What nuclear weapons really mean

deproliferatorA Personal ‘Nuclear Posture Review’

THE DEPROLIFERATOR — When viewed on film, a nuclear weapons test might strike the discerning eye as a rip in the very fabric of existence. While one might view a supernova in the same light, not only doesn’t the explosion of a star occur within the confines of a planet, but in an entire galaxy. Furthermore, a supernova is ultimately a creative force that leads to the formation of new stars.

By contrast, a nuclear explosion is a “destroyer of worlds,” as Robert Oppenheimer famously described the first test, Trinity. He prefaced that expression with the words “I am become Death,” from the Bhagavad Gita. In fact, viewing a nuclear explosion can induce a variety of religious experience (apologies to William James). We’re engulfed by the sight of the mushroom cloud unfurling and billowing in slow, majestic motion. An inner peace obtains. Never mind that it’s as insidious as being aroused by a snuff film.

Besides a break in the space-time continuum, nuclear weapons were a leap forward in the weapons-development continuum. But it wasn’t long before they could be filed under the category of watch out what you wish for. Once the Pentagon and policy makers began coming to their senses, they realized that the larger, strategic weapons were, to understate the case, impractical. Even smaller, tactical weapons intended for battlefield use remained on the shelf because they failed to prove immune to the atomic and, especially, the hydrogen bomb’s point-of-no-return taint.

Hawks, however, seem oblivious to how far nuclear weapons have fallen — from the ultimate weapon to cold storage. Deterrence may make it all worthwhile to hawks, but, in fact, it reduces a nuclear-weapons program to a shotgun behind our national-security door. Not that much of the American public has a problem with deterrence. After all, what’s behind the door in many American households is an assault rifle. Not only are we accustomed to overkill, we like our retaliation massive (our actual nuclear policy for a brief period in the 50s).

In fact, the quantum leap in weaponry that the development of nuclear weapons represents is an opportunity for those of us opposed to them to examine the very nature of war itself. After all, what are nuclear weapons if not war writ large? But, as with other weapons remarkable for their brutality, such as land mines and cluster bombs, an obstacle to comprehending their meaning is just as inherent in them as the opportunity. In other words, the immediacy of the threat makes stop-gap measures imperative. These not only mitigate against reflection, but make it seem like impotent musing.

Yet one can’t help but wonder if those who favor proliferation, deterrence, or even an attenuated disarmament understand a key characteristic of humans. Not only aren’t most of us equipped to survive in a post-apocalypse world, we’re incapable of imagining it. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has become less bullish about nuclear weapons, if only out of frustration with how hamstrung their use is by constraints. But the military is traditionally buoyed by its reflexive belief that the country with the most powerful weapons will prevail, as well as a professed willingness to die for its country.

Policy makers too may feel some insulation from the consequences of their decisions. They could swear they heard somewhere about an atomic shelter for the federal government. Unfortunately for them, while it existed — in West Virginia — it closed in 1995. Also, their sites set on the big picture, their own vulnerability eludes them, as do national doubts about starting the human project over after a nuclear holocaust. More to the point, though, inadequately informed about nuclear weapons, they’ve become complacent about their risk since the end of the Cold War.

Those of us opposed to nuclear weapons need to take care lest hawks and self-described realists consign us to ideological exile, where we’d be neither seen nor heard. Usually it’s a mistake to allow members of the latter two groups to dictate the terms of the debate. But, in this case, it might prove advantageous to try seeing things from their point of view.

First, we need to stop acting horrified by nuclear weapons’ capacity for destruction. While, in truth, assimilating nuclear weapons into a national defense strategy may have been making a deal with the devil, to the military, they were a tool devoid of moral implications. Conservative civilians, however, have fewer qualms about viewing nuclear weapons as not only not immoral, but moral, because, to them, the loss of American lives is tolerable if it’s in the service of our national freedom myth.

Unfortunately, refraining from making value judgments can only take us so far because the two arguments currently most popular with nuclear weapons advocates are tough to defeat by reason. First, there’s that old standby, deterrence, in response to which one might argue, “What about that one accident?”

As Mohamed ElBaradei can attest, “the mere existence of nuclear weapons exponentially increased the risk that they’d end up being used either intentionally or unintentionally.” Even Robert McNamara said, “It can be confidently predicted that the combination of human fallibility and nuclear arms will inevitably lead to nuclear destruction.” Apparently, to conservatives, our good fortune in eluding disaster thus far is sufficient indicator that our luck will hold.

If it’s not broke, don’t fix it is the conservative default position, immune to reason. But, their second argument has logic on its side. It runs something like this: If the world goes to zero nukes, that leaves the United States at the mercy of a sole state, or non-state actor, that manages to rustle up just one bomb. Even if the weapons are retained but disassembled, in the time required to assemble them, the aggressor, armed and ready, can launch or detonate a nuclear weapon.

In the process of trying to win arguments like these, we may come to doubt ourselves. Our argument of last resort becomes, well, nuclear weapons just feel like an offense against nature. Perhaps responding to them with our gut is inevitable because ultimately it’s a nation’s emotional state that determines whether it’s moving toward or away from proliferation. On the one hand, the national egos of Pakistan and India were swollen with pride after their first nuclear tests. On the other, a movie, The Day After, helped to pave the way for the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 80s, as well as crystallize Ronald Reagan’s opposition to nuclear weapons.

Thus does disarmament also depend on the kindness of presidents, such as the present one. In fact, Barack Obama would do us all a service if he framed disarmament as honoring the sainted Reagan’s legacy and realizing his dream of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons Hold a Mirror up to War

Earlier I suggested that the urgency of nonroliferation distracts us from the broader subject to which nuclear weapons defer: war itself. Once we discover just how protracted the struggle is, though, we realize that reflecting on the nature of war is no longer a luxury, but a necessity if humanity wishes to avoid remaining boxed into a corner with weapons of mass destruction.

Sometimes it seems as if what characterizes those who believe war is inevitable, as opposed to those who don’t, is what can either be described as an insensitivity to, or the maturity to accept, the loss of life in large numbers. After all, to the public, one of the most critical functions of a leader is to bear the consequences of agreed-upon policies on their consciences for the sake of all of us. In fact, the unconscious reason that much of the public exhibits a distinct lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting George Bush and Dick Cheney is because they shouldered that burden (and because we, in bestowing upon them that awesome responsibility, are complicit).

Speaking for myself, I keep tripping over the corpse of a citizen of Hiroshima, who, after the bombing, blinded and skin peeling, stumbles towards the river before collapsing. Those of us who can’t get past that one death are, perforce, disqualified from a seat at the policy table. Why not just use this as more incentive to examine the origins of war instead?

Meanwhile, rooting out the causes of war is really one for the behavioral sciences. However obvious, it bears repeating that those who instigate war or terrorist acts are taking out on others the indignities perpetrated on them by their families and societies. The Swiss psychotherapist and author Alice Miller writes: “The total neglect or trivialization of the childhood factor operative in the context of violence. . . sometimes leads to explanations that are not only unconvincing and abortive but actively deflect attention away from the genuine roots of violence.”

Meanwhile, Lloyd deMause, one of the founders of psychohistory, has written that psychological, as well as anthropological, research has shown that “the more traumatic one’s childhood, the more one is likely to be in favor of military solutions to social problems.” In fact, he writes, “A childhood more or less free from [violence and sexual abuse] is in fact a very late historical achievement, limited to a few fortunate children in a few modern nations.”

Those “few fortunate children” need to compound the “late historical achievement” by enlightening others if, as another psychohistorian, Jerrold Atlas, writes, they wish to end the “race between too slowly improving childrearing and too fast evolving destructive technology.”

Chances are, the fewer citizens whose childhoods are marked by abuse in any form, the fewer policy makers and military commanders to whom strategies that put enormous numbers of individuals in harm’s way make sense. Also, it’s true that the American public is altogether too complacent about U.S. intervention in other states. But the significance of the lack of tolerance for large numbers of casualties — even if only our own — that has emerged on our part since the Vietnam War is a development that can’t be underestimated.

Slowly but surely, not only the United States, but much of the world, seems to be walking back the number of deaths it accepts in the interest of national defense. This is paralleled by what’s become a decided trend — however subject to derailment — toward disarmament among the more developed countries. But to actually go to zero, as that ungainly phrase would have it, presents the most Gordian of knots.

I dream of another planet where one of its enduring global sagas is the fate of one individual shrouded in the mists of time. It seems that a couple of millenniums earlier, a human on this planet was murdered. Lacking redemption, it’s not their version of the Christ story.

Now imagine nuclear war breaking out on earth. For eons hence, should humans survive, they would puzzle over how mankind allowed it to happen. In the same vein, the imaginary planet has spent much of its recorded history trying to figure out how one man could possibly have killed another. That’s my idea of going to zero.

First posted at the Faster Times.

4 replies »

  1. Good stuff, Russ. I particularly like this “…the loss of American lives is tolerable if it’s in the service of our national freedom myth.” What we (left and right) find tolerable to sacrifice in the service of our national freedom myth boggles my mind. Never mind actual freedom, so long as the myth stands we’ll sing along with a karaoke dictatorship.

    And i agree with you wholeheartedly. If Obama wants to make serious political progress towards reducing nukes he needs to invoke Ronaldus Maximus on a regular basis. I wish that i had more faith that anyone in the Democratic machine had the brains to employ such political ju-jitsu.

  2. Great piece, Russ. This line slays me: “An inner peace obtains. Never mind that it’s as insidious as being aroused by a snuff film.”

    Poetry, my friend – poetry….

  3. This article really shows that nuclear weapons are getting more and more dangerous as time progresses. I think the idea of stockpiling nuclear weapons only to scare potential enemies from attacking is purely idiotic. One day some military commander will press the button and put an end to modern civilization. A saying goes like this ”World War 3 will be fought with nuclear weapons, World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones”. I write a blog on ways citizens can detect and defend themselves from the harmful effect of radiation. Come visit it!
    Global Warming or Nuclear War