Orion Digest №19 — On Nuclear War and Deterrence

On August 6th, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and in that moment, the world was irreversibly changed. The nations that had spent years fighting war, thinking they had seen the most devastation that could be wrought after half a century of horrors, realized that there was an even greater threat — an instantaneous vaporization of cities that gave no second chances for surrender or diplomacy once used. A merciless fireball that destroyed soldiers, civilians, buildings and all without resistance. Three days later, another was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and one of the biggest wars in all of human history came to an end.

Like the mythical Pandora’s Box, once the atomic bomb was used once, it could never be unseen, and in the nearly 80 years since it’s use, upwards of 60,000 nuclear bombs have been produced by the most powerful nations in the world, despite the fact that if all of them were to be used, the planet would be made uninhabitable for human life. While our central fight is stopping annihilation from the climate crisis, a nuclear war in full force would bring that fate immediately, with the added side effect of making thousands of years of progress meaningless within a day.

So, if nuclear war is against the interest of every nation on Earth, why would we continue to keep them, to make more? That question is best answered by the policy of ‘nuclear deterrence’, or ‘deterrence’ in general. As the governments of many nations seek to gain power over others, to be able to assert their will on nations they disagree with or that act as an obstacle to their goals, the concept of absolute destruction was not appalling, but enticing. The weapon never had to be fired — simply held over the head of any enemy as incentive. If they complied with the wishes of one who held the weapon, they would survive; if they did not, they wouldn’t be around to tell the tale, and thus, they are deterred from resisting.

However, inevitably, the U.S. did not remain the sole wielder of nuclear weapons, and so, when both sides have the threat of a nuclear weapon on their side, how do you gain the advantage? Simple — by making more than the enemy, making them harder to detect, and by making them more powerful. The world knew full well that the creation of large amounts of deadlier nuclear weapons would simply make the outcome of their use more devastating, but having power was simply more important than the risk, than having any sympathy for the billions of citizens who had no say in this conflict between superpowers, and who would be wiped out because of something outside of their everyday lives.

Particularly strange is the idea that, when both sides had weapons and the capability to make more, they still rushed to upgrade and increase their arsenal anyway. If you and your enemy both have 5, and they decide to make 5 more, just because you make 10 more doesn’t mean that they will decide to stop, that it will convince them that resistance is futile. If they were capable of production of nuclear bombs, they can continue that production, and the ground you have gained will be all for naught. Similarly, say it only takes 20 bombs to destroy either side. Once each side has 20 bombs, it doesn’t matter if you or your enemy make them more powerful or make more. No matter what happens, both of you will be destroyed, even if they only launch 20 and you launch 100. You’ve still sealed your fate by merely launching one.

We’ve begun to slightly come to our senses in the years following the Cold War, as nations have been signing treaties of disarmament and limitations, but the fact that as of 2020, over 9,000 nuclear warheads are in active service means that those treaties would be meaningless in an actual nuclear war. The threat still remains that if only one nuclear weapon were launched, devastation would rain. If the U.S. shot weapons at Russia, Russia would have no reason, if they were to die anyway, to not fire back and take the U.S. down with them. As long as nuclear weapons exist, we still face a rapid extinction, which is only made worse by growing tensions and hostilities among major world superpowers.

Deterrence applies to more than just nuclear war, though the arms race is one of the best and most frightening examples. A much smaller scale problem, especially here in the United States, is the ownership of firearms. We are so focused on feeling unsafe because an assailant might have a gun that we must own guns as well, and in the end, the only result is that everyone has guns, and not every situation in which guns are drawn may end in peaceful negotiations like nuclear war did. In the end, the availability of guns for defense will increase their capacity for offense, and regardless of their use, more people needlessly die. The only remaining worthwhile reason is that the loss of our firearms may leave us helpless before forceful action by the government, and that we must keep them in the case of revolution, which itself is a symptom of the distrust and corruption all too common in American politics. (A statement which I understand is hypocritical in nature, especially given my constant reiteration of the dangers of thinking “this is the way it is”, but drastic situations may call for necessary evils to ensure that such violence never repeats itself. There are, of course, better ways through diplomacy and through non-firearm or non-lethal firearm combat, but whether the majority of people in the U.S. could secure the training and equipment for such combat in the case of a short-notice revolution or not is uncertain.)

The common thread between nuclear deterrence and firearm deterrence is that neither side believes the other is reasonable enough to see the futility of mutually assured destruction, and oftentimes, neither side is reasonable themselves, because they also cannot see the futility of such combat in the first place. War is often nationalistic in nature, fought for some gain because trade and cooperation somehow wasn’t enough. It is a failure of diplomacy for two nations to be in conflict in the first place, and the results are often bad blood and undeserved hatred of one’s citizens towards the other. The simplistic notion of “why can’t we all get along?” is, admittedly simplistic, but cutting past the self-assumed righteousness of nations and their petty historical ties and feuds, it isn’t that ignorant a question. From a basic standpoint, we have the resources and the territory that, if properly managed, could avoid war and allow a stable global system, but our past blinds us to the possibility of getting along with other nations.

The ultimate expression of this is nuclear deterrence — an absolute stubbornness and refusal to understand the other side’s point of view, expressed through applying force and risking global destruction just to win a fight, just to ensure that you come out with the advantage, even if there was a peaceful way that could have resolved the issue. Because it’s not about getting what a nation needs — it’s about getting what a government wants, and in places of illogical greed, excessive force works wonders. Gun violence reflects this not in practical use but in the grand, political concept, as the government refuses to assuage fears of enforcing power and violating rights, while the gun-owning public refuses to accept the many innocent deaths that easy firearm access has caused for years, and both will push their respective agendas until one wins, and for those caught in the middle, all they can do is hope things turn out well.

The ideal solution with both cases would be to destroy every last one of the weapons in question — nuclear weapons and guns alike. If neither side is capable of using them to begin with, nothing changes except the ease with which either side is able to kill en masse. No one trusts anyone enough to be the first one to give it up, which means until we have a little more reason in the world, we can’t undo what has been done. But one can hope that diplomacy will prevail, and we’ll see conflict with others as a puzzle to be solved, and not a contest of beating each other into submission.