Given all the talk of killer balloons recently, I’m shocked that we haven’t heard more about NENA.
For those who are aware, this 1980s one-hit wonder is known for their single hit, “99 Luftballons” (“99 Red Balloons” in English.)
The song is about a trigger-happy military seeing a bunch of red party balloons on its radar, freaking out, and mistakenly starting Armageddon.
Ballons, fighter jets, and talk of nuclear war? Sound familiar? Did this 1980s band correctly predict a possible route to the apocalypse?
“This is it, boys, this is war”
“99 Red Balloons” starts off innocently enough, with two lovers purchasing red balloons at a toy shop. Romantically, they release the balloons at “the break of dawn” and watch them drift away.
As the balloons ascend in altitude, they show up on an unnamed military’s radar. “Bugs in the software” cause the military to interpret them as an incoming barrage of Soviet missiles.
The military’s leaders are concerned, but also thrilled. Finally, something to shoot at!
As “panic bells” sound, they go into full mobilization mode, calling “the troops out in a hurry” and sending “super high-tech jet fighters” to intercept the balloons.
The song then skips ahead to the future. Presumably, the mobilization of troops has snowballed into an all-out nuclear war. The lovers from the beginning of the song stand in “the dust that was a city” that nuclear blasts have presumably destroyed. The only sign of humanity’s existence is a single red balloon that survived the onslaught.
“Everyone’s a Superhero”
Given the news that American fighter jets may have scrambled in order to shoot down a party balloon over Alaska, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider whether we should take NENA’s classic song as a cautionary tale.
The Chinese spy balloon that allegedly floated over military installations with a busload of cameras and monitoring equipment was clearly a military threat. The military was right to shoot it down.
But, as NENA’s classic song implies, a military operating on a hair trigger is a dangerous thing.
Now that the balloon saga has put the world’s warfighters on high alert — and prompted militaries to switch up their software to better detect small, high-altitude threats — the risk of misinterpretation and unintended consequences is far higher now than before.
At the moment, the balloon attacks are providing a bit of levity. We used a $206 million warplane and a $400,000 missile to take down a $13 party balloon. That’s hilarious!
SNL’s interpretation of the events perfectly captures the comedy of the situation. In a recent sketch, Kenan Thompson, playing a four-star general on a news program, declares proudly and with gravitas, “We popped the balloon!”
You can imagine America’s highly-trained fighter pilots making similar jokes to each other after completing their recent missions.
“Ninety-nine dreams I have had”
But one could also see how the incursion of a deliberate military threat into American airspace has now put us on a dangerously high alert. What happens if the next incursion is from a wayward aircraft, not a slow-moving balloon? What if it’s a deliberate provocation by an enemy nation, that later escalates?
Of what if, as NENA predicted with weird prescience, “bugs in the software” interpret a flock of birds or something equally innocuous as an incoming missile barrage?
Ultimately, that’s the real danger posed by China’s alleged use of a spy balloon. Violating another country’s sovereign airspace is a big deal. NENA’s song was written at the height of the Cold War. In NENA’s imagined world, the military presumably reacted with force because they had been primed to expect a Soviet attack.
As a result of the spy balloon’s incursion, our military and those of our allies are similarly primed. Let’s hope that if the equivalent of a phalanx of red balloons floats into our airspace or another potential threat similarly provokes us, cooler heads prevail, and we avoid NENA’s imagined tragedy.
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