I often spend weeks at a time on specific topics, and a few topics ago I was buried in the Pacific War, a theatre of war during World War 2 that I think is often underappreciated, especially the Sino-Japanese war which, in some cases, eclipsed the brutality and scale seen on the Eastern Front between Germany and the Soviet Union.
The conclusion of the Pacific war was the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, after which Japan soon surrendered to the United States. It is not yet absolutely clear to me if Japan’s surrender was specifically tied to the dropping of the two atomic bombs, as just making that assumption would risk falling into a well-known fallacy of casualty based on the order of events — when we really need stronger proof of this.
And so, Nuclear Weapons and strategy became my new topic of research and interest, which included reading several books, listening to some extremely interesting podcasts, and watching Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Love the Bomb.
Nuclear weapons are a strange thing to consider, but they must be considered. We are dealing with a level of existential risk that, if well understood, should be on the front pages of every newspaper every single day until resolved. And yet, we now live as if Nuclear War is now a historical artifact, something that could only have happened in the ‘60s or ‘80s.
The reality is different. Arguably, we are as of today, 2022, at one of the highest levels of risk that we have ever been. Thousands of nuclear weapons are on hair-trigger alert, able to be launched within minutes based on the orders of individuals, and with no way of being recalled once they have been launched.
This is not a drill, this is not a movie, this is real life. And yet, we continue to act as if it isn’t.
I remember reading somewhere that the only thing more absurd than nuclear weapons are the people who believe that they can be controlled. It seems to me that the same could be said of our entire nuclear arsenal and the way we manage it. We have created a system where the possibility of human error or technical malfunction is all it would take to trigger a nuclear war — and yet we continue to act as if this risk doesn’t exist.
If you live in a major metropolitan area, there are several nuclear weapons pointed at you. Most people under a certain age have lived their entire lives with this cocked gun pointed at their heads. Dozens of megatons of explosive potential are aimed at them, every minute of their lives. Keep in mind this fact: the typical large nuclear weapon today has more explosive power than all of the explosives fired by all sides during the entirety of World War 2. And there are likely several of these aimed in whichever city you happen to live in.
When you really stop and think about it, it’s hard to wrap your head around. I often feel like I am living in a dream, or in some alternate reality where the rules of physics no longer apply. How can we possibly justify the existence of nuclear weapons when the only thing they guarantee is mutually assured destruction?
And yet, here we are. With enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, and with no clear way out of this situation.
And so, it is worth having a conversation about nuclear weapons, and the strange and perverse logic that follows from their existence. It is as if we go down a deep and dark rabbit hole, where civilian death counts in the millions, and even tens and hundreds of millions, can be spoken about in a nonchalant manner.
But, there are also strong arguments that nuclear weapons do keep us safe. After all, we have not had a direct conflict between any major powers since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, and it is now inconceivable to think of German tanks rolling through the Rhine and into France.
Perhaps nuclear weapons act as the ultimate forcing function, ensuring that things can never escalate to a global war level, but that politicians and generals must sit down with the other side and use conversation and negotiation to achieve their aims, not bullets, grenades, and artillery shells.
Before I started to deep-dive into a study of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy, this was my thinking as well. While distasteful, I had to accept that nuclear weapons do exist, and so it did appear that they make us safe. Any country that has nuclear weapons is safe from invasion, both history and pure logic can attest to this — and it is also precisely why every tin-pot dictator out there wants to join the nuclear club because it is an absolute guarantee of sovereignty.
As I write these words, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for several months, and there are lessons to be drawn from this. Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal to Russia in return for a guarantee that Russia would not violate the national boundaries or invade.
I think this shows that a nuclear missile is a better guarantee than a piece of paper with a signed treaty on it. A nuclear weapon is a tangible thing, something that you can see and touch. It is a physical manifestation of deterrence. And it is something that cannot be easily taken away or revoked, as a piece of paper can. So, in this sense, I think it is clear that a nuclear missile is a better guarantee than a piece of paper with a signed treaty on it.
However, things are not so simple. Yes, nuclear weapons likely do reduce the risk of smaller-scale wars, or even a global conflict fought with conventional weapons, such as World War 2.
But everything comes at a cost — and this is where things become to get scary as we dive into the rabbit hole. For every argument that nuclear weapons make us safe, there is an equally compelling argument that they do the exact opposite.
The first and most obvious cost is the humanitarian cost. The use of nuclear weapons, even in a limited way, would cause immense damage and death. The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed around 220,000 people, most of whom were civilians. And this was a relatively small nuclear weapon, with a yield of around 20 kilotons. A modern nuclear weapon has a yield many times greater, meaning that the death toll from a nuclear attack would be much higher.
Another cost is the environmental cost. A nuclear explosion creates a massive fireball that incinerates anything within a few kilometers radius. The heat from the fireball can also start fires many kilometers away from the explosion point. The mushroom cloud that forms after a nuclear explosion contains radioactive material that can contaminate an area for many miles around. This area becomes uninhabitable for decades, if not centuries.
Then there is the cost to our economy. A nuclear attack would destroy infrastructure, homes, and businesses. It would also cause long-term damage to our environment and our health. The cost of rebuilding would be immense, and the economic impact would be felt for generations.
Last, but not least, is the cost to our way of life. A nuclear attack would change our world forever. It would force us to live in fear, always looking over our shoulders for the next attack. We would have to give up our freedom in exchange for safety, as we would have to submit to strict security measures and increased surveillance. Our world would become a much darker place.
For nuclear weapons to be a deterrent, they must be a credible threat. This means that a nation must be able to launch them quickly, in retaliation for a nuclear or conventional military strike. This means being able to launch a missile in 30 minutes or significantly less time, and this means that a certain percentage of any nuclear arsenal must be on what we can term hair-trigger alert. This is why the president of the United States is constantly followed by a general that has the nuclear football — a briefcase that contains the launch codes and a card for the president to identify himself to the armed services.
And with any systems designed by humans — advanced apes — there is going to be the potential for failures.
This can be a technical failure, a human failure, or simply a misunderstanding. For example, if a nuclear missile is accidentally launched, this could be seen as a technical failure. If someone mistakenly believes that an attack is happening and orders a nuclear strike in retaliation, this could be seen as a human failure. Or, if the president is not properly identified by the armed services, this could be seen as a misunderstanding.
These failures could have catastrophic consequences.
And this is where the arguments for and against nuclear weapons start to get really fuzzy.
On the one hand, you have the argument that nuclear weapons make us safe because they are a deterrent. On the other hand, you have the argument that nuclear weapons are dangerous because of the potential for accidents and misunderstandings.
So, which is it? Are nuclear weapons a force for good or evil?
My understanding is that the risk of an accidental nuclear strike, leading to global nuclear war and the onset of a nuclear winter that would cause widespread crop failure and the death of billions, is the cost of the security that nuclear weapons provide from conventional warfare.
And I now think that the likelihood of an accident is actually higher than the risk of not having nuclear weapons. So, we are essentially picking up pennies on a train track. This seems like a profitable and worthwhile venture, but eventually, a train will come along and completely wipe us out.
And so, I am currently writing a lengthy essay on Nuclear Weapons and Strategy, that includes the history, the perverse logic of Nuclear Strategy, and potential ways forwards to deescalate this situation, while simultaneously reducing the risk of more frequent conventional wars.
This is one of the great problems of our times, and perhaps the problem of our times.