As the possibility grows that Russian and American, or NATO, forces will inadvertently clash over or in the Syrian chaos, it is hard not to be reminded of Eric Schlosser’s electrifying 2013 book Command and Control, a comprehensive account of the development and deployment of nuclear weapons over the last sixty years. It might be the most frightening book you will ever read.
Schlosser walks us through the bizarre ambiguities of deterrence, always in the context of the tension between the need for fail-safe mechanisms to prevent misuse and the even more pressing military need for split-second readiness. This tension has left an all too lengthy trail of close calls, misunderstandings, hair-raising false alarms, and one-micro step-away-from accidental thermonuclear detonations. Our planet’s having been spared apocalypse—so far—approaches the miraculous.
The threat of mutually assured destruction has almost certainly had a major role in preventing yet another world war—again, so far. Given the inability of the victorious powers at the end of World War II to trust one another enough to see where an all-out arms race would end up, they chose instead to slide down the slippery slope of adversarial proliferation .
Even as safety specialists focus upon protecting the weapons from the possibility of detonation by someone who has lost his mind, they deny the stark insanity of the deterrence system itself. Nuclear protocol remains so hair-trigger that it feels as if the weapons possess a kind of almost-independent eagerness to show what they can do.
Pick your poison: the knife-edge Cold War balance of terror, where at least elite forces like the Strategic Air Command took enormous pride in their professionalism, or the present era of bored, restless crews in missile silos smoking dope and cheating on readiness tests.
Only if we face such realities honestly can we hope to change them, beginning with foundational principles congruent with our actual condition:
In the pre-nuclear world, international relations emerged from the conflict of national interests. In a post-nuclear world, national self-interest is intimately connected with planetary self-interest. The possibility of even a small number of nuclear detonations anywhere on earth causing “nuclear winter” underlines this radical change.
In both the pre-nuclear and post–nuclear world it has been of primary strategic interest to try to psyche out the mentality of the “enemy”—almost always leading to projective distortions like “they support brutal regimes, we do not.” In the post-nuclear world, the desire not to appear weak common to all sides in a conflict has become a recipe for psychological war—credibility—sliding into real war. Diplomacy must found itself both upon the shared threat of nuclear winter and admitting the universal tendency toward macho posturing. The only way anyone wins is if everyone wins.
In a pre-nuclear world, greater strength in arms made victory a strong likelihood; in a post-nuclear world, victory is a phantom. Schlosser’s book is full of military leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere, General Curtis Lemay of SAC first among them, who entertained the folly of believing that total victory was possible in a nuclear war. Only President Kennedy pushed back against Lemay’s relentless pressure to launch an air attack on Cuba during the Missile Crisis of 1962, which would almost certainly have started WW3.
A half century later, there is still no person on earth possessing sufficient wisdom to be able to make sensible decisions once a nuclear war begins, just as no military or civilian commander can say with assurance that the thousands of nuclear weapons around the globe will never be involved in an accident that tips us into a war that no one can win. Past time to convene an international conference that pushes the nine nuclear nations to accelerate a reciprocal, verifiable disarmament process. It is perfectly possible to do, and crazy not to.