Warday by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka (1984) 415 p.

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I wouldn’t call it “wish fulfilment,” exactly, but I think the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is that it’s always a fascinating thought exercise: how would you survive? What would you do? Where would you go? Yet whenever people imagine an apocalyptic scenario – be it virus, climate change, zombies, whatever – they never fail to assume that they’d be amongst the survivors. I had a greater than normal interest in the post-apocalyptic genre when I was growing up, but nuclear fiction never engaged me. Some might say that’s because I was a child of the 1990s and 2000s, and the zeitgeist had moved on, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because even for the genre, nuclear war is just too bleak: the unknowable, invisible poisons of radiation, soot blotting out the sky, cities reduced to ash… no thanks. My teenage self wanted to be looting abandoned supermarkets and building a fortress against zombies up in the mountains – not slowly dying, vomiting and losing my hair, lying underneath a door propped up against a wall.

This is also why, I think, nuclear destruction has become more interesting to me as an adult. As you become older your perspective changes; you become more realistic, more cynical maybe. You have an appreciation of the horrors of the world as something other than a boy’s adventure fantasy.

Warday was written in 1984. It posits a fictional nuclear exchange in 1988, and is set five years later in 1993. The 34-minute war takes place on October 28, 1988 (interestingly just ten days after the death of Jeff Winston in that other 1980s potboiler I enjoyed recently, Ken Grimwood’s Replay). Five years later, Whitley Streiber and Jim Kunetka – writing as fictionalised versions of themselves – set off on a journey around a devastated United States to document how much life has changed. Warday is presented as a factual account of this fictional journey.

Part of the enjoyment (if that’s the right word) of reading a book like this is finding everything out for yourself, so I won’t go into too much detail. The critical thing about Warday is that it postulates a limited nuclear exchange. Only New York, Washington and San Antonio (a military target) are destroyed, along with a number of military installations in remote parts of the upper Midwest and Rocky Mountains, and several US Navy fleets at sea. Multiple weapons detonated in the stratosphere also cause a catastrophic EMP which fries most of North America’s electronics. (It’s implied that the US inflicts a similarly limited strike on the USSR in retaliation.) Of course part of this is simply expediency on the authors’ part: they couldn’t very well write about a journey across the US following a total nuclear war, because there wouldn’t be much left to write about or any characters to do the writing. But part of it is also to demonstrate precisely just how devastating even a handful of nuclear strikes would be. Even beyond the instant deaths of millions and then the slow radiation deaths of tens of millions, the American economy is completely crippled, it faces famine and is reliant on foreign aid from the UK and Japan, and the federal government has lost much of its power as various states become de facto independent. California enjoys a high standard of living but turns American refugees away from its border and is slowly becoming a police state; large parts of Texas have been annexed by Mexico; and the Midwestern bread basket states languish beneath radioactive dust storms blown down from Montana and the Dakotas.

The comparison that obviously comes to mind for a contemporary reader is World War Z (the decent Max Brooks book, not the dire Brad Pitt movie). Warday has a more personal touch, as Whitley and Jim travel around their devastated homeland and encounter problems which create their own personal stories, but the best parts of the book for me were the various fictional interviews. Two of the most interesting subjects are a Royal Navy submarine commander involved in hunting down the many “code-blind” nuclear subs who are still hiding out in the world’s oceans, unsure of what has happened to their governments, still posing a terrible threat; and the former US under-secretary of defence, who was aboard Air Force One in the critical moments leading up to the war, and survived its crash landing after the EMP.

Of course, this is effectively a hypothesised future, and there are many things about Warday I didn’t find plausible. Beyond the concept of a nuclear conflict under MAD ever being a “limited” war, I also couldn’t really swallow the idea of a secret pact between France, West Germany and the UK keeping Europe out of the war. I can buy people turning en masse to alternative medicines when real medical help is in short supply (especially under the new federal triage law preventing the waste of medical resources on radiation-inflicted patients with poor long-term survival prospects, something I did find disturbingly realistic), but the interview with a self-described “witch” is a bit daft. There’s an awkward interview with a black woman which sums up the fate of “the blacks” after the war. And I had to smile at the very American depiction of a British aid worker, who talks about how it would be simply unthinkable for the British not to help America because “one cannot fail to remember the American response during and after World War II.” In my experience the prevailing British opinion about the world wars is actually that America showed up selfishly late to both of them.

But these are all quibbles. No author’s vision of the future is going to chime precisely with what I might have imagined, and it’s also silly to say that this-or-that scenario is unrealistic; the Cold War and the MAD apparatus was insanely complex, with an immense number of variables and potential outcomes, and I’m sure that amongst the thousands and thousands of still-classified permutations the Pentagon modelled (and certainly still models), there were possible scenarios very similar what we see in Warday.

I think we forget too often, these days, that the world is still at risk from nuclear catastrophe. Probably people wilfully forgot all the time during the Cold War as well, since there’s nothing you can do about it and therefore no sense in worrying about it. But – speaking as a member of a younger generation – I think there’s a perception that as of 1990 the problem was solved. Reading up on the contemporary state of things after finishing Warday, I was actually surprised to find that both Russia and the US have massively, massively reduced their stockpiles since the 1980s; down to less than 10,000 each from dizzying heights of over 30,000 each, and of those, both countries are thought to have less than 2,000 each on active deployment at any given time. That seems reassuring until you consider what 4,000 nuclear warheads lancing down across the northern hemisphere would result in. As Streiber and Kunetka show us in painstaking detail, it would only take a few dozen – let alone several thousand! – to cause a one-day holocaust and irrevocably fuck up two major nations. Warday is very a much a product of its time, but it’s also a book that remains compelling and relevant thirty years later.

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