The near misses that spawned 207 nuclear war songs

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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

 

 

 

 

Wikipedia and the 105-year-old blogger

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Dagny Carlsson (aka Bojan) image by Almega – https://www.flickr.com/photos/almega/9206567927/in/photolist-f2xXun-f2y4TM, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51725946

For reasons yet to be linked to Wikipedia, this week I ended up on the home page of a 105-year-old Swedish blogger who goes by the moniker Bojan. I know, it sounds like material for a Nordic noir series. When starting out with the online arts at the age of 100, Bojan starkly rejected comparisons with the ‘100-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared,’ (a popular Swedish novel by Jonas Jonasson).

Bojan’s invariably short pieces reflect on the wonders of daily life that people half her age take for granted. She comments often about the seasons, the weather, old age and being single and alone.

In one recent blog (I found one dated November 5, 2017), Bojan wrote about Swedes who live by themselves. The Google-translate app I suspect renders the English somewhat less fluent than it might be in, say, a Henning Mankell thriller. But you’ll get the drift.

“The other day I read the news that in Stockholm, there are thousands of single-family households, more specifically 380,000 or 40% of the population live by themselves. In the past, there was some suspicion of living alone, but now it is more tolerated. It’s also easier to be single when there are several of them. I myself have been single since 2004 and I think so, of course. It was obviously more enjoyable to be part of a flatness (sic?), but it is pointless to feel sorry for it. Single households are today Sweden’s most common housing form, and nobody thinks it’s something strange. At first, I thought it was pure sorrow to live by myself, but one must get together and live on.”

Bojan started getting together and living on at 100, after buying a computer and teaching herself how to use it. Some of her more recent posts suggest she has become a reluctant ‘cause celebre’ through the conventional media’s fascination with a centenarian who has mastered the online universe. She has done many interviews, appeared on TV chat shows and been the subject of a film, “Life Begins at 100”.

Filmmaker Asa Blanck tracked Dagny Carlsson down and persuaded her to participate in a project which even he admitted was likely to be thwarted by the subject’s death. But no, Dagny turned 105 in May and continues to amuse readers, day by day. (A sequel is planned – the very definition of optimism).

Dagny’s blog is as Blanck found her – “a brusque old lady – all gallows humour”. She promised readers she would not be intentionally nasty but if she ‘trod on toes’, she did not really give a damn, or det kvittar mig, as they say in Sweden. Dagny dreamed of being a teacher when she was young but ended up working as a seamstress. She escaped an abusive first marriage and found love with her second husband, who died when she was in her 90s.

As Blanck observed: “She had managed to rise above her strenuous, grey existence and she had decided she would finally do what she had wanted to do all her life: write.”

Sweden’s blog-readers soon caught up with Bojan’s racey, funny insights and seemingly outrageous behaviour for ‘someone of her age’. For example, she writes about women wearing jeans and how they never did in her day. At 101 she went out and bought a pair of denims.

Ah yes, now I remember how I ended up on Bojan’s blog. I’d been deeply delving into the Wikipedia universe – a free community encyclopedia we writers tend to take for granted. Anyone can contribute, edit or update ‘Wikis’ within Wikipedia. You just need to register as an editor and then be mindful your input will be monitored by a legion of truly vigilant Wikipedia editors. Your input could be as simple as correcting a typo to contributing a new biography of someone you think should have a Wikipedia entry.

One of the things that fascinate me about Wikipedia is the community vigilance which results in entries being updated very quickly. Within hours, it seemed, of the news of Tom Petty’s death, someone had updated his Wikipedia bio, including the premature announcements on social media and the controversy surrounding the timing of Petty’s fatal cardiac arrest.

Wikipedia is essentially a collection of some five million articles in English and another 40 million in 293 languages, all contributed pro-bono by people who care about history, accuracy and detail.

I asked my blogger friend Franky’s Dad if he had ever edited items for Wikipedia. Yes, said FD, a few hundred since 2006. He’d even created a piece about a singer, Bob Wilson. I was momentarily aghast until discovering the latter is a singer, guitarist and songwriter from Pleasant Valley California. Franky’s Dad, aka Lyn Nuttall, maintains a music trivia website www.poparchives.com.au, which aims to find out ‘Where Did They get That Song?’

FD reckons editing Wikipedia is one thing but creating a new entry can be hard yacka, what with their exacting standards for formatting and referencing.

The Listener’s technology correspondent Peter Griffin confessed he was a Wikipedia ‘freeloader’ until deciding to attend an edit-a-thon in Wellington. Events like this were attended by 70,000 people worldwide last year. The main idea is to pick a neglected subject and add to the body of work. There is also a push to correct what is seen as a gender imbalance. Griffin was not confident until encouraged by a veteran Wikipedia editor to “get stuck in and break things”.

The key intention is to keep it factual – not easy in the Trumpian world of fake news and flat-out fabrication. Griffin’s group were on safe enough ground, however, collating biographies of female scientists.

“The seasoned editors smiled knowingly as we fumbled along,” Griffin wrote in The Listener’s September 16 print edition.

“But after a full day, we’d created about 20 biographies of women in science and extensively edited 30 more.

“I’d like to think we increased the sum total of the world’s knowledge.”

Even famous racehorses have a Wikipedia entry. Australian racing’s latest super-horse, Winx, has won 22 races in succession, amassing more than $7 million in prizemoney for her owners. A few weeks back she won the country’s premier race (The Cox Plate), for the third time. No such profile for Regal Monarch, a racehorse with just four wins to its name, put down after falling in race four on Melbourne Cup day.

You’d think tragedies like this (remember Dulcify, 1979), would prompt connections to retire Winx to lush green pastures and make another fortune at stud. But there is an ambitious program in 2018 to race the mare again in Australia and against the best in Europe.

There was even talk she might contest the Emirates Stakes in Melbourne this weekend. But trainers know. Chris Waller last week said Winx would go to the spelling paddock. At least someone other than me could see that Humidor’s fast-finishing second in the Cox Plate did her in.

As Peter Griffin found at the edit-a-thon, only facts are allowed in Wikipedia, and each fact must be backed by a rigorous reference. So seriously is this edict taken, editors this year banned the UK Daily Mail as a source, citing poor fact checking, sensationalism and fabrication.

Additionally, bots continually crawl the Wikipedia site for signs of vandalism (intentional corruption).

So I guess I’ll keep my opinions about Winx to myself, then.