Examining Nuclear Motivations

Usually for my blog posts, I write them in isolation and try to guess how my regular readers might respond.  However, for this topic, I spoke with Dan about it as I wrote it.  As someone who’s visited Hiroshima, Dan has a pretty unique perspective on the topic compared to most Americans.


View Through the Memorial Cenotaph of the Peace Flame and the Peace Memorial


I was inspired to think about this concept after listening to a recent Talk of the Nation podcast.  The guest mentioned that a lot of the debates about the usage of nuclear weapons have disappeared along with the end of the cold war.  So he wrote a book about the common conceptions we have about nuclear weapons usage as well as how the world has changed since then.  The first interesting concept he touched on was the catch-22 of nuclear deterrents.  During the Cold War, we have been taught that we were safe from Russia’s nukes because of Mutually Assured Destruction.  In other words, the Russians knew that if they nuked us we would nuke them right back.  So it wasn’t worth getting into a nuclear battle.  The question the guest raised was whether it was ethical and moral to commit genocide on others just because they committed genocide on you.  Does it make sense for everyone in the world to die because one guy set off bombs?  The catch-22 comes from the fact that you can never actually publicly talk about this or debate it because if the other side knows you won’t hit them back they will lack a deterrent to nuking you.

I never really thought about nuclear war on those terms.  But it definitely brings to light the ridiculous nature of nuclear weapons.  Are we ready to bring our species to extinction over the actions of one country?  And if we aren’t, what’s to keep people from using them indiscriminately?   Personally, I don’t understand the concept of war nowadays, much less the concept of nuclear war.  In the modern war where most people don’t serve in the military and even in a democracy like ours, opposition to war can’t stop it – why should the general populace be made to suffer over the whims of a few at the top?  And what is worth killing for instead of negotiating and realizing that you can’t always get what you want.  (Something I thought we learned as kids)

Dan was vehemently opposed to MAD and called it a “surefire way to end humanity”.  He didn’t see any justification for which MAD would be morally or ethically justifiable.  I definitely agree with him.  I just wish there was a good alternative.

The second point the guest made was the concept of whether the solders who were getting the orders to use the nukes could verify they were getting sane orders.  This ranges from making sure the computers are telling you about a real attack to making sure an order comes from someone who’s thinking properly.  The latter condition comes from someone in the USA who was asking how he would know an order from the President was a sane order.  Reportedly Nixon, who was coming unhinged from the Watergate scandal, told guests at a dinner party that he could leave and go order a nuclear attack and destroy an entire city.  So what if he, as the President of the USA ordered a nuclear attack.  Was the military justified in disobeying that order?

The third point of the guest was that there are new players in the nuclear game that may not act rationally.  The obvious examples are North Korea and Iran.  In the case of Isreal and Iran, Isreal is known as a 1-nuke State.  That means that it’s so small that one large nuke would effectively destroy the entire country.  And one of the Ayatollahs in Iran has actually said they don’t care if they get nuked back because the Jews will be gone and there will still be a ton of other Muslims in the world.  So what do you do in that case?  It doesn’t matter if Isreal does a strike and eliminates all their nukes but one.  That one is enough to destroy them.  So now what do they do?  What can they do against irrationality?

So things are a bit more complicated than they used to be.  But until we start talking about it, we won’t really get to a solution.

4 responses to “Examining Nuclear Motivations”

  1. The only rational answer is nuclear non-proliferation and arms reduction. Having nukes around might make people feel safe, but it’s guaranteed to be the death of us at some point. They’ve already been offensively detonated twice and the chance that more destructive bombs will eventually be used is > 0.

  2. To the first point, mutually assured destruction might not be moral or ethical, but if your country had been attacked by another using nuclear weapons – wouldn’t not firing back be the same as saying outright ahead of time that you wouldn’t hit back? It’s essentially a choice of trying to put up the self-defense that you can in hopes of saving your country, or just trusting your enemy to not continue to attack. I think it’s a perfect deterrent.

    To the second and third point – you’re never going to get rid of all the crazies. And if your military is taught to follow orders, when exactly do you ever draw the line on rationality? Sure, starting a nuclear war would be terrible – mostly because of the mutually assured destruction that would follow. But is it not also terrible if your people decide to revolt and you order the military to fight the revolution (especially in the situation of a dictator)? Or really any order of violence that would result in a retaliation and all out war? It’s complicated, but I don’t think it’s exclusive to nuclear weapons. It’s a military problem as a whole. But on the other hand, a military that doesn’t follow orders wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

    • You’ve got to claim that you’d fight back, I guess, but there’s no victory in also scorching another country and throwing the planet into further disarray. I believe the phrase we’re searching for when talking about M.A.D. is “Pyrrhic victory”.

      • Dan’s point is essentially the whole reason for the debate and what I was trying to get at. Sure, people need to think there are consequences for their actions. But when the time comes, what purpose is served by destroying all of humanity?