Folks, sometimes humans are pretty amazing. Not just in what they are capable of doing, but also in what they are capable of ignoring.
Take for example the fact that at this very moment you are reading this, you are not more than three minutes away from being annihilated in a nuclear cloud.
(Three minutes at most, probably less.)
Exactly who would press that button depends on where you are living – writing this from London, I have the luxury of choice when it comes to the source of my downfall. It could be the Americans, the Russians, the Brits, the French, probably not the Israelis or the Indians or the Pakistanis (but who knows), but it might be the North Koreans.
Now, I don’t want to be morose, but the fact bears repeating because we are so trained to forget about it – if one person on this earth, endowed with the necessary access rights, so chooses, tens of millions of people will die.
And the best part is – it doesn’t even have to be intentional. As we have seen in Command and Control, there is plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong. And the consequences would be horrifying.
At least we are no longer living in an age when nuclear terror – also called ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ – was a central part of the national security strategy. Which is what ‘Armageddon and Paranoia’ discusses.
As the author explains, there is an inherent paradox to deterrence: “You intend to terrify your enemy into behaving properly; but you risk frightening him into doing something silly.”
(Something ‘silly’ being, of course, starting nuclear war.)
(Kudos in this, as always, go to Nixon, who took this one step further with his ‘Mad President’ Theory – he wanted the Soviets to believe that he was so unpredictable, so crazy, that they believed he would use the bomb, even as a first strike.
The Soviets, thankfully, weren’t much impressed by Nixon’s behavior and mostly ignored it when it came up.)
Mutually Assured Destruction works because both sides terrify themselves and one another into avoiding war. Each side has two overriding but conflicting priorities: to impose the tightest possible political and technical controls on its systems and thus eliminate all possibility of war by technical accident or human error; and to ensure that they can nevertheless fire off their weapons against an attacker even when they have no more than a few minutes’ warning.
The book does an admirable job at describing the various strategies and evolution of tactical thinking that both super powers went through in the five decades of Cold War.
He also brings up Britain’s nuclear policy up again and again – which would be a great addition, since I haven’t read much about it yet, except that a) the ratio doesn’t work – often, the British aspects seem more of an afterthought because the author handles them in such a short manner b) if you want to involve Britain, you should also involve the other nuclear powers, such as France, Israel, India and Pakistan. I do understand that this would be an entirely different project. However, the choice to only include Britain, but not the others, then seems oddly random.
It is a good book, if only because it makes you realize that all throughout the Cold War – and arguably even now – humans have not figured out how to manage this technology. They created it, for sure, and they figured out how to make it work, but we haven’t figured out how to live with it yet.
In the end, it all comes down to statistical odds, doesn’t it? Let’s say you take your bike to work. You might not get hit by a car today, or tomorrow, or even next year. But if you ride your bike long enough, eventually, you will get hit.
And it’s the same with humanity and nuclear weapons. We have to ride this bike to work, every day, for the rest of our existence.
If you want to hear more about this – there is an excellent podcast by Dan Carlin, called ‘The Destroyer of Worlds’ that deals with this. I highly recommend his podcasts (you should know this by now), but this specific episode is outstanding.
And next week – we are going to read another Pulitzer Prize Winner! (I do have a secret project of reading all Pulitzer Prize Winners Ever, and I am making slow progress.)