Constructing National Interests: The United States and the Cuban Missile Crisis (Borderlines series)

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What both sides have in common is the vaguely threatening aura that any border emits. Even the most peaceable of crossings has ominous overtones; it reminds us of their potential for violence and death in the way that purring kittens remind us of hungry lions. The frisson created by border crossings is an emotional Doppler effect: mounting anticipation, slowly easing on the other side. In vampiric asymmetry, it offers only the void. There are no barriers, no officials, no capitals on the other side. The world as we know it — reciprocal even across national borders — ends here. One thinks of the American West in the midth century, or parts of Brazil into the 20th.

The borderline does not merely separate two territories, but two paradigms: law and order from anarchy, progress from primitivism. Or perhaps, seen from the other side: freedom from oppression, purity from decadence. Emerging first in the Middle Ages, they persisted until Parliament abolished the last of them in Perhaps the most famous such zone was Alsatia, a small area west of Temple, between Fleet Street and the Thames, on the site of a former Whitefriars monastery.

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The riotous, anti-authoritarian history of Alsatia has almost entirely disappeared from memory [3]. One exception is as an obscure legal term. They are eventually overrun by central authority, absorbed into the body politic and airbrushed out of history. But while such territories have largely disappeared, over the last decade a new, enormous Alsatia, of sorts, has been identified: Zomia, the highland areas of Southeast Asia that are outside traditional state control.

First identified in by the Dutch historian Willem van Schendel [5] , Zomia originally included Tibet and other southwestern parts of China, northern and northeastern parts of India, most of Nepal and Myanmar, all of Bhutan and Laos, and bits of Thailand and Bangladesh. By proposing Zomia, Mr. Van Schendel highlighted a transnational area that is marginal to all the states that nominally control it. Zomia is a sanctuary, a refuge for isolated, unassimilated communities.


In , Mr. Van Schendel broadened the geographical scope of Zomia, extending it westward and northward to include large areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India Kashmir , Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and western China Xinjiang. The western extension of Zomia brings into focus even more strikingly the rebellious, anticentralist, nature of much of this zone. Other potential conflict zones within Zomia are the border disputes between India and China [6] , and between India and Pakistan [7]. In , the Yale political scientist James C. That perspective—aloof, rueful, ethereal—allows for beauty too.

In the course of his research, Broderick has interviewed observers from various bomb test sites, and many told him that they were glad, for lack of a better word, to have seen these things go off. What comes after is horrible burns and sickness, razed cities, firestorms.

That attraction speaks to my own fascination with the bomb. My Catholic education never really took—the priests were too vague on the details to make dying sound appealing.

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But not in the event of a nuclear war. Only the bleakest film ever made would refuse us even the cold comfort of oblivion and force us to watch the slow, painful expiration of human culture, or what remains of it, over generations of post-war trauma and misery. And that film is Threads The American effort, however, plays like a singalong with Elmo and some Muppet penguins by comparison.

Threads was and is something else. Novelist Barry Hines wrote the screenplay with diligent reference to existing civil defense plans, consulting with doctors, physicists, psychologists, agronomists. Mick Jackson directed in a neutral, neorealist style, reusing some of the material he had used in the popular science program QED: A Guide To Armageddon The threads of the title are the bonds of family, community, society, severed by a megaton missile strike against the UK, as experienced by a couple of lower and middle-class households in the industrial city of Sheffield.

It begins with the escalation to conflict in the Persian Gulf, as witnessed by way of nervous glances toward television news bulletins at home or in the pub, and it ends with the daughter of the only survivor delivering a stillborn baby in the depths of nuclear winter, her stunted grasp of language giving way to a final howl. Everyone who saw it was scarred. Thirty-five years later, Scottish journalist Julie McDowall told me that the broadcast was one of her earliest memories. In particular she recalled the sight of glass milk bottles melting on the doorstep of a suburban house.

She was three at the time. The world can end, and none of these adults are able to stop it? No one can save me, not even my Gran? McDowall now calls herself the Atomic Hobo, the name also given to her popular podcast on the bomb and its cultural history. She travels to bunkers and shelters from the farmlands of Scotland to the tunnels under Budapest, reports from the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and records serio-comic editorials on the chillingly banal official literature issued by national defense ministries obliged to misinform their publics that a nuclear exchange would be survivable.

I share her preoccupations, and I admire her readiness to talk about how they have affected her mental health.

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I asked McDowall if immersion in the subject provided any kind of protection. She said that working on the podcast, and a forthcoming book, had merely replaced her sense of terror with a feeling of hopelessness. Maybe it is? Anything light, or surreal, is near blasphemy to me. The danger might be growing again, she said, but the horror is no longer universal. Released thirty years ago this spring, at the tail end of the Cold War, the low-key indie feature always seemed too romantic for her tastes, too essentially unreal in its dreamy mood and music, its lates neon glow.

It bombed hard enough at the box office to make the obvious pun redundant, then haunted the margins on VHS and cable television, at midnight screenings and apocalyptic film festivals. The time is a. A young jazz trombonist named Harry Anthony Edwards picks it up, hoping to hear from Julie Mare Winningham , the waitress he fell in love with the previous afternoon. Fifty minutes and counting! He misdialed in a panic while trying to reach his dad and claims that the United States is about to launch a full preemptive strike against Soviet targets.

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For what reason, he has no idea. A more stentorian voice comes on the line, telling Harry to forget what he heard and go back to sleep. That moment marks one of the most disconcerting tonal shifts in cinema—a sort of wake-up call that the hero has to act on without ever being sure that it is not just a nightmare.

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  7. The rest of the film plays out in those remaining seventy minutes: Harry tries to find and save his perfect girl while spreading pandemonium through the pre-dawn streets, like Chicken Little in a loose-fitting blue suit. Spoiler alert: the sky is really falling, though it is still in doubt until the last few seconds. Three vapor trails streak over the Hollywood Hills and down into the LA basin, the conjoined blast shredding buildings and melting eyeballs.

    The electro-magnetic pulse brings down the helicopter our two lovers are escaping in, and they sink into the La Brea tar pits, to die and—hopes Harry—be turned into diamonds. A lamentation for the whole human race in one short, unfinished line. But it was a long odyssey. A few journalists came to De Jarnatt for comment, and he told them the same thing he tells fans at special repertory and roadshow screenings of Miracle Mile.

    Let no one think that it is thinkable. Dispel any interest in surviving, in lasting. Have no part of it. Be ready to turn in your hand. For myself and my loved ones, I want the heat, which comes at the speed of light.

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    I fantasize about a more perfect Doomsday Machine that kills only the person who pushes the button—turns him to a pillar of fire, then a pile of red dust. It may also be that I have restarted worrying about the bomb out of a hardwired Gen-X impulse to blame someone else for the state of the world my girl will grow up in. Nuclear war was always something that would be done to us. Climate change is what we have done—and are still doing. In the real event, of course, whoever starts a nuclear war is also the best positioned to survive one.

    However it happens—mistake or miscalculation, computer glitch or cyber-hack, some limited tactical skirmish escalating to a larger conflict or old-fashioned wanton aggression in the name of national sovereignty—there would likely be time for presidents and generals to retreat to their bunkers. And the only culture left would reside in whatever works of art are stored down there. Trump, for example, once made plain in a New Yorker profile that one of his favorite films is Bloodsport , a trashy kickboxing flick with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Putin is a fan and friend of the noxious martial artist and direct-to-video action star Steven Seagal.

    It would be the crowning irony of our civilization for these dictators to sit beneath the burning Earth, draining fuel reserves from underground generators to keep the juice flowing to their entertainment systems, watching movie after movie about self-styled tough guys saving the world. Until, one day, the power runs out, the lights snap off, the screen goes dead. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers.

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