At Work Studying Nuclear Policy Without Being Engulfed By Fear
Like most people born just as the Cold War was ending, I learned about nuclear weapons in the past tense.
Once, in college, a political science professor showed my class a series of black-and-white aerial photographs of a desert covered in hundreds of holes. He lingered on each photo just long enough for the students to settle into silence and register the odd spectacle in front of us: a patch of Earth cratered like the Moon. With every click of the mouse, another photo appeared: same desert, more holes, shot from a different angle in the sky. The holes looked like surgical incisions in skin, eerily symmetrical compared to the natural curves of distant mountains and the jagged silhouettes of sandstone plateaus.
Amid the shuffling of papers and the clacking of keyboards, I found myself staring at a nuclear weapons testing site in Yucca Flats, Nevada—a graveyard of explosions, each hole an imprint of a bomb. As we surveyed the carousel of images, I began to feel uneasy, realizing that the distorted markings had in fact been made by men preparing for war. I scanned the room to see if any of my classmates were having a similar reaction, but I could not make out their expressions in the dark. Perhaps it had just been me; after all, we were not being asked to examine the grisly aftermath of a battlefield or crime scene. But I could not shake the idea that I had become some sort of voyeur leering at a terrible wreckage, just without a clear victim. It was chilling precisely because the result looked oddly beautiful.
The professor pointed at certain craters and began to list their names. One was named Chipmunk. Another named Gerbil. Then there was Bandicoot, which was quite a blast in 1962, the professor noted excitedly, as though he was sharing an impressive piece of bar trivia. Bandicoot was an explosion that went wrong. Upon detonation, a strong downwind current blew radioactive debris across the valleys. Specks of toxic dust found their way into blades of grass and settled into the bellies of cows, eventually resurfacing as trace particles in bottles of fresh milk. “This place was the military’s playground, a scientist’s candy store,” the professor concluded, matter-of-factly. A place for trial, error, and quality control.
I recoiled, repulsed upon learning how humans had once destroyed a place a hundredfold, vaporizing animals, soils, seeds, root systems, tumbleweeds until all that remained were these deep fissures of nothing.
But then, the feeling passed. I reminded myself that I was in class, looking at the past. The damage had been done decades ago, and there was nothing else left to do but stare and learn. The professor clicked his mouse, and everyone moved on. We all kept taking notes.
Like most people born just as the Cold War was ending, I learned about nuclear weapons in the past tense. It’s a history that reads like lore—wild and terrifying memories told from generation to generation, but with the passage of time, these memories lost their luster and became more like tales from an antiquated world. The United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945, killing thousands of people in a matter of seconds, while thousands more died from radiation sickness days, months, and years later. To improve these new weapons, the US government built military sites in remote areas like the one in Nevada, where they detonated bombs that lit the night sky like the afternoon sun. Then the Soviets followed with their own nuclear ambitions, testing weapons on a Kazakh steppe, a sweeping field of low hills and lacquered pastures. That steppe became home to more than 400 holes, one of which was a crater so large the Soviets turned it into an artificial lake where tainted fish still swim. By the 1960s, the world lived under a US-Soviet nuclear arms race, a military and scientific rivalry so intense people thought they might have to burrow into the Earth to survive. Children practiced duck-and-cover drills to shield their little bodies from imaginary missiles, and mothers bought canned beans for the underground shelter in case the family had to live in it for months.
The damage had been done decades ago, and there was nothing else left to do but stare and learn.
An eager student hoping to land a job in foreign policy, I pored over these facts and stories, color-coded them in notecards according to timeline or theme. By the end of my study sessions, I had sheets of paper bursting with orange, reds, and blues, but the information stayed black and white, a bygone era. I relied on artifacts and primary sources—declassified documents, political memoirs, grainy photographs of melted flesh and scorched buildings—to build a scaffolding of knowledge that would bring me close to the record of truth, a way to approximate the lived experience of a nuclear attack. But the temporal distance between me and my subject of research protected me. It became necessary to manage my knowledge and imagination—believing that that was then and this is now—to study destruction without being engulfed by fear.
I would have never pegged myself as someone who would think this much about nuclear weapons in the first place. I grew up in Los Angeles, having immigrated with my family from Manila when I was ten years old. I thrived in a kaleidoscopic culture of the city, a good life of trading mixtapes with friends, learning curse words and practical phrases in multiple languages, finding the best corner stores with the cheapest snacks to stretch out my allowance every week. At the same time, the city was unforgiving, with its own unique insecurities and threats. I learned to navigate what was pressing and visceral: helping my parents translate medical bills and tax forms; mapping routes from home to school safely, being mindful to not wear certain colors when walking through certain neighborhoods; finding the borders within and between friendships and learning about cultural differences that cannot be mended nor crossed. There was nothing in my youth that impressed upon me that I lived in a world that had narrowly dodged an all-out nuclear war not that long ago—or that I could have a stake in preventing one in the future.
Pop culture blurred the lines between fact and fiction, giving me enough context for what “nuclear” means without the weight and proximity of real death. Nuclear threats are so often represented as vintage, bordering kitsch, like wallpaper with atoms, starbursts, and rockets in nostalgic thrift shops. Even “nuclear” was a foreign word, awkward syllables that got stuck in the roof of my mouth. It was easier to understand the concept through TV shows and video games—silly images of green goo in rusting barrels or a mad scientist’s experiment, a tangle of steel and wires inscribed with a glowing radioactive sign. Learning about nuclear weapons in the classroom was sobering, but I still felt desensitized; the gloss of cartoon depictions of the bomb never left my mind. Or perhaps, I held onto its caricature as part of my distancing mechanism, choosing to believe that nukes are closer to Hollywood props than actual bombs sitting quietly in a missile silo somewhere, waiting to be used. I did not pursue a career centered on the history and politics of nuclear warfare by way of a “higher calling” or natural inclination. I had stumbled into this discipline through one class that led to another, which eventually became a major, and ultimately led to a door I had not known existed, a portal to study a strange and violent past and get paid to do it.
The more I learned about nuclear weapons, the harder I found myself in the work. I was soon invited to be in the company of “experts”—scientists, diplomats, and other intellectuals—all of us connected by our fluency in this strange language of bomb yields, deterrence theories, and arms control treaties. We gathered in marbled government buildings or literal castles that radiated an otherworldly elitism, from the rows of perfectly-pressed national flags that framed the doorways to the portraits of military men that hung above the meeting rooms with stern faces and judgmental eyes. We explored the possibilities of nuclear conflict through fast-clipped debates laced with acronyms and jargon no layperson would understand. We presented our ideas as tidy bullet Points in powerpoint slides and defended them as if they were the long-lost miracle cures to the world’s greatest ills. On one occasion, an older policy expert bemoaned how no one cared about nuclear weapons anymore, how younger people do not know what it means to live under a real threat. We had no appreciation for real loss, insecurity, and sacrifice. His voice trembled, face bloomed a shade of deep purple, eyes narrowed and flickered in my direction. I could not help but look away. By all measures, he was right—as a millennial, I have no personal recollection of towering mushroom clouds, suffocating ash, or the flash of light that could extinguish all of life. But even after spending years trying to understand and prove myself worthy, his and my perception of loss, insecurity, and sacrifice are hopelessly misaligned. There existed an invisible divide that separated my expertise from the communities I grew up with.
Scholar Carol Cohn once remarked that learning and working in a privileged and powerful space that deals with national security is like entering a secret kingdom where everyone speaks the language of control. The thrill of control takes over and the kingdom detaches from reality; one could be talking about something knowledgeably and passionately, while still being thousands of miles away from the ground truth. An expert could know the size of a nuclear crater, name the bomb that made its mark, argue the scientific merits of an experiment, but still not have sufficient words to tap into the depths of nuclear violence and suffering. After traveling the world as a nuclear expert, I would come home to my family and friends who would in turn ask me the simplest questions. Have you seen a bomb before? Can a nuclear war happen today? Would we survive it? What, exactly, should we do? The more skilled I became in my field, the wider the gulf seemed between global affairs and the real world.
I was no longer decoding family paperwork, but the headlines that flashed on their television screens. And yet this did not feel like a personal triumph. In fact, I felt more useless than ever. I would try to explain, fighting back the temporal distance and the caricatures and the hollow language of my work, only to come up empty-handed. The more skilled I became in communicating these topics among peers in my field, the wider the gulf seemed between global affairs and the real world.
History loops. It’s 2022, and most days I find myself doomscrolling in front of my computer screen. Almost three months have passed since the invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s orders to place Russia’s nuclear weapons on high alert, the closest the world has had to consider a nuclear threat in decades. Old images of radioactive mushroom clouds have found new life as apocalyptic memes. My Twitter feed is an explosion of hot takes from people all over the world arguing the possibility of nuclear war as the invasion intensifies. Pundits bicker over semantics on cable TV or op-eds, like the nuance between “strategic” or “tactical” nuclear bombs. Many more harp on how countries should respond, suggesting play-by-plays from the comfort of their digital screens. These experts rack up social media likes, their knowledge validated, while photos of nameless injured and dead rotate on a news marquee every day.
After almost a decade away from home, I returned to Los Angeles to be closer to family. Recently, my nephew sent me a popular website that visualizes what a nuclear attack could look like in any given place. You can type in any city and the website spits out different detonation scenarios as neon yellow circles of varying sizes overlaid on a map. Each circle is a portrait of a hypothetical crater, an imaginary boundary of carnage. The website was supposed to teach people something. But my nephew texted, “I thought this stuff just happened back in the day, in black and white. My friends and I are too young for this. I don’t know what to do.”
As a nuclear expert watching today’s anxieties unfold, I struggle to share what I’ve learned all these years. Not because I fear that no one would understand what I have to say, but because what I know feels increasingly irrelevant in a world already drowning in too much information, gasping for feeling. In the throes of war, we humans only know how to talk around it, tracing the silhouette of violence without touching its core. We look at the craters without processing the void. It is easier to be in the business of studying bombs rather than confronting humanity’s abject failure to denounce and eliminate them.
While in Los Angeles, I am still a part of the nuclear field, but removed from its intellectual bubble. Most people I interact with don’t think about nuclear issues like I do, which is a harsh reality check. Back home, I am reacquainted with the asphalt baking underneath the afternoon sun, the joyful chorus of multiple languages speaking at once, but also the compounding threats that burden this lively community: droughts, wildfires, police brutality, random racist attacks, and of course, the next infectious wave of the pandemic. It’s true that as global alliances fracture and rivalries calcify, nuclear war in this millennia could eclipse these other problems. But I’ve come to accept that the threat of nuclear weapons will remain abstract and distant until it actually happens in my lifetime. I do not view this as a failure, but a clarifying and instructive moment: my responsibility as a nuclear expert is not to drown out all the other insecurities in the world with a loud voice insisting on attention, but rather to quietly listen to everyone else. In this act of care, I can try to stitch together mutual understanding that makes nuclear issues more humble, more human.