Part II of this article series begins by establishing the concept of Limited Nuclear War and highlighting its enduring significance as a sociocultural theme. I then examine the depiction of limited nuclear war in the British prophetic fiction series Years and Years, the predictive significance of which being the basis of this article and series. From this context is presented the following thesis: that the international developments ensuing from the Russia-Ukraine conflict are likely to provide the catalyst for the fulfilment of the nuclear threat born from the Cold War—specifically, in the form of limited nuclear war.
The Cultural Presence of Nuclear War
During the four decades of the 20th century in which the Cold War was officially in effect, the greatest threat to mankind was universally professed to be the annihilating consequences of a full scale nuclear war. This theme – entrenched as much in entertainment as it was in news, politics, and science – was represented by the renowned military doctrine and national security policy of ‘mutually assured destruction’, acronomized (most helpfully) as MAD*; which was in turn symbolized by the commercial illustration of MAD via the 1964 black comedy film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, created by the now legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.
*Juvenile Symbolization in Acronyms
My sarcasm concerning the acronym ‘MAD’ applies to the more general practice of this inherently juvenile simplification, whereby officials have (obviously) contrived to create a childlike form of association between a concept and its intended signifier—e.g. the type of depression termed ‘seasonal affective disorder’ being acronomized as ‘SAD’. Thus in the case of MAD, it’s quite obvious that the officials first determine that the concept – which is to be culturally high-profile – should connote ‘madness’; hence they first devise the acronym(s) that will serve this purpose and then construct the actual term to conform to the most facilitating acronym (indeed, I think that there are enough words in the English language that a usable term can in any case be derived from any predetermined acronym).
No different than any of the other prominent variations of apocalyptic propaganda, however, this Cold War era doomsday paradigm* was a base exaggeration of the actual possibilities, in terms of both the physical and the political capacity to annihilate the earth and all animal life on it (an exaggeration exemplified by the popularized myth that cockroaches would ‘inherit the earth’). In reality, the MAD scenario of a nuclear holocaust is a twofold, mutually-politicized myth that, firstly, humans are technically capable of annihilating the earth and extincting themselves; and secondly – even hypothesizing they could do it – that politicians actually possess the decision-making power they merely serve to symbolize.
*Juvenile Symbolization in Icons
This doomsday paradigm was likewise juvenilely symbolized by the Doomsday Clock, the ceremonial ‘setting’ of which still continues to this day. The nuclear apocalypse symbol of the Doomsday Clock was, in turn, commercially emblemized by the 1986-87 comic book series Watchmen; more specifically, by the blood-stained smiley face designed to satirize the Clock and which served as a thematic symbol for the series. The fact that this symbol rose to the status of an enduring pop cultural icon is hence suggestive of ‘what time it is’ on nuclear war.
Suffice to say here that psychodramatic basis of ‘The Way The World Works’™ is nothing like the way the world actually works, the reality in fact being far from how it is commonly portrayed. In this case, the mythological prism is epitomized by the Cold War symbols of the Moscow-Washington ‘hotline’, which was invented to mitigate the risk that a leader of either side might unintentionally start a nuclear war; and the ‘nuclear button’, which served to symbolize the leaders’ power to single-handedly launch a nuclear attack at a moment’s notice.
This distorted representation of reality brings to mind the seminal work on the topic, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy by Henry Kissinger (1957). While ostensibly validating the illusionary context of ‘all-out nuclear war’, Kissinger’s thesis – when read between the lines – betrays this illusion by a quasi-official international policy of ‘limited nuclear war’—that is, an esoterically stipulated policy. In any case, I consider the cultural conception of all-out nuclear war to be an ideologically fiction, being equivalent in form and purpose to the purported apocalyptic threats that characterized eras of medieval and ancient times; and further, that limited nuclear war – the ‘controlled’ use of nuclear weapons – is the true form of nuclear warfare that will, inevitably, be put into practice.
Nuclear Fiction: From ‘All-Out’ (‘Holocaust’) to ‘Limited’ (‘Exchanges’)
Created at the start of the Cold War era, the notion of ‘nuclear holocaust’ has been made a cultural trope via fictional representations that proliferate to the present day*. Specifically, I refer to those vivid depictions of the human race being on the verge of extinction following an all-out nuclear war and the resulting nuclear fallout dispersed throughout the globe. Most fictions on this theme do not depict it directly but rather imbue a strong impression that ‘nuclear apocalypse’ is a realistically possible scenario. Thus the denouement of novels, movies, and television series based on this trope are typically that of an all-out nuclear war narrowly averted—which thereby instils the notion into the social consciousness by a form of cultural apophasis†.
*Juvenile Symbolization in Quotes
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” This famous statement attributed to Einstein has been embedded into Western culture ever since, a prominent example being its quotation in The Day After (1983), which was the highest-rated television film in history and has remained so well into the millennium (it was essentially the American equivalent of the British TV film Threads, which was released the year after). In any case, the point of the statement is mythical whilst the punch line is actually nonsensical, i.e. World War III will be a ‘nuclear holocaust’, thus reducing humanity back to caveman status; therefore, World War IV will be fought with caveman weapons. Needless to point out, a world of neo-cavemen is ‘world’ in which the very word “world” has no meaning, for that “world” can exist only by civilization—hence the ‘military strategy’ with “sticks and stones” in a “world war” is too nonsensical for even the great Monty Python to mock!
†I use the term “apophasis” in reference to the concept of a rhetorical device in which the speaker promotes a notion under the guise of denying it; and by the term “cultural apophasis” I refer to cultural ideation generated by apophatic devices. With regard to the apocalyptic trope of nuclear holocaust, then, it is one largely based upon cultural apophasis in that it explicitly validates the plausibility of the scenario only to implicitly deny it at the last minute—thereby cultivating the underlying impression: “This insanity could really happen!!—but (relax, because) of course it can’t really happen.” Thus is the threat of nuclear holocaust socio-culturally authenticated—which in turn, legitimizes all manner of real-world socio-political measures.
At the same time, the notion of limited nuclear war has had increasing representation in works of fiction (albeit rarely being identified as such), the previously mentioned Threads being a prime example. This sub-trope of nuclear war was depicted at the climax of Years and Years’ first episode in the form of a nuclear attack by the US on Chinese territory, followed by a terrifying preparation for a nuclear reprisal in Britain (and by implication, the West). The representation of this theme in the first episode therefore warrants some consideration—and especially so: for whatever Years and Years depicts, it (keenly) predicts.
Limited Nuclear Attack → Emergency Broadcast + Four-Minute Warning (= Panic & Chaos in Britain)
The development of the nuclear war in Years and Years begins by the news reports of China installing a military base in disputed territory (a fictional island named Hong Sha Do), the act of which causes international concern and is stated to be an intolerable security threat by the United States. Hence, this imagined geopolitical scenario represents the casus belli from which the limited nuclear war is derived. More to the point, however, is the series’ depiction of the immediate and future ramifications of limited nuclear war, beginning with its dramatic and literally alarming climax to the premiere episode: the Emergency Broadcast.
With the presence of militarial international crisis between the US and China being established earlier in the episode, the character Edith had travelled to Vietnam to war-protest nearby Hong Sha Do; and now, from this vantage point, she calls her family to report that the US have fired a nuclear missile at the island. Just as she does so, all communication devices – phones, laptops, and televisions – are taken over by the sole message: “Emergency Broadcast”—which is immediately followed by the siren signifying the dreaded ‘four-minute warning*’.
*The ‘four-minute warning’ – a public alert system created during the Cold War – has (nevertheless) continued to be an active cultural sub-theme of nuclear war.
At this point, the newscaster appears on television to announced that “that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been placed on an official war footing” due to this event. As the Lyons family – who have gathered in the living room whilst on the phone to Edith – anxiously debate the possibility of a nuclear war involving Britain and attempt to reassure each other to the contrary, Edith interjects: “Oh shit—” at which point the scene cuts to hers as she witness the blast from her nearby location. As the British newscaster confirms the detonation, the Lyons family begin to panic whilst the episode spirals out via a montage that insinuates the nationwide descent into chaos.
In the next episode it is revealed that China did not retaliate to the nuclear attack—which, incidentally, is an outcome that serves to make the distinction between a ‘nuclear attack’ and a ‘nuclear exchange’, both of which being possible scenarios of a limited nuclear war.
Such, then, is the Years and Years prophecy of limited nuclear war, suggesting Britain’s potential embroilment in it and illustrating how its citizens might experience the build-up and escalation of impending disaster—or, in cultural terms, ‘Doomsday-Clock’ing, ‘Hotline’-brawling, ‘Red Button’-pushing ‘MAD’ness.
Nuclear Nemeses from East to West
Although Years and Years explicitly predicts that China will be the West’s primary adversary in a limited nuclear war, it implicitly portrays Russia as the arch-nemesis of the West throughout the series, featuring references to that effect in all but the fourth episode. Indeed, the immediate result of the nuclear attack was subsequently revealed to be not Armageddon, but a militarily deterred China dealing with mass casualties. By comparison, the collective references to Russia engender the impression of Putin dictatorship intent on resurrecting the imperialist aspirations of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. A telling example of this is the very first reference to Russia (Episode 1) being “Soviet”, in the news reader’s statement that “the Soviet army [has moved] into Kiev to maintain stability”, which thus alludes to a revival of Soviet ideology in the Russian state.
The undertones highlighting the premise of Russia, rather than China, being the primary security threat to the West also include the contrast between two characters closely related to the Lyons family: Viktor and Lincoln.
Viktor is the Ukrainian refugee who immediately becomes a part of the Lyons family and ultimately represents the sympathetic star of Years and Years*. His presence in the UK is due to the Russian takeover of Ukraine and the brutal policies that Russia implemented in his home country (which includes electronic torture, as Viktor sadly explains). Further references to the inhumane character of ‘re-Sovietized’ Russia are made through Viktor’s plot, thus reinforcing the impression of Russia as the international villain of the present era.
*My initial article The Russia-Ukraine War and the Prophetic Fiction ‘Years and Years’ discusses the central sympathetic role of the Ukrainian refugee and its prescient significance to British politics.
In contrast, Lincoln is the child son of Rosie Lyons and is born of a Chinaman, thus being half Chinese. Following his birth in the first episode the mother comments on how the baby looks “so Chinese”—at which point her brother remarks “Oh my God, I was waiting for you to say it first! He is, isn’t he? I wondered how Chinese he was going to be, but he’s like 100%.” Fast-forward five years (via the elemental Years and Years montage technique) and to the end of the episode, the family are gathered in the living room dreading a nuclear response from China; at which point Muriel (grandma Lyons) tries to reassure everyone with some mystical optimism: “We should be safe, in this house. (of Lincoln) We’ve got our very own little Chinaman. They’ll leave us alone.”—and indeed, not only were they safe “in this house” but China ‘left everyone alone’, so to speak, for it made no retaliation at all.
To be sure, there are at least two allusions in Years and Years that China is a growing threat to the Western world: one being those indicating the entrenchment of dictatorship government in China; and another being the Prime Minister – in a speech intending to rouse national passion – warning that “China is rising”. But overall, the impression made is that while China is a growing threat to the West it is not the immediate threat, which is Russia; hence it is Russia that is consistently referred to in that context exclusively.
From Russia with No Love Lost: Ukraine Conflict to Cold War Redux
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war that has ensued, the geopolitical picture outlined by Years and Years has never been more reflected in reality than it is now. With Russia being utterly condemned by most the of world and China being one of the few nations to abstain from imposing sanctions against Russia, the state of play on ‘the grand chessboard’ recalls a salient point by the American political scientist and international relations scholar, John Mearsheimer, who in his 2014* paper: Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault – The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin, stated that
“The United States will also someday need Russia’s help containing a rising China. Current U.S. policy, however, is only driving Moscow and Beijing closer together.”
Hence the world of the 2020’s (to mid 2030’s) depicted in Years and Years is as if the writer had read Mearsheimer’s thesis and extrapolated the geopolitical implications into his predictive fiction. In any case, both the fiction and the thesis seem to be more grounded in reality than the simplified, adversarial media narrative that overbears such issues.
*Shortly after the Russia-Ukraine conflict began I discovered Mearsheimer’s lecture on the topic via YouTube’s recommended videos—and his insight on the matter was so pertinent that it was over half an hour before I realized the lecture is eight years old!
The prescience of Years and Years is thus apparent well beyond its immediate prediction of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia: for the wholesale demonization of Russia by national leaders, politicians, media commentators, and even major celebrities is in harmony with the series’ undertone of Russia becoming an international villain and resurrecting its Cold War status as arch-nemesis of the West. Indeed, the exclusive narrative generated immediately in response to Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is that of Putin making aggressive, ruthless, imperialist moves, thereby indicating a revival of Soviet-era antagonism towards Western civilization.
Conclusion: World War III – The Revival
By featuring the theme of limited nuclear war at the dramatic finale of the first episode, Years and Years may have revived social consciousness – perhaps appropriately to a limited degree – of a global threat that has largely been disregarded since the ‘end’ of the Cold War. Although the series did not explicitly mention World War III, which has been conjectured in recent media due to the Russia-Ukraine War, the looming threat of a third world war is not only implied strongly at the outset but its increased likelihood is indicated by more subtle references throughout the series.
Chiefly from the theme of WWIII and more specifically of limited nuclear war – both of which having recently become all-too plausible possibilities – the prophetic narrative of Years and Years goes on to establish related themes that are equally of predictive interest, particularly with respect to the Russia-Ukraine War and its wider ramifications—such as…
Part III will be crashing imminently (—you’ll have your work cut out missing it)…
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