, another brave Russian who averted nuclear war in 1983.

“In the early hours of September 26, 1983, the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the US. Computer readouts suggested several missiles had been launched,” the BBC report began. “The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.

“But duty officer Stanislav Petrov – whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches – decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm.”

In doing so, Petrov defied his instructions (to pass the information up the chain of command). But he was right.

Lieutenant Colonel Petrov, now living the quiet life in a small Russian village, used his common sense and decided (risking a posting to Siberia), to bypass his superiors. Bravo, Stan.

“I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it,” he told the BBC’s Russian Service, 30 years after that overnight shift.

At least half of the (anti) nuclear war songs in this Wikipedia list were released in 1983 or over the following six years, with another big flurry in 1989. Call it the Chernobyl Factor if you must.

This is by no means a comprehensive list (my 1981 song ‘The Almost Armageddon Waltz’, for example, is not included). The earliest nuclear war protest songs surfaced in the 1950s – Tom Lehrer’s ‘We’ll all go together when we go” and the Kingston Trio’s ‘Merry Minuet.’

Of the earlier material, no-one IMHO will ever top Randy Newman’s ‘Political Science’ (1972) with its wry reference to Down Under (“…we’ll save Australia, don’t want to hurt no kangaroo, we’ll build an all-American amusement park there, they’ve got surfing too…”

(Randy at the piano)

Given the average time nominated between the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and the strike (about 40 minutes), you could look up a dozen of these songs on YouTube and spend your last hour on earth with your favourite tipple/best girl or boy listening to these ‘told you so’ warnings from the likes of Peter Tosh, Barry McGuire, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Bruce Cockburn, Pink Floyd/Roger Waters, Tears for Fears and Sepultura, to name but a few.

You’d think Australian bands would not rate much of a mention on this list – we are after all 5,500 kms away from the nearest nuclear missile threat. Nevertheless, Redgum, Midnight Oil (3), INXS, Men at Work, Icehouse and the Urban Guerillas get a mention. There is also this obscure dance tune, ‘Dream home in New Zealand’, by the British ska band, The English Beat.

You won’t understand a word but you can just put it on repeat and groove the minutes away (ee-yo-yo, ee-yo-yo).

Then there’s Weird Al Yankovic’s merry Yuletide ditty, ‘Christmas at ground Zero’, with its weirdly prophetic line “The radio just let us know that this is not a test.”

I have no idea how this little ripper was overlooked for our Christmas playlist, but there’s always next year, isn’t there?

It’s good to have satirists like Randy Newman and Weird Al to keep us focused on the importance of being dryly fatalistic about the portent of a nuclear winter.

The questions should be: if humble songwriters can be so wise, why are world leaders so dumb? Why are the systems they put in place to avoid accidental nuclear war so downright flawed?

Lately a few stories have come to light that suggest North Korea has the missile capacity to strike Darwin, some 5,500kms away from Pyongyang. I don’t recall North Korea’s leader making direct threats about Australia or our relationship with the US military. But given the presence of a US Marine Corps in Darwin, I’d say we are on the list.

There is understandable global angst about the world’s lack of control over nuclear weapons and the rogue states which have them. The phrase “accidental nuclear war” is now very much in the lexicon.

The Future of Life Institute maintains a timeline of close calls on its website. This is scary stuff.

As commentators have pointed out, since last week’s Hawaiian misstep and this week’s gaffe by Japanese early warning systems, either incident could have sent the respective antagonists in this psycho-drama scurrying to press their big buttons.

People who research nuclear near-misses are careful to point out that they only know about the (de-classified) incidents involving the US. Data on near-misses and accidents in nuclear states like India, Pakistan and North Korea are not so readily available.

These two incidents of operator-error will no doubt result in a slew of reviews and overhauls of early warning systems. They may also give rise to another crop of anti-nuclear war songs.

If you care to delve into the list of (anti) nuclear war songs, be warned, the quality is uneven and heavy metal bands (Anthrax, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Black Sabbath) are over- represented. But there are also some thoughtful ballads (Kate Bush, Fred Small and this one, by The Postal Service (‘We will become silhouettes’).

People of the Left claim that wars of any type are started (and sustained) to keep the military-industrial complex ticking over.

I was so intrigued by the title of this 1982 Dead Kennedys song I checked it out – could have been written yesterday!

‘Kinky Sex Makes the World Go ‘Round’ has little to do with sex, or music for that matter. Instead we have a 508-word monologue accompanied by punk rhythms presented as a telephone conversation between the US Secretary of War (‘the companies want a war’), and a breathless (female) UK Prime Minister (‘oh, that sounds marvellous.’)

“We knew you’d agree – the companies will be pleased.”

Dead Kennedys

Next week, maybe.

Flashback (September 2017), June 2015

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The near misses that spawned 207 nuclear war songs”

  1. Sting’s song ‘Russians’ made the often overlooked point that the Russians were just as scared of nuclear war as we were. Good choices though. Ed

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