It is usually, but not always, a reflection of a prevailing ethos or mood. Report after report detailing appalling child abuse means that even a satirist as penetrating and as humane as Jonathan Swift might not be able to publish his Modest Proposal of 1729 which suggested the best thing to do with the children of the poor would be to eat them. It would be far too close to the bone for today’s sensibilities — sensibilities that erupted when a half tame lion was killed by a US dentist using a bow and arrow but seemed comparatively unmoved by an outbreak of ebola on the same continent.
Equally, that parlour-game of our day — counter-historical speculation — might be given real meaning and some value if we considered how American foreign policy might be different had the battle of Stalingrad, widely recognised as the most savage and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare, been instead the battle of San Francisco or Spokane. Or if this week we marked the 70th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Houston and New York rather than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How different our opinions, our freedom to express them and our world would be.
Already the generations born after WWII have a different attitude to the use of the nuclear bomb than the WWII generations. They are, after all, not likely to be asked to invade mainland Japan, as their forefathers might have been.
One of the themes of this week’s commemorative pieces has been the suggestion that nuclear weapons be destroyed and never again used. This is, like the end of poverty and a hunger-free world, a noble and wonderful aspiration, but it seems it is based on the kind of emotion-driven hope that makes the gambling industry one of the most lucrative in our world. It suggests a dangerous misunderstanding of humanity’s capacity for evil and of how a determined, charismatic and aggressive despot might convince an otherwise civilised people, like Germans in the 1930s or today’s Isis terrorists, to inflict barbarisms on their neighbours. The argument seems based on an almost child-like capacity to trust others, to believe that power, for domination or self-preservation, would be easily surrendered. Nine countries control the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons. America and Russia keep roughly 1,800 on a high-alert status — ready to be launched within minutes. History, and human nature, offer no example of such power being surrendered, much less sidelined.
How much better it would be if the idealism that hopes nuclear weapons might be consigned to history was used to make good history and create circumstances that makes them obsolete. That, tragically, may be even a greater challenge than nuclear disarmament but it cannot be shirked.