What ‘Game of Thrones’ Taught Us About Nuclear Devastation

By Beatrice Fihn
Courtesy HBO

“Atomic bombs are primarily a means for the ruthless annihilation of cities.”

Famed physicist Leo Szilard wrote those words in 1945, entreating President Harry Truman to give Japan a chance to surrender before using the nuclear weapons Szilard had been instrumental in developing. His words rang in my head as Tyrion tried and failed to convince Daenerys to spare the surrendering King’s Landing from her dragon’s fire in the latest Game of Thrones episode, “The Bells.”

There is a significant difference between weapons of war and nuclear weapons. The former target their opponent’s military force. The latter yield absolute and indiscriminate power to kill civilians. Harry Truman admitted that nuclear weapons were created for the destruction of cities when he said, “You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses.”

In the first seven seasons of Game of Thrones, Daenerys’s dragons have been a veiled threat. They were a plot device; their purpose was to transform Daenerys from meek girl to strong queen. But that changed Sunday night. On Sunday night, viewers around the country saw the full power of a dragon’s destructive force as it breathed fire onto a city.

A modern nuclear weapon would also, essentially, breathe fire: it would cause a fireball burning 10,000 times stronger than the surface of the sun, incinerating everyone and everything within nearly a mile. That heat would cause third-degree burns in a radius of 50 square miles and the shock wave would flatten most buildings within 10 miles of ground zero. In Nagasaki, ground temperatures reached 7,000°F and radioactive rain poured down. 70 percent of all buildings were razed in Hiroshima including 42 out of the city's 45 hospitals. These facts have led the UN and ICRC to state that in the event of a nuclear bombing, no help is coming.

It’s worth noting that although Trump has been criticized for spending large sums on new nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Modernization Program was actually started by the Obama administration, with support from both secretaries of state, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and it’s unlikely a Hillary Clinton presidency would look much different on the issue of nuclear weapons than a Trump one.

Although she is a (fictional) woman, Daenerys could burn a city to the ground. Although she is a woman, Hillary Clinton could support the Nuclear Modernization Program. Women aren’t inherently pacifist; more women in power will not be enough. It is important to get rid of the corrupting power of nuclear weapons instead of relying on our leaders to use them responsibly.

And yet, ironically, abolishing nuclear weapons is a feminist issue, because nuclear fallout disproportionately affects women. Women in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nearly double the risk of developing and dying from solid cancer due to ionizing radiation exposure. Girls are considerably more likely than boys to develop thyroid cancer from nuclear fallout. Pregnant women exposed to nuclear radiation face a greater likelihood of delivering children with physical malformations and stillbirths, leading to increased maternal mortality. And the list goes on.

Nuclear weapons are archaic weapons that promote an outdated global order rooted in inequality and oppressive patriarchy. Which is another way of saying: our world isn’t that dissimilar to the world of Game of Thrones. The destruction that happened in King’s Landing could happen here, too. My hope is that the fictional blaze witnessed by the Game of Thrones  viewership (43 million people!) will serve as a warning, and will spark denuclearization action.

I am reminded of another TV event: the 1983 TV Movie The Day After. Over 100 million people in nearly 40 million households tuned in for the two-hour film, and most stuck around for a 90-minute conversation about the film hosted by Ted Koppel. The movie's unflinching account of the horrific aftermath of nuclear war was the topic of conversation around the water cooler for every American and even found its way into President Reagan's diary.

TV has the power to move the world—for good or ill. Ronald Reagan sent a telegram to Nicholas Meyer, the director of The Day After, as he signed the 1987 INF Treaty with the Soviet Union. The telegram read: "Don't think your movie didn't have any part of this because it did."

It can feel insensitive or even flippant to compare the real deaths and destruction of nuclear war with a fictional dragon razing a fictional city. However, like The Day After, Game of Thrones has transcended TV to become a cultural touchstone—a world we all gather in once a week and debate endlessly after. “The Bells” was a gift to those of us who work for disarmament and give all our energy to avoiding war. Millions saw a glimpse of the horror of war in a way they could understand and were primed to receive.

Let’s hope our leaders were watching. Let’s hope they saw Arya Stark walking through the crumbled buildings and charred bodies. Let’s hope they saw the look on her face. That look wasn’t feigned; the actress Maisie Williams described shooting the painfully long sequence as “sickening even to the strongest person.” The horror Williams felt would be familiar to anyone exposed to the reality of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the suffering of those at nuclear test sites.

We cannot wait until nuclear weapons are used again to eliminate them; by then it will be too late. We need creative voices to remind us of the hidden humanitarian disaster of nuclear weapons so we can act now.

As Daenerys and Drogon transformed into the “destroyer of worlds," I recalled something I often say to those who argue that there are good and bad nuclear-armed states: the weapons are the problem, not the leaders. Like dragons, they are destructive power that no one person should hold over humanity. If Daenerys wasn’t able to use her dragons responsibly, then nobody can. It was not the Targaryen bloodline that was cursed, it was the dragons that corroded their humanity. Luckily, unlike dragons, nuclear weapons are not magical, they are just weapons and we can dismantle them. We must.

We already have a plan to eliminate our dragons. 122 states voted in favor of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the UN in 2017. 23 states have already ratified the treaty and it will become international law once 50 do. When asked why they supported the treaty, the diplomats and leaders all said the same thing: they were compelled to sign after learning about the ruthless devastation that nuclear weapons cause. A real hero doesn’t unleash a dragon. A real hero picks up a pen. The truly radical action is just that: a signature.

In our world and in the world of Game of Thrones, there are characters in the shadows, negotiating behind the scenes for a peace that will save innocent lives. That’s what bravery looks like. Those are the heroes we need. Rest in Peace, Lord Varys.

Beatrice Fihn is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2017.

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