When our children, one girl, one boy, were in their pre-teens, my wife instituted “ladies’ day” as a special occasion to hang out with our daughter. Periodically they would head out to the mall to shop for a bauble or a new dress and top off the expedition with an effetely gourmet lunch. It did not take long for our son to voice a wish for equivalent quality time with his father.
Thus began “men’s day.” Along with becoming a connoisseur of the subtle differences between the French fries at one or another of the fast food establishments nearest the Cineplex, we initiated ourselves into the philosophical conundrums of the Terminator films. Their formula runs thus: malevolent machines have rebelled against their human masters and begun nuclear war all on their own. Was this possible, my son naturally enough wanted to know? And I naturally enough tried to calm a thirteen-year-old’s fears by dismissing the possibility.
The unpleasant truth is that the process is in fact well under way, though not exactly in the manner the films suggested. Robots have not yet become conscious, autonomous, and capable of conquering humans in war, though the entrepreneur Elon Musk has been sounding the alarm against A.I., called it a greater threat than North Korea.
Nuclear weapons are not robots. But they are machines whose destructive power is so enormous that they have seriously warped the thinking of the humans who supposedly control them. The distortion has long passed the point where the tail of nuclear weapons began to wag the dog of common sense. The war of the machines is here, and we have become their pawns.
Watching Ken Burns’s documentary rehashing the Vietnam War makes this clearer even on the level of conventional war. War itself is a kind of system, a machine with a life of its own. Looking back (and setting aside that North Vietnam’s cause—national liberation from the colonial oppression of the French and the Americans—was more on the side of justice), both sides are able to reflect on how the system tempted them into stereotyping each other and rationalizing the indiscriminate cruelty of napalm or carpet-bombing or mass executions of suspected sympathizers to the opposing side.
Someday a film with similar conclusions will be made about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the relentless system of war is always the same: dehumanization, abandonment of truth to propaganda, escalating chaos and cruelty, futile bloodletting, and ultimate exhaustion. Even the decisive defeat of one side only plants the seeds for further war. As Robert Frost wrote, “Nature within her inmost self divides/ To trouble men with having to take sides.”
Deterrence as a way of preventing the senselessness of total war has always seemed sensible to establishment makers of policy, because it appears to have helped to prevent a third world war since 1945. Even the stalemates in Korea and Vietnam can be interpreted as conflicts in which leaders escalated almost to the point of using nuclear weapons as a last resort to win, but finally restrained themselves because they realized that victory was only the Pyrrhic victory of mass death on all sides.
But these weapons leave us all in a moral limbo. Unused, they are the righteous preservers of the peace. Used, whether by design or accident, they become the worst war crime in human history. We pretend our nuclear weapons are good and theirs are bad, when the weapons are a mindless, heartless system that cares neither who occupies the moral high ground nor who “wins.”
Our diminishment in the face of these machines has become especially clear in the threats and counter-threats of Kim-Jung Un and Donald Trump. The reality that one side is a totalitarian dictatorship where the dictator answers only to himself and the other side is a democracy that freely elected its leader makes not a whit of difference when it comes to nuclear decisions. Our presidents, no matter how experienced and well-trained, are identical to Kim Jung-Un in that they find themselves in the absurd position of being able to begin a nuclear war without consulting anyone.
Ominously, both Kim and Trump show equivalent signs of instability and unpredictability. History tells us that leaders faced with domestic threats to their power often turn to foreign wars as a way of externalizing the enemy and distracting their constituency from their own shortcomings. As Mr. Mueller looms over him, will the president’s finger be tempted to edge nearer to the button to create the ultimate distraction?
The machines are rising, asserting their autonomous powers and reducing us, citizens and leaders alike, to helpless cogs in a potential war without winners. But forces of common sense opposing the malevolent nuclear system are also rising. 122 nations just passed a U.N. agreement to outlaw the construction, deployment or use of these weapons. The nine nuclear powers are quickly finding themselves on the wrong side of history. It is long past time for us to recognize that the greater enemy is not someone in another country shouting threats, but the weapons themselves. On the basis of this shared truth, new relationships among adversaries can flourish that will allow reciprocal reduction and elimination. Nature within her inmost self divides, and science has unleashed this process on earth as the mighty power of fission, setting before us life or death choices. It is not too late to restrain the rise of the machines we ourselves have created, and choose life.