Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Why asking if life is worth living is understandable when the future appears to hold out so little hope

Governments like to tell you that everything will be just fine when a child could tell you it won't

'My generation grew up with the expectation of nuclear war. I don't know if anyone has written the book about how that affected us. There is much to be said of that experience which I think has been left unsaid.' Stock image
'My generation grew up with the expectation of nuclear war. I don't know if anyone has written the book about how that affected us. There is much to be said of that experience which I think has been left unsaid.' Stock image

By Malachi O'Doherty

My generation grew up with the expectation of nuclear war. I don't know if anyone has written the book about how that affected us. There is much to be said of that experience which I think has been left unsaid.

This was the time of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States built their nuclear arsenals in that period and both expressed the full willingness to use them.

The Eastern powers were understood to wish to expand their reach into the West. The Western plan to deter Russian tanks from crashing through the Iron Curtain was genocide, the destruction of Russian cities.

We were told that we would get a four-minute warning if missiles were coming in our direction. We were subjected to government advice to 'Protect and Survive' by hiding under the kitchen table.

In later years, I read the theory that all of this advice was propaganda to impress the Russians. The last thing anyone wanted was Russian spies coming over and discovering that none of us here really believed that our own governments would press the buttons that would bring civilisation to an end and perhaps eradicate all life on this beautiful jewel of a planet. Therefore, we had to be made to believe that they would actually do it.

So, imagine being a teenager hearing this, living in a culture in which the readiness for the war that really would end all wars, and all everything else, was the foundation of your presumed "security".

Is it any wonder that so many of us dropped out, became hippies, smoked dope, turned off to the ardent convictions of politicians?

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How could we believe anything they said about anything if, with the same straight faces, they could tell us to prepare for the end of the world as a matter of government policy?

Most young people, of course, sought jobs and marriage and stability and perhaps just blanked out this madness and got on with living their lives, having children, going to football matches on a Saturday.

Some joined political parties and movements that they thought might make a difference, campaigned for nuclear disarmament and peace.

I went to India and became a yogi. My brother bought a hill farm in Donegal.

What we had in common was a sense that there was little point in pursuing a career when the chances were that you would be ash before you were 30 anyway.

And if you did take a career - go straight - you were likely to be moving among people who thought nuclear deterrence was logical and sensible and that nuclear war was just something you were best not thinking about.

It was all best left to governments, except that what the governments were planning was the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, that is "don't move or we'll blow up the world".

One assurance to go on was the faith that no one was really that mad, "that the Russians love their children, too", as Sting sang it.

Last year I met up with an old school pal, Frankie Callaghan. Frankie had joined a Signals regiment and been posted to West Germany (as it was then) to maintain the equipment that was monitoring communications on the other side.

I asked him if he and his fellow soldiers had been living with the actual expectation that Russian tanks would one day roll through. "Absolutely," he said.

Frankie didn't think that he was just playing a game or that his briefings were propaganda.

I was thinking about the cultural consequences of the Cold War the other day, reading George Monbiot in The Guardian.

George is a long-time, terrific campaigner on environmental concerns, but he says that he is becoming disheartened. He worries that a generation with the responsibility to stall climate change will give up.

"I admit that I am feeling quite close to burnout," he said.

He also says that his anxiety about the state of the environment is sullying the quality of life for him.

"The rising sense of panic I feel is entirely rational; we should all be feeling it. But we can't live with it through every hour of every day."

Today, we are back in an atmosphere of widespread corrosive fear that drained enthusiasm from our lives during the Cold War. In fact, the danger of obliteration never really went away, but the mass cultural dwelling on it subsided and never seemed to be as stifling in contemplation of North Korea or the melting ice sheets.

And it wasn't only the fear of nuclear war that turned many of us off the idea of the respectable, industrious life.

The Cold War was one of a range of absurdities that combined to make you feel that you had to be a hypocrite to survive a job interview, all adding up to the myth that the world could continue as it was with your compliance, polluting the air and the sea, expanding the economy indefinitely and all of this underwritten by the common sense option of blowing up the whole bloody lot.

Even a schoolchild, in such a political culture, could be confident of having more sense than the Prime Minister or the chairman of ICI.

And it was, indeed, a passionate younger generation in the United States that forced the end of the Vietnam War, because the common undergraduate had a wiser sense of what the world needed than the President had.

Last week we had the Duke of Cambridge urging men to share their feelings and protect their mental health and we have had protests by young people in Belfast demanding better mental healthcare. One of those interviewed said: "We have all known someone take their own life."

And I offer no expertise on why we live with appalling suicide figures and an epidemic of depression, but I wonder if one of the causes is the erosion of hope in the future that must afflict anyone who follows the news.

The question of whether life is worth living is real and relevant. You don't have to be depressive to ask it when news reports bring us updates on the progress of climate disaster, the prospects of global war and when so many parts of the world are governed by narcissistic chancers or fanatical idealogues.

The Cold War and the war in Vietnam gave us the hippies. Thatcher gave us the punks and the economic collapse of 2008 gave us Brexit.

All of these are fingers up answers to the idea that everything is just fine when a child can see that it isn't.

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