July 7, 2009
North Korea tests nuclear weapon 'as powerful as Hiroshima bomb' – The Guardian, May 25, 2009
I keep trying to take the advice implicit in the title of the greatest movie ever made about the madness of nuclear war: “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Although I still worry myself into sweats and nightmares of glowing mushroom clouds whenever I think about the future of the human race, sometimes I do almost love nuclear bombs.
Since their invention 64 years ago, these doomsday devices have generated the greatest paradoxes. Consider the doctrine called Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. Supposedly, in a rational world, a responsible nation such as America or the Soviet Union would never launch a nuclear attack on the other because even the most successful first strike would leave untouched enough nuclear weapons in the attacked side to deliver a counterstrike capable of destroying the attacker. In other words, we are protected from destruction the more certainly we can assure each other that we can never be protected from destruction.
This crazy logic never made me feel very good. Sure, it seemed to work in October of 1963, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy and Khrushchev, we thought, proved themselves reasonable men, who weren’t about to drop nuclear bombs that would incinerate hundreds of millions of people in both America and Russia and poison the world in a radioactive cloud of death. Since that time, other leaders have kept us out of nuclear war . . . .
Barely. By the hair of a trigger. By the flicker of a feather. By the skin of our teeth. Many years after those “Missiles of October,” Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense during the crisis, came forward and admitted just how close we had actually come to nuclear war. Despite the supposed ending of the Cold War, we have now progressed to the point in which the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia stand ready each moment on hair-trigger alert. Our generals know that if war threatens, they might have only minutes to decide to fire up our missiles and to “use ‘em or lose ‘em.”
Over the decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have been close to the accidental launching of our arsenals, as generals in both warring camps have nearly made the wrong decision. The blips of flocks of birds on radar screens have been interpreted as possible flocks of missiles, and have caused nuclear alerts. In 1995, the Russians detected a Norwegian scientific rocket shooting through the atmosphere, and they believed that Russia might be under attack. President Yeltsin activated his nuclear “briefcase.” What might have happened if the Russians hadn’t finally identified the missile as a research rocket?
Two countries armed with nukes produce numerous scenarios for nuclear war. Add another country and the scenarios multiply. After the United States and Russia built their bombs, Britain and France did likewise. China, in 1964, became the world’s fifth nuclear power. Pakistan and India then tested bombs of their own. Israel started building bombs in secret. Iraq tried to. During the 1980’s, South Africa built and dismantled numerous nuclear weapons. Iran began a nuclear program that has so far failed, while North Korea’s has recently and disastrously succeeded.
Why do the leaders of countries seek to acquire nuclear weapons when doing so threatens the world order and invites attack? Think of Israel sending its bombers to destroy the Osiraq plant in Iraq, in June 1981, or the pretext for the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Think of the United States’ threats to bomb or invade Iran, and now, North Korea. A better question might be: why wouldn’t a nation seek nuclear weapons? Sure, it's risky, but suppose it succeeds? If the logic of MAD holds true, then doesn’t the possession of even a few nuclear weapons give a nation a degree of influence and security?
That seems to be true. Now that North Korea has become a nuclear power, the United States isn’t about to rattle its own nuclear sabers too loudly or invade North Korea, because the threat of retaliation is just too great. If the destruction of the two towers of the World Trade Center shocked and awed us, what would the reduction of New York and Los Angeles to radioactive rubble do to the nation’s psyche?
Some argue that we should stop nations such as Iran from building nuclear bombs in the first place. How are we going to do that? Unleashing our air force to drop “conventional bombs” on their nuclear production facilities won’t work: their plants are buried deep within the ground or even kept secret from us. We won’t get them all. If we sent our tanks and troops rolling in from Iraq to the east, we might have better success. But we might need as many as a million men to subdue – to conquer – Iran. Do we have the manpower, money or will to complete such a campaign?
Even if we did, would we then be able to stop South Africa from recommencing its programs, should that nation decide to reenter the nuclear club? And what if Japan, in reaction to North Korea’s nuclear test, decides to began building bombs as they now do Toyotas? What if Indonesia, in reaction to Japan’s reaction, wants a bomb of its own? And what of Israel with its nuclear arsenal and all its Arab neighbors who must fear it and consequently be tempted to build arsenals themselves ? Can the United States provide world order by conquering the whole world?
That’s not going to happen. What will happen is this: nuclear proliferation will breed proliferation in a strategic chain reaction as more and more nations acquire nuclear arms. Paradoxically, although individual nuclear nations will feel more secure, at least for a while, the world will become less and less secure. The situation will grow much, much worse as “rogue” states try to exercise their power and the arsenals of failed states – Pakistan might soon become one of these – fall into the hands of ayatollahs, tribal leaders and warlords. Or just simple terrorists. The possibilities for nuclear war breaking out somewhere, and perhaps catching the whole world up in flames, will increase exponentially.
I wonder how anyone can hope that we’re going to continue on hundreds or even thousands of years into the future, each of earth’s nations armed to the teeth with hydrogen bombs, and not set off a nuclear war? I have written novels categorized as fantasy, but the belief that we can miraculously escape from the doom for which we so diligently prepare just because it is too horrible to contemplate is not only utter fantasy, it is madness.
Such delusion makes me think of a cartoon I once saw in the New Yorker: a man has jumped off of a very tall building and is plummeting down seventy or more stories toward the pavement below. And the caption records the man’s thoughts: “So far, so good.”
Isn’t that kind of thinking pure . . . MADness? For aren’t we all more than a little crazy in devoting a good portion of our time, taxes and national treasure to building weapons that will ultimately destroy us? Can’t we see that the logic of preventing war by preparing for it, by which we have lived for so long, has finally broken down?
Albert Einstein, who made the equations that told of turning little lumps of matter into vast amounts of energy, pondered the dilemma of our deranged new world. After the detonation of the first nuclear bombs, he said: “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking."
What nuclear weapons change, above all, is that they make war between nuclear powers pointless. War has always been chancy but it has always offered great rewards for those who successfully waged it. Alexander the Great put his Macedonian phalanxes in mortal danger again and again and nearly died several times himself in winning his empire. Ghengis Khan's warriors made off with the pelf and plunder of China. Adolph Hitler spent the lives of millions of Germans in invading Russia, but if his Wehrmacht and his SS exterminators had been victorious, they would have won lebensraum enough for the German people to reproduce tens of millions more Germans. What possible reward could justify the mutually near-suicidal results of nuclear war?
At the end of War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk wrote this: "Either war is finished, or we are." For war to be finished, though, it isn't enough for it to be proved pointless. The millions of men who endured the rat-infested trenches in battles at Verdun and the Somme didn't see much point in World War I, but that didn't keep them from being mowed down by machine gun fire or being blasted into bloody bits. War will end only when our thinking changes. And that will happen only when we change the underlying structures – political, social and psychic – that cause us to view other peoples as either potential invaders or victims.
The most fundamental structure that orders the world and all its peoples is the nation-state. It has evolved over the last few millennia in an inconstant but inexorable process of the development of larger social entities: from tens of thousands of small bands of related people ranging the earth to thousands of much larger tribes to hundreds of chiefdoms. All those groupings organized themselves around war or needed to protect themselves from the aggressions of neighbors that killed adult males at an even higher frequency than does modern war. War has been the fire that has forged the world's scattered peoples into the two hundred nations that presently divide up all the continents except Antarctica.
One final forging remains to be made. We all have a sense of what that must be. Will it take a nuclear war, or a series of them, to achieve it? What might happen, for instance, if Pakistan and India went to war over Kashmir and unleashed their nukes on each other? Would the sight of dozens of billowing mushroom clouds, broadcast over the world's media, do something to us that all the images of Auschwitz and the carnage of Vietnam failed to do? Would our hearts cry out in rage at great cities such as Karachi and New Delhi annihilated and millions of children turned into human torches? Would we suddenly "get it" that in a nuclear world, such a fate will find us all? Or would our new understanding await the radioactive clouds that would roll in from Asia across the Pacific Ocean to kill our children, poisoning them with strontium-90 and cesium-137 and making their hair fall out?
Perhaps that still would not be enough. Perhaps we will need to endure war after nuclear war, decade after decade, until the warring nations have reduced themselves to dust and one relatively untouched nation – perhaps China – finally does succeed in conquering a vastly weakened world. Is this the only way we will all finally come together?
I have a better idea. Of course, it's not really my idea at all. It is probably as old as speculation about the nature of human societies, and I see its lineaments in such works as Plato's Republic – to say nothing of the ancient Greek alliance against the invading armies of Persia or the birth of the United States of America. Because I first became aware of this idea while watching episodes of Star Trek, I call it the Star Trek future.
Consider the Klingons. In the original series, with Captain Kirk at the helm of the Enterprise, they were the wild, ugly, brutal bad guys who opposed the good guys of earth and the United Federation of Planets. In the later series, in the 24th century, the Klingons were still wild, ugly and brutal, but they were also revealed to be noble warriors who teamed up with the Federation against the real bad guys such as the Romulans. A few visionaries in that Star Trek future even dare to hope that the Klingons might someday join the Federation themselves. There is the hint that the Federation will someday grow throughout the galaxy, absorbing planets, peoples and political entities through voluntary and democratic participation – in contradistinction to the Borg, who would absorb the whole universe through a sort of totalitarian, insectlike annihilation of the individual into collective nightmare.
The nations of earth, now, in the early 21st century, already have an incipient world federation. We don't call the European Union by that name, but as the nations of Europe adopt a single currency, dissolve borders and give over the traditional prerogatives of the nation-state such as treaty and regulation making to various supranational bodies, they move closer and closer to being a true federation. The obvious advantages of belonging to such a union have impelled various nations to want to join it. So far, twenty-seven have. That includes former mortal enemies such as France and Germany. Bulgaria and Romania, recently satellite countries of the Soviet Bloc, joined in 2007. Turkey, not even geographically located in Europe, applied to accede to the European Union in 1987. Although Russia has so far declined to join, it cooperates with it in the Four Common Spaces: Economic; Freedom, Security and Justice; External Security; Research, Education, Culture.
Will Russia soon change courses? Will the European Union grow to include Turkey – and then perhaps Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other former nations of the Soviet Union through Asia? What about Japan and China? And the Muslim nations, from Morocco to Iraq to Indonesia? And, of course, India, and the rest of Africa – and the nations of Latin America, too? Will the peoples of the "rogue" nations of Iran and North Korea decline to become totally isolated and perhaps overthrow their oppressive rulers? And what of mighty, maverick America? Is it possible that the world's single superpower could exert that vast power to help unite the world according to the visions of freedom and a better life that made us great?
Such a miracle seems almost too much to hope for. Those who believe in such optimistic outcomes will be called naifs, as unrealistic and credulous as children waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney with a sack of presents. Yet it might be our last, best hope of avoiding Armageddon. Here is another paradox of nuclear war: just as we stand at the brink of the natural progression of war in achieving the world's unification, we can't afford to have one. For if we start dropping hydrogen bombs on each other we really might destroy ourselves.
Ilya Prigogine, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1977, became famous for his work in dissipative structures. These include cyclones, Bénard cells and life itself. They each possess this property: if subjected to a jolt of energy, they have a tendency either to fall apart or to organize themselves at a structure of a higher order. Our world, I think, is like that. And nuclear weapons contain the cosmic energy that will either cause our civilization to fall apart or impel it to reorganize at a higher level.
What might that look like? I think we all have a sense of what this almost unimaginably bright future might be. I wrote of this in Splendor:
"No war. No hunger. No want. No very wealthy using their money to manipulate laws and lawmakers so that they become ever more wealthy while they cast the poor into the gutters like garbage. The wasteland made green again. Oceans once more teeming with life. The human heart finally healed. A new story that we tell ourselves about ourselves and new songs that we sing to our children. The vast resources once mobilized for war and economic supremacy now poured into a true science of survival and technologies of the soul."
And that is why I almost love the Bomb. At the time of our greatest peril, we also have our greatest possibility. If we're lucky – and wise – the threat of nuclear war by itself will be enough to shock us to a new way of living in our world.