A rule of thumb for nuclear war

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Look toward the horizon. Close one eye. Stick out your arm and hold your thumb over the mushroom cloud looming in the distance. If the cloud is bigger than your thumb, run. Run as fast as you can.

This “rule of thumb” has been circulated online as an underground survival tip with an inception purportedly tied to the Cold War era, when “duck and cover” drills forced students to crouch under their desks in preparation for what seemed like an inevitable nuclear war.

The rule is myth. There’s no proof of this being something that the U.S. government ever told citizens. How close you are to nuclear radiation depends on a number of factors, such as the size and type of the bomb, your surroundings, the direction and force of the wind, etc. And everyone’s thumb is a different size. Will I die because my thumbs happen to be smaller than average?

The myth of the rule comes from a character in “Fallout” dubbed Vault Boy, the mascot of the corporation responsible for building bomb shelters across America. Like Bert the Turtle from the real-world U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration’s “duck and cover” films, Vault Boy was a cheerful cartoon face encouraging American citizens in “Fallout” to stay positive in the face of nuclear annihilation. It was his trademark pose, a wink and a thumbs up, that had sparked the speculation in 2014 that it was a safety tip distributed by the U.S. government.

Somehow, caused by resurfacing fears about potential nuclear attacks from North Korea, this tidbit of fake video game trivia became a bullet point on serious online discussions about surviving nuclear war. An environment of uncertainty and fear had led to misinformation.

The same panic and misinformation is often seen in the propaganda strewn around the “Fallout” games, reflecting the propaganda of the real Cold War. The games are set in the United States centuries after communist China dropped nuclear bombs. Propaganda posters from before the bombs dropped line the walls of destroyed buildings, commanding long-gone citizens to enlist into the army and to “Stop the Red Menace!”

In turn, communist Chinese propaganda posters in the game exclaim, “Long live the People’s Liberation Army!” in Mandarin. An eerie radio station created by Chinese spies urges “oppressed” American citizens to fight against their “capitalist masters.”

Players discover these examples of fictional propaganda within the ruins of downtown Washington, D.C., and Boston, passing familiar national symbols such as the Washington Monument in states of utter ruin. Viewing this contrast between bombastic propaganda and destroyed American icons, I interpret “Fallout” as a cautionary tale for the reckless consequences of overt militarism and nationalism from both sides.

The first game of the series was created in 1997, only a couple years after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. No doubt the creators were interested in exploring a world where the threat of nuclear war continued, but now with China acting as the main “Evil Communist Threat”.

Now with the possibility of North Korea engaging in nuclear war, I can only speculate on what might happen if that kind of mentality becomes normalized in real life again.

As times of crisis approach, people will cling more strongly to semblances of order. During the Cold War, the U.S. government did disseminate many safety precautions to take in the event of a nuclear attack to quell panic. My AP U.S. History teacher once mentioned that as a child, he practiced the “duck and cover” drills under seats similar to the ones that we were sitting in, wondering exactly when the U.S.S.R. Reds would decide to end the world.

So it’s no surprise that a safety tip such as the “rule of thumb” was circulated online as fact, even if it was misconstrued from a video game.

If we continue to distort facts, dehumanize opposing groups through propaganda, and find comfort in ineffective procedures, we once again normalize the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Though the destroyed America of “Fallout” is not reality, it is perhaps a timeline of history that was narrowly avoided, and a future with which we are beginning to toy with today.

Mumu Lin writes the Monday column on living life through video games. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @spacelass.