The Survivors Will Envy the Dead

The escalating nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea have me thinking of the 1965 film The War Game, a mock-documentary that dramatizes a thermonuclear attack on a small British city. The film, directed by Peter Watkins, won an Academy Award for best documentary, and this despite the fact that it is a work of fiction and was ultimately denied airtime by the BBC because of its graphically violent content. The experience of watching the film is disturbing, not only because it recalls how deeply the threat of nuclear war had penetrated global consciousness during the Cold War, but also because it draws attention to how disconnected the cultural sphere has become regarding the species-level threat of nuclear war. The War Game not only illustrates the danger of nuclear proliferation, but it also serves as a reminder that the international community has failed to address the danger of existing nuclear arms.

There are many aspects of The War Game that remain relevant to our contemporary moment. For example, the nuclear strike depicted in the film is provoked by a conflict between the United States and China over the United States’ military involvement in South Vietnam. The United States threatens to strike the Chinese military with tactical nuclear missiles, which in turn provokes the Soviet Union to assist the East Germans in unifying Berlin under the Communist regime. In an effort to defend Berlin from Communist aggression, the United States and Britain strike Soviet forces with a nuclear missile, thus initiating a full-scale thermonuclear conflict. This was a likely enough scenario when the film was released, and it should give us pause regarding how easily the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea can explode into a larger conflict between any number of nuclear powers.

The War Game is also concerned with the potential of a nuclear war to undo the democratic institutions that protect individual rights and civil liberties. As the threat of nuclear warfare becomes increasingly immanent early in the film, the British government suspends its democratic system and institutes an authoritarian government headed by a special council of fifteen officials. These bureaucrats proceed to force evacuations and civilian billeting, institute food rationing, and establish explicit classes of people who will receive wildly divergent qualities of treatment in case of a nuclear attack. Those of the lowest class will receive no treatment at all, but will be “put out of their misery” by the police. Unsurprisingly, these mandates give way to social discord. The suspension of democratic law leads to military officers shooting enlisted men for refusing orders, and domestic police summarily execute citizens for civic unrest. The War Game is being lucid here. It is not naïve to think that the world’s democracies will suspend their constitutions under the pressures of nuclear war.

One potential argument against The War Game is that the film is overly speculative, and that an actual nuclear crisis will not necessarily end world war and the undoing of western democracy. Watkins answers such objections by contextualizing the film’s nuclear crisis in relation to actual historical events. For example, The War Game makes regular and convincing comparisons between the atrocity suffered by the fictitious British city and the actual atrocities that occurred at Dresden and Hiroshima & Nagasaki. The comparisons are convincing because the filmmakers place the British citizens in situations modeled on actual reactions to these WWII-era bombings. So when the film’s British police collect, loot, and burn the bodies of thousands of dead citizens in the streets, they mimic the actions of German police in the wake of the Dresden bombings. Similarly, when the film’s British survivors seem to regress into a state of apathy, filth, and disease, they repeat patterns observed among the Japanese survivors of America’s atom bombs. These examples suggest that the suffering of the past may very well slip into the future so long as nuclear stockpiles remain intact.

It is important to recognize that the human condition would never be the same after a nuclear war. The human psyche would suffer such a horrendous blow that many would no doubt envy the dead. Just imagine the consequences of an entire nation suffering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The future would be grim indeed. But perhaps we’ve already been acclimating ourselves to precisely such a future. It does seem that many people have already accepted the threat of nuclear war as an unlikely but ultimately justifiable reaction to hostile nations. I’m profoundly uncomfortable with this blasé attitude toward such a future. A nuclear strike by any nation under any circumstance would be an outright assault on the most basic elements of human dignity. We’re fortunate to have organizations like the Ploughshares Fund that have remained diligent in resisting the irrationality of nuclear weapons. We need them to remind us of the very real dangers these weapons pose to the human species. But we also need old films like The War Game to remind us of how close we’ve actually come to destroying ourselves, for that is exactly what we threaten to do every time a nation produces and/or enhances a nuclear weapon, and every time a national leader threatens a member of the international community with annihilation.

I encourage you to watch The War Game, which I’ve embedded below.


The War Game, directed by Peter Watkins, performances by Michael Aspel, Peter Graham, and Kathy Staff, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1965.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins