June 9, 2008: Ten Years Ago on Grasping Reality

After the Next Nuclear Fire...: Hoisted from 2007

Nuclear explosion Google Search

Hoisted from the Archives: Rather more urgent than I thought it would be 27 months ago: After the Next Nuclear Fire...: In the early 1980s the U.S. NSA—or perhaps it was the Defense Department—loved to play games with Russian air defense. They would send probe planes in from the Pacific to fly over Siberia. And they would watch and listen: Where were the gaps in Russian sensor coverage? How far could U.S. planes penetrate before being spotted? What were Russian command-and-control procedures to intercept intruders? And so on, and so forth.

Then, one night, September 1, 1983, the pilot of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 to Seoul mispunched his destination coordinates into his autopilot, and sent his plane west of its proper course, over Siberia, where Russian fighters—confident that they had finally caught one of the American spyplane intruders napping—blew it and its hundreds of civilian passengers out of the sky. With some glee the Reagan administration claimed that the Russians had deliberately shot down a civilian airliner because they were barbarians and terrorists and wanted the world to know that they were barbarians and terrorists by handing the Reagan administration a propaganda victory. The Russians counterclaimed that the CIA had deliberately misprogrammed the autopilot of KAL 007 and monkeyed with its transponder in order to trick the Russians into shooting down a civilian airliner. What had actually happened was a mistake: radar operators, majors, colonels, and generals seeing what they expected to see—a U.S. spyplane intruding into Russian air space and, for once, not being alert enough to scoot out to sea before the defending fighters arrived.

In the late 1980s, the U.S. sent its warships into the Persian Gulf to protect Saudi and Kuwaiti tankers against Iranian attack. Saudi and Kuwaiti oil earned dollars that paid for Saddam Hussein's Iraq to fight its bloody war against Khomeini's Iran in what the carter and Reagan administrations approved of and encouraged as appropriate payback for the outrage against international law and diplomatic practice committed by Khomeini and company's seizure of hostages from the diplomats at the American embassy in Tehran. This time it was the turn of the Americans—the sailors on the "robo-cruiser" Vincennes—to shoot down a fully-loaded civilian airliner, Iran Air Flight 655 on its regularly-scheduled run in its regularly-scheduled flight path at its regularly-scheduled time across the Persian Gulf from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. Once again what happened was a mistake: sailors seeing an airliner flying straight and level as a hostile bomber dropping in altitude and preparing to fire its missiles. The records of the Vincennes’ instruments show no signals that would suggest a bomber was detected, while they do record detecting a civilian IFF signal.

Boys who don't think too fast and aren't too smart at processing information playing with deadly toys. Testosterone-poisoned devil-apes using not rocks and fists to demonstrate some bizarre concept of reproductive fitness but using buttons and missiles instead. And, increasingly, testosterone-crazed devil apes playing with nuclear weapons.

We are highly likely to lose a city to nuclear fire over the next half-century. Some not-too-smart major will see what he expects to see, or some god-maddened colonel will think he has received a holy command, or some ignorant general will believe that the logic of deterrence is failing but that the situation can be rescued if he strikes first. Tehran or Delhi or Islamabad or Pyongyang or Tel Aviv or Paris or London or Moscow or Beijing or Washington or some other city will become a sea of radioactive glass. With luck we will only lose one city, because the people ruled by the guilty government and military will immediately rise up and tear their politicians, bureaucrats, and commanders limb-from-limb before sending all possible aid to the wounded and the dying. But don't count on it. We are likely to lose more than one city. As Bill Clinton is supposed to have said: if North Korea were to use a nuclear weapon against the United States, an hour later there won't be a North Korea.

Perhaps there won't be a use of nuclear weapons in the next half century.

Every human household has the potential to use deadly force against its immediate neighbors, yet very few disputes over dog waste or storm runoff escalate to murder. Can't countries, like people, all just get along (for the most part, that is)? There is a problem, however: leaders of countries are not average people: imagine a neighborhood of Ariel Sharons living next to the Saddam Husseins living next to the as-Sabah family living next to the Assad compound, with the Mubarrak and Hashemite families across the street wishing that they lived in a very different neighborhood.

Let's look on the bright side: the aftermath of the first post-Nagasaki use of nuclear weapons to kill humans will be a moment of maximum political plasticity: a moment when swift global action in the heat of the moment can create institutions to govern the world. What then should be done? If we argue and debate in the aftermath of nuclear fire, we will lose a unique opportunity to shape events so that there will be no second post-Nagasaki use of nuclear weapons. We should have our arguments and debates now, so that we will know what to do when the moment strikes.

I propose the following plan for the aftermath of the horror: That non-great powers be bribed to abandon their nuclear weapons—they are a source of danger rather than an aid to defense. That great powers put their nuclear weapons under the joint control of their own militaries and of the United Nations Strategic Forces—with each of the two having the technical means to disarm and prevent use. That the great powers return us to the system of international relations toward which George H. W. Bush was working in 1989-1993: that the command and blessing of the United Nations Security Council be the only justification for any form of cross-border military adventure, and that the Secretary General raise, maintain, and deploy sufficient deadly armed force to make that principle stick.

But, I believe, it is much less important that we adopt this plan than that we have a plan. What will humanity do in the aftermath of a human city's next meeting with the siblings of Fat Man and Little Boy? What should our plan be?