Study Guide

Alas, Babylon Warfare

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Chapter 2

"They don't mind losing ten or twenty million people, so long as they sweep the board, because people, per se, are only pawns, and expendable." (2.84)

Here's the reality: a nuclear war would cause millions upon millions of deaths on both sides. Here's another reality: that's just part of the game for the chess-masters at the top. As long as those millions of deaths are in pursuit of some "greater" victory, that's just how you pick up the win, right?

"This time, they're not resigning the game. They'd still like to win the war without a war, but if we make any military countermove, we're going to receive it." (2.80)

In other words, global politics is like playing chicken with ballistic missiles. Some might argue that this is exactly the point—that the constant threat of nuclear weapons makes it unlikely that they will ever be used—but Alas, Babylon argues the complete opposite.

Chapter 4

"As long as people keep talking they're not fighting. When Moscow quits talking, I'm afraid they're acting." (4.130)

Nuclear conflict, it seems, consists of a lot of empty threats and macho posturing, so it's a big deal when someone shuts up for once. That usually means they're planning something nasty.

"All these war scares are concocted by the Pentagon—no offense meant to your brother—to get more appropriations, and give more handouts to Europe, and jack up taxes." (4.77)

A war? In this day and age? Not likely—war is so last year. Silly as it sounds, that's the belief held by many before the terror of The Day. Maybe it's because they haven't thought deeply enough about the issue to understand it. Maybe it's because they've repressed the idea because it's too tough to handle. Either way, this thought process leads to foolish complacency in the face of danger.

At this point Peewee should have dropped the chase, for they had been strictly warned, in the briefing, against violating anyone's border. [...] He pushed the firing button." (4.45,48)

The nuclear war that nearly ends mankind is singlehandedly caused by an American pilot with a Napoleon complex. If Peewee hadn't become a pilot—no war. If Peewee had been sick that day—no war. If Peewee had tripped and fallen into the ocean while boarding his plane—no war. To be honest, however, if it wasn't him, it'd probably be someone else.

Chapter 6

It seemed incongruous to call The Day a war [...] because the war really was all over in a single day. Furthermore, nobody in the Western Hemisphere ever saw the face of a human enemy. (6.2)

More than anything, this passage makes us think about how detached the leaders of this conflict are from the consequences of their actions. If they were to actually sit down and think about the human cost of all this destruction, they might think twice. Unfortunately for our species, however, that option seems to have never crossed their minds.

Chapter 7

Like songs, odors are catalysts of memory. Smelling the odors of the Riverside Inn, Randy recalled the sickly, pungent stench of [...] human manure for the fields of Korea. (7.128)

Randy is frequently reminded of his experiences in the Korean War in the aftermath of The Day. While he obviously witnessed some pretty horrendous stuff in the conflict, he doesn't seem traumatized by the experience. Quite to the contrary—it proves to be an asset. Because he's experienced tremendous human suffering before, he's better prepared to deal with it.

Chapter 8

"What I would like to know," said Old Man Hockstatler, "is who won the war? Nobody ever tells you. This war I don't understand at all." (8.118)

This would be funny if it wasn't so depressing. Nuclear war, assumedly, is different from every other type of war in that it's over in an instant. You can hardly tell that it's started before it's over. As Alas, Babylon depicts, the true struggle comes in the aftermath.

Chapter 9

"The truth is this. Once both sides had maximum capability in hydrogen weapons and efficient means of delivering them there was no sane alternative to peace." (9.196)

Here, Admiral Hazzard is saying is that the mere existence of nuclear weapons changed the game entirely—more than anyone realized at the time—and effectively made a disaster like this an inevitability. Or at least we think that's what he's saying. This statement could be read a few different ways, so we'd love to know what you think.

Chapter 13
Randy Bragg

Randy said, "Paul, there's one thing more. Who won the war?


"We won it. We really clobbered 'em!" Hart's eyes lowered and his arms drooped. He said, "Not that it matters." (13.107,110)

With this doozy of a closer, Alas, Babylon argues that nuclear war has no winner. One side might have a government at the end of it, and the other side might not, but both will have experienced death and destruction beyond compare. Can you really call tens of millions dead a victory?

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