Wide Angle

There Are No Heroes in a Nuclear War

A fact our brains are having a hard time processing.

A U.S. flag is seen waving against a sunset.
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Some decades ago, the French-born, American literary critic George Steiner diagnosed Western culture with an illness of sorts: He argued that we had lost our capacity to understand tragedy. Of course, this might sound like a strange claim coming from a man who had narrowly escaped the worst atrocity of the 20th century. Indeed, as one of only two Jewish students at his French school to survive the Holocaust, the cruelty of modern civilization was never far from Steiner’s mind.

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No, when Steiner announced what he would come to call “the death of tragedy,” he was not denying that the modern world had made possible human anguish on scales that were previously unimaginable. That is, he was not saying bad things had ceased to happen. Rather, he understood tragedy to have a deeper meaning than mere agony.

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We had once been the people of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, Steiner argued: people who felt in their bones—and whose art reflected—the belief that the world was full of impossible choices, insuperable challenges. It is this conviction that was the core of the tragic sensibility as Steiner understood it: A tragic culture accepted the existence of problems—unable to be solved, immune to reason or ingenuity—that must simply be endured.

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It is this tragic fatalism, this sense that there are obstacles that are in the end insurmountable, that Steiner believed the West had lost as it slouched toward modernity. Centuries of progress in politics, theology, and science had convinced us that the world, remade in our image, bends inexorably toward justice: We dethroned kings and installed governments by the people. We replaced a God of retribution and war with a God of justice and mercy. We jettisoned magic and all its caprice in favor of technology and all its certainty. And at last, we abandoned the old heroes—people like Antigone, or Hamlet, who suffered greatly and failed much—and instead valorized those who overcome, who triumph, whose stars are never crossed and only rise.

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I’ve been thinking about Steiner a lot in the past few weeks. It has been a tragic month, and one full of heroes, too. Since late February, we have witnessed Ukrainians fight for their freedom in one of the first morally unambiguous wars since World War II. On our televisions, farmers tow away Russian tanks with agricultural equipment. Famous boxers take up arms to protect their city. Defenders of an island—now memorialized on a postage stamp—tell a Russian warship to shove it. The story is David and Goliath. Wild and defiant and full of righteous rebellion. And millions around the world have tuned in to watch it happen in real time, each act of Ukrainian rebellion only solidifying global opinion that Russia must be stopped, whatever the cost.

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Yet, as inspiring as I find the Ukrainian resistance, the more I watch the events in Eastern Europe transpire, the more I worry we fundamentally misunderstand what we are seeing unfold across our screens. I worry that many of us expect this to be a modern story: one where good prevails, evil is vanquished, and the invaders are turned away at the city gates. And we expect, too, that America has an instrumental role to play in making this victory possible: that the West in general, and the United States in particular, can act, must act, to bring about triumph in Ukraine.

I worry, though, that what we have before us is not a modern story at all, but one that belongs to an older genre, a tragedy of the sort we have lost the ability to countenance or comprehend. I worry this, because the threat of nuclear war makes American heroism impossible. And I worry that that same threat means Ukrainian heroism might ultimately be tragic.

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This is not a new idea. Writing from West Germany in 1983, about two decades after Steiner proclaimed the death of tragedy, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argued that the invention of nuclear weapons had not simply transformed our conception of heroism; it totally destroyed it. For millennia, Western military ideology had been predicated on the valorization of absolute courage—to be a hero, in this view, was to lay everything on the line for one’s country. The problem, Sloterdijk claimed, is that this model of heroism can no longer function in an Atomic Age, in which “laying everything on the line” would transform the world into a pile of radioactive cinders. The threat of mutually assured destruction (“MAD,” in technocratic jargon) renders traditional concepts of heroism and bravery entirely untenable, at least for nuclear powers. “The position of the hero remains unoccupied,” Sloterdijk ultimately declared in the early ’80s. “The world will not see any more victors.” He believed that nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles had made cowardice—a once-reviled accusation—militarily “indispensable.”

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A grid of war bonds posters from World War II
Images by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images and LMPC via Getty Images.

Here, I want to be perfectly, painfully clear: I am not denying the heroism of Ukrainians who are currently standing shoulder to shoulder, rifles in hand, to defend their homes and way of life. I am not denigrating the bravery of the thousands of ethnic Ukrainians from around the world who have left the comfort and safety of their lives abroad in order to return to fight. I am not saying Ukraine should surrender or unilaterally accede to Russia’s demands. And I do not doubt the honor of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has steadfastly refused evacuation, preferring to stand in the lion’s jaw with his fellow citizens, suffering, according to Ukrainian officials, assassination attempt after assassination attempt. What I am saying is that this kind of heroism, the courage to lay everything on the line for the cause of justice, belongs to Ukrainians. As a nuclear power, it can no longer belong to us.

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If the Ukraine crisis has brought anything into focus, it is that our national identity and our national interest are at odds. We believe in our heart of hearts that Americans stand up, and yet—if the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate, if Putin continues to escalate—America, facing the nuclear crucible, will have no choice but to stand down. Indeed, we are beginning to see signs of this cognitive dissonance already, signs of an American culture—a culture convinced it is the protagonist of the world’s story, sure of its capacity to solve problems through military heroism—butting up against a cold, hard reality: that we cannot save Ukraine, at least not militarily.

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To be sure, there are those who would have us believe we can. Calls to do just have the idea distilled down to a slogan: Close the skies. Yet, a so-called no-fly zone is not and will never be a serious option in Ukraine, as Zelensky’s speech to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday seemed to recognize. As myriad commentators, generals, and political analysts have pointed out, a no-fly zone is a euphemism, and what it is a euphemism for is war with Russia and all the thermonuclear risk that brings with it.

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Of course, many of those Americans calling for a no-fly zone realize this. Some “close the sky” advocates, like the 27 “foreign policy experts” who recently petitioned the Biden administration to install a “limited No-Fly Zone,” stand to make a great deal of money if the conflict in Europe metastasizes. Others, like Sens. Joe Manchin and Lindsey Graham, are eager to burnish their tough-guy images, resting safe in the knowledge Congress would probably never approve the measure they themselves insist we must consider. Others still, like Florida Rep. Maria Salazar, seem to be speaking out of partisan reflex, operating on zero information.

Yet, many—indeed most—of those Americans calling for a no-fly zone are not warmongers like those “experts,” or paper tigers like Graham, or opportunistic like Salazar. They are simply people who cannot accept that, at a certain point, there is nothing more America can do. They are people who cannot believe there may come a time when we must contemplate letting Putin win, because the alternative would be to set Europe—and Ukraine with it—on thermonuclear fire. They are people who cannot bring themselves to understand that American heroism is in this instance impossible, that the price for our past sins—for the terrible bomb we invented that we alone have ever used in anger—is that the United States can no longer swoop in to save the day. We can send money, provide defensive supplies, and impose sanctions. We can make this war costly, in terms of international standing and economic stability, for Russia and its allies. But that is all we can do. And if it is not enough? Then that will be a nearly incomprehensible tragedy. But the alternatives are more incomprehensible, more tragic still.

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George Steiner believed that all of us, Jews and gentiles alike, live in the wake of the Holocaust and the terrible knowledge it furnished. “We come after,” he once wrote. “We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”

We come after the bomb, too. The atomic genie shed its bottle in 1945, and it cannot be put back. The morally monochrome heroism of America’s past—the America that carried out a democratic revolution, that tore itself asunder to abolish slavery, that turned back the Third Reich—is no more. We can no longer risk everything in defense of our utmost values. That is the devil’s bargain we made when we dropped “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” on two Japanese cities, transposing human shadows onto concrete.

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This does not mean the heroism of American individuals is over: I was raised by a combat veteran, and I no more wish to tarnish the bravery of Ukrainians than I do the bravery of those who have served in our own armed forces. It does mean, though, that the chips-to-the-middle military heroism of America as a nation can no longer function in extremis. The stakes have become too unfathomable, and our very power has become our most profound weakness.

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So pray for the heroism of Ukrainians—pray that they can hold on, make do with what help the world can provide—but it is time we let go of the old American fantasy that there is no war we cannot win, no democracy we cannot save, no wrong we cannot right. Ukraine faces an enemy whose capacity for evil may well be greater than America’s capacity for good. That is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy we must learn to understand if we are not to stumble into a greater tragedy still, out of a misplaced faith in our own heroism. Much has changed in the world since 1945, but this fact has not: There are no heroes in a nuclear war.

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