Nuclear War’s Effect on the Mind

“Scenarios” about fighting, recovering from, or even “winning” a nuclear war tend to be remarkably vague about the psychological condition of survivors.

Some commentators simply assume that survivors will remain stoic and begin to rebuild from the ruins in a calm, disciplined way. Others seem to attribute that rebuilding to a mysterious, unseen hand. Usually absent is a reasoned estimate, on the basis of what experience we have, of how people might actually be expected to behave.

Recently physicians and other scientists have been making careful projections of the effects of nuclear war, and all raise severe doubts about general claims of recovery.

A twenty-megaton bomb, for instance, if detonated over New York City, Chicago, or Leningrad, would vaporize, crush, incinerate, or burn to death almost every person within a radius of five or six miles from the center of the blast – two million people, perhaps. Within a radius of twenty miles, a million more or so would either die instantly or would suffer wounds from which they could not recover. If the bomb exploded on the ground, countless others who live miles away, far beyond the reach of the initial blast and searing heat wave, would be sentenced to a lingering death as radioactive fallout drifted quietly down onto people, buildings, water, and food supplies, and the earth itself.

But that picture, harsh as it seems, is inadequate even for a limited nuclear war and certainly for a full-scale one. New York City, say, would be hit by many warheads, as would other cities, industrial centers, and military targets – hundreds of warheads, maybe thousands.

One has to try and imagine 100 million or more people dead, and lethal amounts of radioactivity scattered over huge areas.

And the survivors? Would they panic? Would they help one another? What would they feel and do?

In Hiroshima, survivors not only expected that they too would soon die, they had a sense that everyone was dying, that “the world is ending.” Rather than panic, the scene was one of slow motion – of people moving gradually away from the center of destruction, but dully and almost without purpose. They were, as one among them put it, “so broken and confused that they moved and behaved like automatons. …a people who walked in the realm of dreams.” Some tried to do something to help others, but most felt themselves to be so much part of a dead world that, as another remembered, they were “not really alive.”

The key to that vague behavior was a closing off of the mind so that no more horror could enter it. People witnessed the most grotesque forms of death and dying all around them but felt nothing. A profound blandness and insensitivity – a “paralysis of mind” – seemed to take hold in everyone. People saw what was happening and were able to describe it later in sharp detail, but their minds, they said, were numbed.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, can provide us with no more than a hint of what would happen in the event of nuclear war. A single weapon today can have the power of one thousand Hiroshima bombs, and we have to be able to imagine one thousand of those exploding in the space of a few minutes. Moreover, in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and this is absolutely crucial – there was still a functioning outside world to provide help.

In a nuclear war, the process of psychic numbing may well be so extreme as to become irreversible.

Imagine the familiar landscape turning suddenly into a sea of destruction: Everywhere smoldering banks of debris; everywhere sights and sounds and smells of death. Imagine that the other survivors are wandering about with festering wounds, broken limbs, and bodies so badly burned that their features appear to be melting and their flesh is peeling away in great raw folds. Imagine – on the generous assumption that your children are alive at all – that you have no way of knowing whether the radiation they have been exposed to has already doomed them.

The suddenness and the sheer ferocity of such a scene would not give survivors any chance to mobilize the usual forms of psychological defense. The normal human response to mass death and profound horror is not rage or depression or panic or mourning or even fear; it is a kind of mental anesthetization that interferes with both judgment and compassion for other people.

In even minor disasters, the mind becomes immobilized, if only for a moment. But in the event of a nuclear attack, the immobilization may reach the point where the psyche is no longer connected to its own past and is, for all practical purposes, severed from the social forms from which it drew strength and a sense of humanity. The mind would, then, be shut down altogether.

The resulting scene might very well resemble what we usually can only imagine as science fiction. The landscape is almost moonlike, spare and quite, and the survivors who root among the ruins seem to have lost contact with one another, not to mention the ability to form cooperating groups and to offer warmth and solace to people around them.

In every catastrophe for which we have adequate records, survivors emerge from the debris with the feeling that they are (to use anthropologist Anthony Wallace’s words) “naked and alone… in a terrifying wilderness of ruins.”

In most cases – and this, too, is well recorded in the literature of disaster – that sense of isolation quickly disappears with the realization that the rest of the world is still intact. The disaster, it turns out, it local, confined, bounded. Out there beyond the peripheries of the affected zone are other people – relatives, neighbors, countrymen – who bring blankets and warm coffee, medicines and ambulances. The larger human community is gathering its resources to attend to a wound on its flank, and survivors respond to the attention and the caring with the reassuring feeling that there is life beyond the ruins, after all. That sense of communion, that perception that the textures of social existence remain more or less whole, it is a very important part of the healing that follows.

None of that will happen in nuclear war.

There will be no surrounding human community, no undamaged world out there to count on.

No one will come in to nurse the wounded or carry them off to hospitals. There will be no hospitals, no morphine, no antibiotics.

There will be no succor outside – no infusion of the vitality, the confidence in the continuity of life, that disaster victims have always needed so desperately.

Rather, survivors will remain in a deadened state, either alone or among others like themselves, largely without hope and vaguely aware that everyone and everything that once mattered to them has been destroyed.

Thus survivors would be experiencing not only the most extreme forms of individual trauma imaginable but an equally severe form of collective trauma stemming from a rupture of the patterns of social existence.

Virtually no survivors will be able to enact that most fundamental of all human rituals, burying their own dead.

The bonds that link people in connecting groups will be badly torn, in most cases irreparably, and their behavior is likely to become muted and accompanied by suspiciousness and extremely primitive forms of thought and action.

Under these conditions, such simple tasks as acquiring food and maintaining shelter would remain formidable for weeks and months, even years. And the bands of survivors would be further reduced not only by starvation but also by continuing exposure to radiation and by virulent epidemics.

for those who manage to stay alive, the effects of radiation may interfere with their capacity to reproduce at all or their capacity to give birth to anything other than grossly deformed infants. But few indeed would have to face that prospect.

The question so often asked, “Would survivors envy the dead?” may turn out to have a simple answer. No, they would be incapable of such feelings. They would not so much envy as, inwardly and outwardly, resemble the dead.

Robert Jay Lifton
Kai Erikson

Appendix of Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Pyschological Case Against Nuclearism, Copyright 1982 by Basic Books, Inc.