Saturday, March 26, 2022
Yet I kept hearing wellness pundits rave about “cold immersion.” They made it sound fairly simple. You pop into a really cold lake, ice bath or shower; stay there for some extended period of time; reemerge, shivering and bluish; and magically reap a wide range of supposed health benefits, such as more energy, better metabolic health and happier moods. Cold showers seemed slightly better than submerging myself in ice, and the concept was intriguing, if not exactly tempting.
But I became more interested in trying it this past winter. I’d begun to feel vaguely depressed, with the sunless skies, the pandemic marching on like an evil Energizer Bunny, and my occasional overwhelm from adjusting to a new career path — all while trying to cut back on my coffee addiction. I needed a boost.
Before I tried to conquer my fear of chilly water, I spoke with experts to see if it was worth it. One of them was David Sinclair, a Harvard biologist and leading researcher of longevity whose “metabolic winter” hypothesis would explain why cold immersion supports long-term health. His hypothesis, he said, is based on the fact that, for tens of thousands of years “our status quo was being cold.” That was because our ancestors lived outdoors in seasonally cold temperatures, endured the ice age and migrated to colder climates. Human metabolism, therefore, was designed to adapt to uncomfortable weather (hot temperatures may have had the same effect). But these days we live almost entirely in climate-controlled luxury. The new status quo derails our health because it eliminates the biological challenges our bodies had adapted to.
Sinclair’s hypothesis draws from a principle, well accepted by biologists, called hormesis: Some amount of pain is good for us. In addition to cold-water immersion, other examples of hormesis include exercise and dietary fasts.
Another expert I spoke to, Anna Lembke, a Stanford professor and psychiatrist, prescribes various forms of hormesis including cold-water immersion instead of pills to some of her patients suffering from addictions. “It helps them tolerate withdrawal,” she told me. “The body responds to cold water by up-regulating feel-good molecules like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, as a way to compensate.”
These theories sounded plausible. Missing my usual caffeine bump and feeling especially lethargic one cloudy afternoon, I turned my shower handle to its coldest setting, took a deep breath, and stepped in.
I gasped. Then I screamed and quickly stepped out.
“Are you okay?” my 6-year-old asked from the hallway.
“I don’t know,” I said, before reassuring him — and myself — that it was just cold water.
Take two: I turned the handle to a saner, more inviting temperature, and got back in the shower. For about six minutes, I brought the pain gradually, turning the handle in increments, allowing my body to adjust. That is, until the handle would turn no longer, and the showerhead unleashed its deepest chill. I screamed again and reached out for the handle like a drowning man grabbing a rope, shutting off the water.
Never again, went the refrain in my head. But as I got dressed, cranked up the heat in my house and stood next to my space heater, a profound sense of relief spread through me, a rebound effect that lasted several hours.
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Even so, I remained skeptical. I’d just finished reading “Suggestible You,” Erik Vance’s book about the placebo effect. Beyond theoretical explanations and my own subjective take, what did scientific experiments actually reveal about the benefits of cold water?
I talked with Heather Massey, a physiologist in the Extreme Environments Research Group at the University of Portsmouth in Hampshire, England. Research on cold immersion is “an emerging field,” she said. “There’s a desperate need for more studies” and funding to do them.
A handful of studies do show a link between cold exposure and upticks in various brain chemicals associated with well-being. For example, one study found that immersion in cold water — 57 degrees, to be exact — raised people’s blood levels of the neurotransmitters noradrenaline (by 530 percent) and dopamine (by 250 percent).
Some research suggests that noradrenaline helps counter anxiety and depression, and dopamine plays a key role in feelings of motivation and reward. Other research indicates that higher levels of noradrenaline could reduce inflammation.
Sinclair mentioned to me that enduring cold temperatures may also increase so-called “brown fat,” which is associated with lower body fat percentage. Notably, this research involved cold air, not water. Other studies suggest that cold water immersion can buffer the immune system.
The anecdotal evidence, however, has been enough for some scientists to take the plunge themselves. Massey swims outdoors in cold-weather months. Before the pandemic, Sinclair dunked himself regularly in 39-degree water for five minutes at his gym. Kenneth Kishida, a Wake Forest neuroscientist and dopamine researcher, told me that he likes to take rugged camping trips in state parks, subjecting himself to frigid showers and other hormetic stressors. He returns from these trips in higher spirits.
Wendy Suzuki, an NYU neuroscientist, takes cold showers every morning. “I can tell the difference when I forget to do it,” she told me. “It’s just generally activating. I feel so alive.”
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I’ve gotten into a rhythm of taking cold showers two or three times per week, usually after lunch. At first, I couldn’t stand the shock of the coldest temperature — 48 degrees, according to my thermometer — for more than a few seconds. With more of these showers, though, my endurance has improved; I can now persist through the worst pain for several minutes.
“That tracks with the research,” Massey told me. “Cold shock” is the body’s natural response to sudden cooling of the skin, involving faster breathing and heartbeat, she said. But as you expose yourself more, these defense mechanisms start to relax, research suggests. “You can extend your time in the water because you have far less discomfort,” said Massey.
Recently, my thoughts have even drifted to random subjects, as they do during warm showers, rather than obsessing over the pain. But I last longest when focusing on the boost I’ll get afterward — a strategy backed by research. Plus, longer cold exposure seems to intensify the benefits.
I asked my wife if she’s noticed any changes in my mood lately. “Possibly,” she replied, very diplomatically. Hoping for a more definitive answer, I asked my 6-year-old the same question. “Not really,” he said. But then he added, “I have noticed, when I look over at you, sometimes you’re just smiling at me.”
I shouldn’t need cold showers to make that happen. But if they do the trick, the pain is worth it.
Matt Fuchs lives in Silver Spring, Md. In addition to writing about health and technology, he is editor in chief of Leaps.org, a journalistic platform that covers health innovations. Follow him on Twitter.
Monday, March 21, 2022
Are “safe” levels of air pollution really safe? • Current evidence, and what to do about it (6M Read)
March 12, 2022
In last week’s newsletter, I discussed various factors which might contribute to the alarming (and potentially rising) incidence of lung cancer among non-smokers. As a follow-up, I’d like to zoom in on one factor in particular which deserves special attention: air quality.
The current state of air quality
Over the last several decades, air quality studies have convincingly demonstrated that air pollutants are associated with numerous morbidities and early mortality. Extensive evidence shows that long-term exposure to airborne fine particles is strongly associated with negative effects on the respiratory system (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ischemic heart disease, and lung cancer), the central nervous system (oxidative stress and neuroinflammation leading to stroke, dementia, and neurodevelopmental disorders), and development (preterm delivery, low birth weight, and birth defects). This may not come as a surprise if your mind conjures images of densely populated city centers awash in traffic and smog. For instance, Delhi has one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world with a PM2.5 of 121 µg/m3 and is estimated to have the highest premature mortalities associated with airborne particulates. (PM2.5 refers to air particulate matter equal to or smaller than 2.5 µm – sizes small enough to penetrate deeply into lung tissue.) Compare this to guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which recommends maximal annual average PM2.5 concentrations of 12 µg/m3 to minimize the risk of health effects associated with long-term exposures.
Delhi is an extreme case. In the U.S., according to the EPA’s Air Quality Trends report surveying 206 cities across the nation, the average mean PM2.5 was 13.06 µg/m3 in 2000, 9.87 µg/m3 in 2010, and 7.96 µg/m3 in 2020 – a reduction of PM2.5 air pollutants by approximately 20-25% every decade. It’s clear that PM2.5 concentrations are now at their lowest national averages in recent records – even in dense metropolitan areas like New York City and Los Angeles, levels are well below the safe limit recommended by the EPA. But what isn’t clear is just how “safe” these limits actually are.
The average person will find it near impossible to avoid some level of exposure to fine particle air pollutants, which originate from a number of indoor and outdoor sources. Outside, fine particles predominantly come from motor vehicle exhaust, burning of fuels such as wood or coal, natural forest fires, and reactions from power plants. Inside, fine particles are produced by cooking, tobacco smoke, burning candles, and lighting fireplaces. Even at low levels, might these pollutants increase risk of pollution-related disease? And should we do anything about it?
Investigating the effects of air pollution
Trying to understand the effect of low air pollution on human health is a challenge. While it might be possible to determine the acute effects of high levels of pollutants by using short exposures in controlled test environments, assessing the health effects of long-term exposure at low concentrations does not afford such opportunities for controlled study environments. By necessity, study cohorts would need to be constantly exposed to very distinct environments in order to breathe distinct air, thus opening the door for a host of systemic differences in culture, diet, occupation, age, and climate, to name only a select few. Randomization and subject blinding are impossible. Thus, our primary data on this subject come from epidemiological studies involving an endless list of potential (and inherent) confounds.
As an example, a recently published epidemiological cohort study provided data collected from seven European countries between 2000-2017 as part of the “Effects of Low-Level Air Pollution: A Study in Europe” (ELAPSE) project. This enormous dataset included over 28 million subjects ages 30+, and investigators analyzed these data to assess the relationship between long-term exposure of low-level pollution and deaths from cardiovascular disease, non-malignant respiratory disease, lung cancer, and overall non-accidental causes. Concentrations of PM2.5 were estimated from linear regression models across multiple locations in western Europe in 2010. Analysis of the seven cohorts revealed a positive association between overall non-accidental mortality and PM2.5 concentration. Further, out of the total cohort, 4 million subjects were exposed to particulate matter below the EPA PM2.5 guideline value of 12 µg/m3, and within this subset, the calculated hazard ratio of pollution exposure was 1.095 per 5 µg/m3 increment. Meaning, there is a concentration-response even at low levels below clean air guidelines, so air pollutants still pose a greater risk for early mortality.
So is this epidemiological data reliable?
Even with millions of participants, the cohort study found only a slightly increased risk of mortality associated with low levels of PM2.5 air pollution. The authors state that they did not have data on smoking status or body mass index (BMI), both of which could constitute significant covariates or might reveal a “healthy user bias.” With all the confounding factors that may not be accounted for, it’s hard to put much faith in the small difference in risk identified by this analysis. However, it is important to recognize that this is just the latest in a long line of studies over many years that have shown similar outcomes: long-term exposure to low-level air pollution is hazardous to health. Despite individual study flaws and the potential for publication biases, the remarkable consistency and apparent dose-dependency of these effects across a large body of literature adds some credence to these conclusions.
Additional support for this conclusion comes from mechanistic studies conducted in Vitro and using animal models. Mice exposed to PM2.5 at 100 μg/day for 4 weeks exhibited marked lung inflammation and early stages of fibrosis compared with controls. As part of the same study, the investigators also conducted in vitro experiments using a line of lung epithelial cells to demonstrate that PM2.5 treatment induces 2.5-fold increased expression of TGF-β, a potent driver of fibrosis. Other work in mice has demonstrated neural inflammation and cognitive decline following PM2.5 exposure, in addition to pulmonary inflammation. Exposure of pregnant female mice to PM2.5 has been shown to result in lung and brain abnormalities in offspring. Though none of these studies used low PM2.5 exposure levels (i.e., under the limits set by EPA guidelines), they nevertheless provide mechanistic proof of principle for the reported effects of pollution on human health.
How to reduce exposure to particulate air pollution
What can be done to reduce our own exposure to particulate air pollution? Taking cars off the road or banning burning of fossil fuels aren’t practical solutions, at least in the foreseeable future. While we might have limited power to impact our outdoor air environment, countermeasures can be taken within the home to reduce our individual exposure. Limiting smoke production from wood-burning fireplaces and other sources is one strategy for reducing pollution originating from within the home. Another strategy – which also reduces pollution that enters the home from outdoors – is to use a HEPA filter in everyday life.
HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters are designed to capture particles in the air that are 0.3 µm or larger. Although dependent upon the PM2.5 levels, filter size, room size, and room ventilation, one may expect a typical portable HEPA filter to reduce PM2.5 by approximately 40%, according to a study that measured PM2.5 inside and outside of homes in Vancouver, Canada. PM2.5 inside homes with HEPA filters was reduced from 7.3 to 4.7 µg/m3 and from 6.5 to 3.4 µg/m3 in areas exposed to traffic-related air pollution or woodsmoke, respectively. In more extreme cases, such as in coal and wood-burning communities in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, use of portable HEPA filters in apartments was reported to reduce indoor PM2.5 by 40% (relative to controls with no air filters) during the first week of use and by 15% by the fifth month of use, with the largest reduction of 45 to 29 µg/m3 during the winter months when burning wood and coal for energy is highest. Furthermore, they collected blood data from pregnant female inhabitants using HEPA filters indoors and found a 14% reduction in levels of blood cadmium, a heavy metal linked to fetal disorders, cancers, and kidney disease. These studies demonstrate that portable HEPA filters are effective in reducing both high and low levels of air pollutants, potentially improving health significantly.
In addition to these strategies for improving air quality in our own homes, we can also take steps to reduce the outdoor exposure and the impact that ambient pollution has on our health. A variety of websites and free apps are available for monitoring outdoor air quality in various cities or regions. Using this information, we can modify our behavior in order to minimize exposure to (and damage from) PM2.5. Exercise, for instance, increases the body’s demand for oxygen, thus increasing the volume of air we inhale over a given period of time. So when outdoor air quality is especially poor (typically regarded as ≥35µg/m3 for a 24-hour exposure, as was the case for many areas during the Western wildfires of 2021), an indoor treadmill session might be a safer option than a jog around the neighborhood. When we must be outdoors in polluted conditions, we can reduce our exposure by wearing a particulate respirator mask or by choosing times of day when air quality is at its best – typically in the evenings.
The bottom line.
Taken all together, the large body of literature with consistent findings indicate there may be significant benefits to lowering the total amount of air pollutant exposure one receives over a lifetime. In fact, the EPA is currently proposing to revise the annual standard to below the 12 µg/m3 limit based on scientific evidence gathered during their 2020 policy assessments. Since the time of the ELAPSE project, the World Health Organization (WHO) has already lowered its own recommendations for safe PM2.5 limits from 10 µg/m3 in 2005 to 5 µg/m3 in its 2021 guidelines. Even in “green cities” where PM2.5 exposure is comfortably below the current U.S. EPA limit, efforts to further reduce exposure are likely to be beneficial for long-term health, and HEPA filters are a relatively affordable option for doing so.
Wednesday, March 16, 2022
Reality doesn’t conform to the theory of the rational, calculating despot who can play the long game.
Brian Klass 16 March 2022
In the span of a couple of weeks, Vladimir Putin—a man recently described by Donald Trump as a strategic “genius”—managed to revitalize NATO, unify a splintered West, turn Ukraine’s little-known president into a global hero, wreck Russia’s economy, and solidify his legacy as a murderous war criminal.
To answer that question, you have to understand the power and information ecosystems around dictators. I’ve studied and interviewed despots across the globe for more than a decade. In my research, I’ve persistently encountered a stubborn myth—of the savvy strongman, the rational, calculating despot who can play the long game because he (and it’s typically a he) doesn’t have to worry about pesky polls or angry voters. Our elected leaders, this view suggests, are no match for the tyrant who gazes into the next decade rather than fretting about next year’s election.
Reality doesn’t conform to that rosy theory.
Autocrats such as Putin eventually succumb to what may be called the “dictator trap.” The strategies they use to stay in power tend to trigger their eventual downfall. Rather than being long-term planners, many make catastrophic short-term errors—the kinds of errors that would likely have been avoided in democratic systems. They hear only from sycophants and get bad advice. They misunderstand their population. They don’t see threats coming until it’s too late. And unlike elected leaders who leave the office to riches, book tours, and the glitzy lifestyle of a statesman, many dictators who miscalculate leave office in a casket, a possibility that makes them even more likely to double down.
Despots sow the seeds of their own demise early on when they first face the trade-off between allowing freedom of expression and maintaining an iron grip on power. After arriving in the palace, crushing dissent and jailing opponents is often rational, from the perspective of a dictator: It creates a culture of fear that is useful for establishing and maintaining control. But that culture of fear comes with a cost.
For those of us living in liberal democracies, criticizing the boss is risky, but we’re not going to be shipped off to a gulag or watch our family get tortured. In authoritarian regimes, those all-too-real risks have a way of focusing the mind. Is it ever worthwhile for authoritarian advisers to speak truth to power?
As a result, despots rarely get told that their stupid ideas are stupid, or that their ill-conceived wars are likely to be catastrophic. Offering honest criticism is a deadly game and most advisers avoid doing so. Those who dare to gamble eventually lose and are purged. So over time, the advisers who remain are usually yes-men who act like bobbleheads, nodding along when the despot outlines some crackpot scheme.
Even with such seemingly loyal cronies, despots face a dilemma. How can you trust the loyalty of an entourage that has every reason to lie and conceal its true thoughts? The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon wrote of that inescapable paradox of tyranny: “It is never possible for the tyrant to trust that he is loved … and plots against tyrants spring from none more than from those who pretend to love them most.”
To solve this problem, despots create loyalty tests, ghoulish charades to separate true believers from pretenders. To be trusted, advisers must lie on behalf of the regime. Those who repeat absurd claims without blinking are deemed loyal. Anyone who hesitates is considered suspect.
In Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, for example, the lies have gotten progressively more ridiculous. Once a lie becomes widely accepted, the value of that individual loyalty test declines. Once everyone knows that Kim Jong Un learned to drive when he was just 3 years old, a new, more extreme lie must emerge for the test to serve its purpose. The cycle repeats itself, and a cult of personality is born.
Plenty of people around Putin understood that dynamic, which is why they were willing to parrot Putin’s outlandish claim that the Jewish president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is presiding over a “neo-Nazi” state. (Such mythmaking can happen in democracies too if you have an authoritarian-style leader. Just consider how many Republicans have fallen over one another to endorse Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election in order to prove their MAGA bona fides.)
But to stay in power, despots have to worry about more than just their advisers and cronies. They have to win over, intimidate, or coerce their population too. That’s why dictators invest in state-sponsored media. In Russia, the state goes so far as to present fake presidential candidates who pretend to oppose Putin in rigged elections. The whole system is a Potemkin village, an illusion of choice and political debate.
Again, that mechanism of control comes with a cost. Some citizens brainwashed by state propaganda will support a war that is sure to backfire. Others privately oppose the regime but will be too afraid to say anything. As a result, reliable polling doesn’t exist in autocracies. (Russia is no exception.) That means that despots like Putin are unable to accurately understand the attitudes of their own people.
If you live in a fake world long enough, it can start to feel real. Dictators and despots begin to believe their own lies, repeated back at them and propagated by state-controlled media. That might help explain why Putin’s recent speeches have stood out as unhinged rants. It’s certainly possible that his mind has succumbed to his own propaganda, creating a warped worldview in which the invasion of Ukraine was, as Trump put it, an incredibly “savvy” move.
The risks of miscalculation are compounded, psychology research has shown, by the fact that power literally goes to your head, including in a key way that may be relevant in explaining Putin’s costly gambit in Ukraine. The longer someone is in power, the more they begin to get a sense of what is known as “illusory control,” a mistaken belief that they can control outcomes much more than they actually can. That delusion is particularly dangerous in dictatorships, in which there are virtually no checks or balances, no term limits or free elections to boot someone from power.
Some Russia experts, such as Fiona Hill, have recently suggested that Putin has spent much of the pandemic isolated and alone, poring over old maps of the lost Russian “imperium.” Cumulatively, it’s possible to imagine how these factors combined to convince Putin that his brutal blunder in Ukraine was a good idea.
When despots screw up, they need to watch their own back. Yet again, they can become victims of the dictator trap. To crush prospective enemies, they must demand loyalty and crackdown on criticism. But the more they do so, the lower the quality of information they receive, and the less they can trust the people who purport to serve them. As a result, even when government officials learn about plots to overthrow an autocrat, they may not share that knowledge. This is known as the “vacuum effect”—and it means that authoritarian presidents might learn of coup attempts and putsches only when it’s too late. This raises a question that should keep Putin awake at night: If the oligarchs were to eventually make a move against him, would anyone warn him?
Clearly, Putin is no fool. But as we debate possible endgames to the war in Ukraine, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Putin, like many despots, isn’t behaving fully rationally. He inhabits a fantasy world, surrounded by people who are afraid to challenge him, with a mind that has been poisoned by more than two decades as a tyrant. He’s made a catastrophic mistake in Ukraine—one that may yet prove his downfall.
Democracy isn’t perfect. It’s messy. It can be shortsighted. Many powerful democracies, including the United States, are dysfunctional. But at least our leaders face real constraints, real pushback for their miscalculations, and real criticism from their population. And, crucially, there’s a built-in mechanism to replace our leaders when they start to behave irrationally or irresponsibly.
That’s why it’s time to jettison the myth of the “savvy” strongman or the dictator who’s a geopolitical “genius.” Putin has fallen victim to the dictator trap and proved that he is neither.
Wednesday, March 9, 2022
I was wrong. I have to start there. Last week I wrote that I suspected Putin was waging a sophisticated mind-game with all of us, and that he would suddenly pivot to a diplomatic peace agenda to catch us all off-balance. I was wrong. I was totally surprised to see the massive campaign that Putin launched. So, I have spent many hours over the past four days studying this situation from as many angles as I possibly can.
First, we have to start with Putin’s speeches. Putin has been remarkably vocal in rationalizing his actions. I was surprised to see how he condemned Lenin and Stalin for creating the fault lines in the Soviet Union that contributed to its decay. The animating concept Putin continues to emphasize is that there is no real Ukraine—that there is just a Slavic people with its natural organic leadership in the Rus—Russia. Ukrainian nationalists are usurpers of truth, in Putin’s logic.
It might be good to go back to recent history. In the mid-1860s, the Russian czar forbad any publication printed in the Ukrainian language, fearing the rise of nationalism in a restless territory. Ukrainians don’t think of themselves as step-brothers to a superior Russia.
One of the most fascinating articles I read yesterday featured analysis by two relatively junior researchers at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank in London. These researchers somehow were given access to public polling done by Russian intelligence services. (Normally I would discount two young researchers getting access to foreign intelligence resources, but I know the director of RUSI well and know of her intellectual integrity.) Russian polling during the last year revealed a profound alienation of the Ukrainian people with their government. When asked “would you fight to defend Ukraine,” almost 40% of the citizens said no. President Zelensky enjoyed only 34% popularity.
No doubt Putin was given this polling data from his intelligence services. He likely concluded that a massive quick assault would be successful, and even welcomed by most Ukrainians. He clearly anticipated that the Ukrainian military would fight, and the assault to date has been remarkably surgical by historic Russian standards. With 180,000 attacking forces, it is astounding that Ukrainian casualties to date have been less than 500. Russia is using drones, aircraft, and special forces to target the infrastructure of command and control of the Ukraine military. Yet the resistance has been far stronger than Putin must have anticipated.
There is no doubt there was widespread unhappiness within Ukraine with their government. This has been building for a long time. I suspect the Russian intelligence pollsters were right. But asking people “do you like your government?” is quite different from asking “do you love your country?” And in wartime, people emotionally conflate country, religion, and family and feel the best way to protect them is to band together with other citizens in the same boat. Popular resistance is growing.
A friend of mine—the former foreign minister of Poland—told me Friday “Putin will win in 7 days, and then lose in the following 30 days.” He based his assessment on knowing Ukrainians, understanding that the Ukraine Army, when overrun, will fracture into small insurgent cells and blend into the civilian population, taking their guns and anti-tank weapons with them.
Here is Putin’s great nightmare. He began this operation believing the bulk of Ukrainians would welcome him as a liberator. But in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, he now has to militarily occupy Ukraine for a long time. Any new Ukrainian puppet leader Putin would install would lack any credibility. Just like the years after World War II, the Red Army had to secure the Eastern European countries until the new puppet leaders could build an organic domestic intelligence apparatus, police forces and an army to suppress their own citizens. This takes time.
Geographically, Ukraine is 60% larger than Iraq. When we invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2004, we couldn’t control the countryside with our 110,000 troops. We needed to add another 80,000, and we still couldn’t manage it. Putin used 70% of his Army to invade Ukraine and unlike Iraq, the Ukrainians widely will fight Russian occupation. This is going to go badly for Russia. My Polish friend told me there is a rumor that Putin is mobilizing 50,000 Chechens to help with the occupation force. I have seen no corroboration of that, but this would be an explosion. Muslim Chechens as an occupying force would be extraordinarily unwelcome in Orthodox Christian Ukraine. (Russia invaded Crimea to overthrow the Tatar Khanate. In addition to gaining a warm-water port, Czarina Katherine saw the nobility of ending Muslim raids into Ukraine to capture prisoners to sell into slavery in the Middle East region.)
I also suspect Putin didn’t really anticipate European response to his invasion. Germany, embarrassingly, before the attack offered to send 1,000 helmets to Ukraine. Yesterday, the German Government announced it was sending anti-tank missiles and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. And this morning, the Government announced an emergency $100 billion infusion to rebuild a pathetically-weak German military.
Last week a friend told me of a conversation he had recently with archivists in Russia. He said that during the past year, Putin was making direct requests for archival materials going back to Stalin’s decision back in the early 1930s to crush Ukrainian nationalism during the Ukraine famine of 1932-33. Stalin used the famine to crush not only independent Ukraine leadership but also to marginalize Ukrainian culture and education.
I don’t know if you watched Putin’s “cabinet meeting” with his senior government officials. He was about 30 feet away from them. They cowered together, all looking terrified. It was a vivid illustration of how authoritarian leaders gradually isolate themselves. Putin’s self-created isolation now looks to potentially have been the cause of a disaster.
But . . . just a week ago I was confident there would be no war. I was wrong. I should hold off on such proclamations.
I always benefit from your perspective. Please drop me a note at JHamre@csis.org
Wednesday, March 2, 2022
From the Good Men Project - Ben May, member of the Board of Directors, First Responder InstituteI have always had a macabre fascination with nuclear Armageddon. Maybe this stems from my Oklahoma roots, conjuring up memories of those dark, purple-black roiling clouds with the blaring alert on TV and a close-in shot of the station’s meteorologist: “funnel cloud on the ground.” Typically, the black devil of a storm is usually traveling to some small town in the Oklahoma plain with a name you might have heard once in your life.
“If you live in the area go to shelter immediately.”
Of course, as in most natural disasters, even the catastrophic, there usually is ‘someplace' to go, and as gut-wrenchingly horrible as some disasters can be — even with massive trauma and many deaths — eventually, some kind of normalcy returns: life on planet earth continues pretty much as it has been. Like my mother used to say: This too will pass.” Now consider, that after a nuclear disaster of any size and for whatever reason, the former eventuality never, ever returns… ever. Never means, well never. This too will never pass.
As I grew older and began to study international relations in graduate school, I developed a passion for the Russian language and an interest in our Cold War enemy. I studied Russian in the former Soviet Union in Leningrad – now St. Petersburg. I found the Russians to be pretty much like us. Just humans with the same desires and fears that we had. Pretty much like that now-famous phrase from President Kennedy’s American University peace speech in June 1963, just a few months after the Cuban missile crisis: “In the end, we all breath the same air…”
I was 12 during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the awesome, fearful potential of nuclear annihilation frightened and fascinated me. “We need to be able to talk to these people.” I thought. Of course, I saw the movie, ‘Fail Safe’ and ‘The Day After.’ It was ‘The Day After’ that really brought home the reality of a nuclear nightmare.
The missile alert error in Hawaii in January 2018 was not just a wake-up call. It is a postmortem on humanity. I remember a scene from ‘The Day After’ when an Air Force missile crew is standing near a missile silo after all the missiles have been launched. “We need to go get ready;” says one of the airmen. “Ready for what?!” “The war is over.” Says another. And that is my point. The war is over. Scientists and many sane statesmen have known and screamed for decades that there is no reason for one nuclear weapon. And there are thousands in the world. Does anyone possessing a semblance of sanity understand this reality?!
Earlier this year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the famous “Doomsday Clock” to 100 seconds to midnight. That is the closest it's ever been after receding in the ’90s, and nuclear proliferation is at the top of the list.
The United States has more guns available than any nation on earth and along with the proliferation of those guns has the dubious record of the most deaths. Shootings with mass casualties have become the new ‘normal.’ A nuclear strike ends all ‘normal.’
WW I eventually broke out after decades of peace, and with the construction of massive deadly weapons during that same period, just waiting for a spark that set the world on fire for the next twenty years. The more weapons are available, the greater the chance for a spark. It’s pure physics. And once this fire begins, the world, as we know it, ends. That is a fact.
I listened to an interview with a Hawaiian citizen when asked where he would go with a fifteen-minute warning of a missile attack. “Go?” “Oh, there’s nowhere to go and, if there were, there’s not enough time to get there.” “I decided to tell my family how much I loved them and pray to God. At least there was still time for that.” Like I said, “The War is over.”
Do you know why I carry my iPhone with me everywhere? You may think that it’s because everyone just does that now to stay connected. That’s not my primary reason. I carry it so I can quickly call each family member to tell them I love them when the missile alert comes in. One last chance to say: “ Good-Bye.”
And that is the stark reality of where we are today.
How can any national leader with any semblance of sanity have any more critical, life or death issue, not see what is coming? It’s no different than holding a six-shooter to your head and playing Russian roulette, except all of the bullet chambers are loaded because that is exactly where we are. Would a sane person do that?
Maybe the government should issue every citizen one dose of strychnine. We could place them in our homes in a glass case: ‘Break Glass And Take with Water in Case of Nuclear Strike,’ because when missiles do start flying, our entire perception of life and death will change. Death will become the only joy left because if there is any life left it will be an indescribable hell.
Stay tuned folks.