Friday, July 16, 2010

Dancing on the Edge

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Trinity test, the first successful nuclear detonation. As it says here, this did indeed change the world forever and is one of the few technologies that can legitimately make that claim (the Internet may be another). It did put a halt to direct great power wars in favor of proxy wars in third-world backwaters. Nonetheless, what soldier or statesman could resist the temptation of such awesome powers? The results of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have made nuclear war unthinkable for most, but not all. Some moments from nuclear history where we danced close to the edge:

- MacArthur wanted to use nukes on North Korea, but was restrained by Truman;

- the Cuban missile crisis, of course;

- the incident in 1983 where a Soviet officer violated protocols to avert a mistaken retaliatory strike;

Nixon's longing to use nuclear weapons on North Vietnam, restrained by Henry Kissinger ("œA nuclear bomb? Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ's sakes. You worry about the civilian casualties. I don't give a damn.")

- Tactical nuclear weapons were deployed in Western Europe as a defense against a possible Russian invasion (and apparently are still there);

- It's been alleged that the Bush/Cheney administration was putting plans in place for a nuclear strike on Iran.

As I said the other day, it's somewhat miraculous that we are all still here.

Also, this:

it would be so exciting
it would be so powerful
it would punish us for our sins
things wouldn't be so boring anymore
we could get back to basics
we could remember who we love
it would be so loud
it would be so hot
the mushroom clouds would rise up
we could start over
we wouldn't have to be afraid of it anymore
we wouldn't have to be afraid anymore
we would finally have done it
better than Raskolnikov
it would release our anger
in the ultimate tantrum
then we could rest

Alia Johnson, 'Why We Should Drop the Bombs', 1981

[update: stumbled on this:
"Restraint! Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards! At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!"

--Thomas Power, commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command from 1957 to 1964, quoted by Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon


Anonymous said...

There have been 'ultimate weapons' before and since the nuclear bomb. Before it, there was poison gas, so dreadfully used in World War I. Every army of World War II was equipped with gas masks, and even civilians were trained for the possibility of gas attack. It never happened, less from any unexpected decency or humanity on the part of the combatants, as out of fear that the first use would bring about retaliation in kind, and any victory that might be claimed at the end would be Pyrrhic. We had a preview of the doctrine of mutual assured destruction in the attitudes towards gas warfare.

Much post-WWII research was done about biological warfare, but apart from a few small-scale uses (their character much disputed, e.g., "yellow rain" in Afghanistan under Soviet occupation) the possibility of biological warfare has been restrained similarly by the likelihood of mutual assured destruction.

Now that the possibility of conflict between ideological superpowers has receded into history, the danger lies in the access to weapons of mass destruction by potential users that are not restrained by the fear of mutual assured destruction in the way that the old Soviet Union, for all its horrors, was.

mtraven said...

Poison gas obviously did not have a very good deterrent effect on great power war, although it did seem to deter its own use (chemical weapons were deployed and their use considered during WWII, but rarely used). Chemical and biological weapons have vastly different characteristics from nuclear weapons (for one thing, chemical weapons were mainly used on battlefields against soldiers, whereas nuclear weapons are primarily terror weapons used on civilian targets (cities)).

Biological weapons are also extremely problematic as weapons in either category, since they are inherently impossible to contain once deployed. I agree that they are the biggest danger on the horizon, because the technology for their manufacture is becoming increasingly cheap and accessible to anybody. Nuclear weapons still require the resources of a state to develop, but bioweapons can be manufactured in a garage with very little investment, with rapidly decreasing costs and increasing capabilities as technology advances.

Anonymous said...

Of course poison gas did not deter war between great powers, but (as you acknowledge) its first uses deterred its future use as a weapon. How does this differ from what we have observed with nuclear weapons? The great powers did not go directly to war with each other (perhaps fearing that to do so would lead to nuclear exchange), but the Cold War period was marked by numerous incidents of proxy warfare, as, e.g., in Vietnam, where the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were Soviet proxies against the United States, or in Afghanistan, where various native groups were U.S. proxies against the Soviets. These hostilities simmered at levels that could be, and were, backed away from before rising to the level of nuclear confrontation.

You are right about the comparative technical difficulty and expense involved in producing nuclear weapons as compared to biological weapons, but in fact the costs of both have declined. That Iran or North Korea appear to have or to be about to have nuclear weapons technology illustrates this. What is worrisome is that some of the powers that possess nuclear capacity do not seem to be as restrained by the prospect of mutual assured destruction as the superpowers were.

Ahmadinejad knows that if he were to nuke Israel, there would be retaliation that would leave many Iranians dead. How likely is it that he cares? How indifferent to consequences for themselves are some other possible users of bioweapons, whether states or other entities? No one, Soviet or American, wanted to bring about apocalypse during the Cold War; that's why it didn't happen. The same restraint is not evident among emergent members of the nuclear/biowarfare "club" today.

mtraven said...

There is a vast difference between WWII (a balls-out total war) and the Cold War (which was called that for a reason). I'm not sure what your point is -- are you arguing with me just to argue? If your position is that nuclear weapons are not qualitatively different from previous military technologies, well, that's just silly.

I don't know that much about Ahmadinejad, so maybe I'm wrong, but my guess is that the degree to which he cares about the lives of ordinary citizens is comparable to that of any other political leader -- that is, not that much. From Roosevelt to Hitler, from Ahmadinejad to Obama, part of the job of a head of state is to willingly sacrifice the lives of ordinary people for the sake of the glory of the nation and its leader. In other words, I reject your implied premise that the leaders of other nations are especially amoral or insane when compared to our own.

Anonymous said...

You aren't reading very carefully. My points are these:

1. Thermonuclear weapons, like poison gas before them and biologival weapons after them, were 'ultimate weapons' that served more as threats than in actual use. Gas warfare in WWI was so horrible that it was not used in WWII, even though every participant was prepared for it (and, yes, civilian populations were threatened - gas masks were issued to them in some cases). The two instances of nuclear bombing in WWII served to assure that it was never used again despite the low-level conflicts that arose worldwide between the Soviets and the U.S. The mere threat of biological warfare prevented its ever being used in those conflicts.

2. I never said that the leaders of other nations are especially amoral or insane compared to ours. Indeed, I pointed out that the Soviet Union was restrained by the same fears that restrained American use of nuclear weapons. Your description of the duties of a commander in chief are a bit off the mark. As Patton observed, the job of a soldier is not to die for his country, but to make the other son-of-a-bitch die for his. A prudent commander at any level bears this in mind and tries to inflict as many casualties on the enemy as possible while minimizing casualties on his own side - not "willingly sacrificing [their] lives". Commanders who fail to do this - e.g., the British and French high commands in WWI - do not go down in history as having enhanced "the glory of the nation and its leader."

The Soviet Union, for all its awfulness, was a civilized power - as were Germany and Italy in World War II. They observed the laws of war as commonly understood at the time. In that, they were no less moral or sane than American leadership.

Can the same be said of Ahmadinejad, bin Laden, etc.? If your position is that the latter are not qualitatively different from the former European enemies of this country, well, that's just silly.

Pershing or Arthur MacArthur would have known better - both of them fought Moros in the Philippines, who were not behaviorally different from the current crop of Muslim fanatics - just less well armed.