The Nuclear (not an) Option

I was interviewed recently by a student of mine for Memorial’s student newspaper on the topic of the importance of the humanities.1  I’m now wishing I’d read this Washington Post column by Jason Willick, titled “Putin has a huge advantage in the kind of nuclear weapon he would be most likely to use” prior. This paragraph in particular:

Russia has only a modest lead over the United States in long-range, strategic nuclear warheads regulated by the 2010 New Start treaty — 1,456 vs. 1,357 of the high-payload weapons. But when it comes to unregulated, shorter-range and lower-payload tactical nuclear weapons, according to a 2021 Congressional Research Service report, the United States has only 230, “with around 100 deployed with aircraft in Europe.” Russia has up to 2,000.

I’m not saying that having done a degree in English, philosophy, or history would automatically alert you to the absurdity of this framing;2 but there is a greater likelihood that one would, having studied such subjects, understand, respectively, its perversion of language, its moral and ethical failure, and its ignorance of historical context .

There have been a lot of commentators reaching for comparisons to the Cold War in the past week or so. Whatever the valence of such historical parallels, I think this is the first time I’ve read something that has resorted to Cold War logic. One of the benefits, rhetorically and imaginatively speaking, of the Soviet Union’s collapse was that we started again to think of nuclear weapons in singular terms—by which I mean, a reversion to the wise instinct that one nuclear warhead was one too many. I’m old enough to remember the nuclear anxiety that pervaded in the 1980s, the relief when that briefly vanished in the period spanning glasnost and the U.S.S.R.’s implosion, and then the more diffuse but still nagging anxiety attached to the prospect of bad actors trafficking “loose nukes.” 9/11 ramped up the paranoia about “suitcase bombs” whose relatively small yields would not have registered on cold warriors’ thermonuclear radar, but which served as a reminder of the irreducible violence—different from conventional munitions not in degree but in kind—of weaponized fission.

This understanding is what makes a nation like Iran developing the Bomb unthinkable. It is why nobody in their right mind shrugs off North Korea’s nuclear arsenal because it is minuscule.

And yet here we are, mere days after Vladimir Putin re-introduces the spectre of nuclear warfare—and not merely by inference!—talking about the “advantage” of numbers of nuclear weapons. When I read the passage quoted above, I had to pause and talk to the empty room in lieu of having the article’s author present for a vigorous lapel-shake. I want to ask him: what advantage, precisely, does a 2000 : 100 ratio of TACTICAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS grant you? Tactical nuclear weapons range from the tens of kilotons to the hundreds; to put that in perspective, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was thirteen kilotons. So the United States’ paltry tactical nuclear capability currently in Europe, considered conservatively, has the capacity of one hundred Hiroshimas. But once those are used up, presumably in a back-and-forth with Russia, Putin can deliver 1900 more!

Of course, that there could ever be such an exchange—that the initial use of any nuclear weapon, no matter how relatively modest in yield, would not in itself be a world-changing event—is absurd on its face. The relative size of the arsenals would be instantly irrelevant. In the best case scenario, everything comes to a crashing halt as the world looks on in horror and heaps recriminations on the perpetrator. In the worst case scenario, sadly the more likely, the initial use of tactical nuclear weapons rapidly escalates to a large-scale exchange in weapons measured not in kilotons but megatons.

Any attempt to euphemize or elide the singular horror of nuclear weapons needs to be met, at the very least, with the mocking spectre of Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the trigger-happy Air Force general from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of black comedy Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): when the President (Peter Sellers) responds to Turgidon’s exhortation to follow through on an unplanned nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, “You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war!” Turgidson says, “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed! But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.”

George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, doing his enthusiastic impression of a B-52.

It’s distressing, especially in the present moment, to come across in one of the United States’ major newspapers such an ostensibly reasonable and rational discussion of an invention that is everything but reasonable and rational. Martin Amis’ essay “Thinkability,” the introduction to his 1987 collection of short stories about nuclear weapons and nuclear war, Einstein’s Monsters, addresses precisely the fallacy of trying to make the unthinkable thinkable, and the ways in which the attempt invariably tortures the language used:

It is gratifying in a way that all military-industrial writing about nuclear “options” should be instantly denatured by the nature of the weapons it describes, as if language itself were refusing to cooperate with such notions. (In this sense language is a lot more fastidious than reality, which has doggedly accepted the antireality of the nuclear age.) In the can-do world of nuclear “conflict management,” we hear talk of retaliating first; in this world, deaths in the lower tens of millions are called acceptable; in this world, hostile, provocative, destabilizing nuclear weapons are aimed at nuclear weapons (counterforce), while peaceful, defensive, security-conscious nuclear weapons (there they languish, adorably pouting) are aimed at cities (countervalue). In this world, opponents of the current reality are known as cranks. “Deceptive basing modes,” “dense pack groupings,” “baseline terminal defense,” “the Football” (i.e., the Button), acronyms like BAMBI, SAINTS, PALS, and AWDREY (Atomic Weapons Detection, Recognition, and Estimation of Yield), “the Jedi concept” (near-lightspeed plasma weapons), “Star Wars” itself: these locutions take you out onto the sports field—or back to the nursery.

Reading Amis’ essay anew is a good reminder of the absurd rhetorical lengths the national security apparatus went to (and presumably still does in a more limited fashion) to make the use—and indeed, the very existence—of nuclear weapons seem reasonable.

They are not reasonable. Frighteningly, it doesn’t seem as though Vladimir Putin is reasonable at this moment in time either. But it’s not his numerical advantage in tactical nukes that makes me lose sleep—it’s that he might consider using even one, of any size.  

NOTES

1. When I started writing this post with precisely this sentence, I then proceeded to digress into a discussion of the interview and the difficulty of abstracting from the forty-five minute interview a sentence of two that best sums up the value of an education in the humanities. I went on for about three paragraphs, realized I was writing a different blog post, and opened a new Word document to start over. Look forward to a post in the near future in which I go on at length about the humanities.

2. Any argument for the humanities rooted in the idea that it invariably fosters empathy and morality needs to remember the Ivy League pedigrees of “the best and brightest” of John F. Kennedy and then Lyndon B. Johnson’s cabinets, whose intellectual arrogance—emerging from educations at Harvard, Yale, et al that would have requirements to read the Great Books—precipitated and then escalated the United States’ war in Vietnam.

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