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Story of the Song: Close call, world politics inform 'Nuclear War'

Published:Sunday | October 28, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

The cover art of Peter Tosh's final studio album, the 1987 No Nuclear War, is a combination of protest and triumph, of fear and defiance. The globe is partially submerged in a sea of fire, the mushroom of a nuclear explosion covering Africa and consuming from North America upwards, yet the bare-chested, dreadlocked figure stands like a conqueror on the United States and Soviet missiles which caused the mayhem. The dreadlocked man has on a gas mask, yet stands with legs splayed and arms outspread in a pose reminiscent of a vampire, not seared by the flames.

And, imprinted in red against the white 'Nuclear' in the title is the word 'Holocaust', which immediately produces more images of total devastation.

Tosh won a Grammy Award posthumously for No Nuclear War, which presents the title track, Nah Go a Jail, Fight Apartheid, Vampire, In My Song, Lessons in My Life, Testify and Come Together.

Tosh, who was born in 1944, would have turned 18 years old during the period when nuclear weapons power came as close as it ever would to the Caribbean with the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962 - mere weeks after Jamaica became an independent country.

It was the moment in world history when a nuclear war seemed very possible, the site of confrontation very close to Jamaica.

The crisis occurred when the intermediate-range ballistic missiles from the then Soviet Union were sent to Cuba in September 1962.

After a US quarantine of ships going to Cuba, the crisis was resolved when the US agreed to remove missiles from Turkey and Italy and the Soviet Union did the same in Cuba.

Tosh was dead for a little over two years when, in November 1989, East German citizens were allowed to cross the Berlin Wall, most of which was destroyed in 1990. That symbolised the definite end of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, along with it the threat of nuclear war between the two world superpowers.

In December 1991, with Mikhail Gorbachev resigning as president of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet Union came to an end.

So, No Nuclear War came very close to the end of the threat of mutual nuclear near annihilation between the US and Soviet Union. But lyrically it was no less powerful an anti-war statement, Tosh making reference to previous worldwide conflicts and specific missiles utilised by the two superpowers.

The song starts with the plea "we don't want no nuclear war/with nuclear war we won't get far", before he invokes the ominous possibility of mass annihilation:

"It's just another holocaust

And we can't take no more"

He makes extensive references to the shortage of basic human needs, while resources are pumped into nuclear arms:

"Too many people are hungry

They don't have food to eat

They are naked

'Cause they don't have clothes to wear

They are going insane

Because of the condition

A million babies

Are suffering from malnutrition"

Then there were the previous world conflicts and the possibility of another:

"I saw World War One

Where lots of trouble begun

I saw World War Two

When the pirates came right through

Lookin' for World War Three

But you got to set me free"

Tosh refers to specific missiles:

"One country deploying MX

Another country deploying SS"

the Peacekeeper

Tosh was up to date, as the LGM-118 or MX missile, also known as the Peacekeeper, was put into the field by the United States in 1986 at an Air Force base in Wyoming. The Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), each of the 10 warheads it could carry having a 300 kiloton warhead, was retired in 2005. The SS-4 came close to Tosh - it was a Soviet Union medium range ballistic missile deployed to Cuba in 1962, with a maximum single warhead power of up to 2.3 kilotons. The SS title, with various numbers, was utilised for a wide range of Soviet Union missiles.

As the song fades out, Tosh concludes No Nuclear War with the general need for peace:

"They want to live in peace and happiness

Let trees grow

Let the waters flow".