Why Self Destruction?
May 5, 2010 5 Comments
Modern warfare is an especially germane example of unnatural self-destruction. Military organizations are constantly developing new ways to kill people and destroy all manner of things. The United Nations recently announced that the nations of the world spend more than a million American dollars per minute on weaponry. Nuclear explosives, laser-guided weapons, neutron bombs, mobile missiles, lethal chemicals, and a growing arsenal of other destructive devices have become permanent ingredients of our civilization. These aren’t just popgun fare, capable of maiming individuals; they are global munitions, able to mangle whole nations. Consider nuclear bombs , which, despite the end of the Cold War, are still very much a threat to the survival of humankind.
The world supply of nuclear weaponry is currently equivalent to ~20 billion tons of TNT, a highly explosive chemical used in the production of dynamite. Numbers in the billions no longer faze readers of earlier epochs of this Web site, but an analysis of weapons density is guaranteed to shock anyone. Dividing the world arsenal by the number of people now on the planet, we find to our astonishment a sum total of ~3 tons of TNT per person. This is neither 3 bullets, nor 3 sticks of dynamite, but the nuclear equivalent of ~3 tons of explosives for every man, woman, and child on Earth. No wonder it’s called overkill!
Further reflection reveals the extent of our disgrace, not just because we pay for all these armaments, but especially because we tolerate them. We are members of a society that permits the unchecked escalation of nuclear arms that can be used for only one thing—to wage nuclear war. And, contrary to popular belief, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the 1980s or the warming of east-west relations of the 1990s didn’t much reduce this weaponry. At best, this bilateral lip service acts only to regulate the expansion of worldly destructive powers.
What sort of damage does a typical 1-Megaton nuclear blast guarantee? About 100 times more destructive as the Hiroshima bomb, the detonation of the equivalent of 106 tons of TNT would create a brilliant fireball, the center of which would attain temperatures of ~107 K, comparable to the Sun’s core. Such rapid heating causes sudden expansion of the air around the point of explosion, as shown in, which in turn gives rise to shock waves and severe winds where pressures reach values ~3000 times that of Earth’s normal air, thus sufficient to flatten ordinary brick houses ~4 km away from the point of impact. One such typical nuclear warhead, of which thousands now stand alert in the world’s arsenals, would be absolutely fatal to buildings, people, and almost everything within a ~50 km2 area surrounding ground zero. Not only would the blast itself annihilate virtually all within this inner zone, but the heat released by a 1-Megaton nuclear explosion can also cause paper to ignite as far away as ~15 km, ensuring widespread firestorms throughout the region. The destruction of life and property would be so immense, regardless of where in a city such a weapon landed, that missile accuracy isn’t even required.
This description isn’t offered to elicit hysteria. These are facts—bold, stark facts. Construction of nuclear bombs is based on the laws of physics, and the destructive aftermath of their use is also dictated by those same laws. Furthermore, it’s important to realize that nuclear bombs aren’t just scaled-up versions of conventional armaments. The radioactive particles produced during the explosion itself, as well as those destined to fall from the atmosphere far beyond the impact point, would cause nearly irreparable damage, rendering the land useless for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Clearly, a major nuclear war would leave the face of our planet drastically changed, perhaps uninhabited. It’s likely that everything we cherish as great and beautiful would be lost.
In a world of such enormous firepower, there can be no true defense. America and Russia still harbor terrible destructive forces and each side knows the other side has them. The outcome is supposedly a “stable” situation where neither country would dare strike—an equilibrium called by some a balance of power, and by others, peace by fear. The catchphrase in the language of Pentagonese is “mutually assured destruction,” the Strangelovian acronym for which is MAD.
That said, the real state of affairs isn’t complete stability. Every so often instabilities arise to enhance the chance for war. Such an instability might result from an international crisis, perhaps directly involving the United States and some other nuclear state, or perhaps initially engaging less powerful countries yet eventually escalating to the point of threatening military conflict between the nuclear states. Instability could take the form of short-term confrontations like the Cuban missile crisis and the six-day Middle East war in the1960s, or be caused by long-term hostilities like the protracted Vietnam War and the lingering troubles in the Persian Gulf area. Though unexpected international conflicts don’t make outright war a certainty, they surely don’t increase the probability for peace, either.
More predictably, instabilities in the balance of power regularly occur as major weapons systems either are introduced or become obsolete. For a certain period of time, one side has or thinks it might have a slight advantage. Upgraded weaponry might even grant to one side a first-strike capability, whereby one nuclear power could launch an attack so devastating that the other government wouldn’t be able to respond offensively. For example, construction and deployment of “smart” cruise missiles, mobile-launched nuclear bombs, or multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles are thought by some to give the United States a decided advantage, at least until such time that other nuclear powers can neutralize these accurate weapons with countermeasures of their own. Likewise, the introduction of a whole new class of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles having enormous throw weight, or the development of killer satellites as part of some other nation’s modern armory, is often regarded as giving the opposition a net advantage—at least until such time as our government unveils yet other new weapons sufficient to reestablish the power balance. Even defensive measures such as those enacted by the Soviets at the height of the Cold War to build massive underground shelters, which serve to protect key elements of their civilian and industrial centers from nuclear conflagration, tends to upset international politics. A national Soviet civil-defense program was viewed as a Soviet advantage or at least an instability, since the United States might no longer have been able to hold the Russian populace hostage, as the Soviets had the American population in the absence of a significant U.S. civil-defense program.
Numerous other examples of international crises and weapons development come to mind, especially those triggered by terrorist activities well into the 21stcentury, all of which serve to enhance the probability for war simply because the power scales among nation-states potentially become slightly imbalanced. These are among the main issues at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Geneva and at the United Nations disarmament sessions in New York City. Yet, arms proliferation continues virtually unabated and ugly international confrontations flash repeatedly across our globe.
What effect will a recurrent series of instabilities have on the future of our civilization? Sadly, the outlook seems to be inevitable nuclear holocaust in the Northern Hemisphere. To see this, consider the following analysis. Suppose, on average, that an instability emerges every half-dozen years. rms proliferation continues virtually unabated and ugly international confrontations flash repeatedly across our globe.
What effect will a recurrent series of instabilities have on the future of our civilization? Sadly, the outlook seems to be inevitable nuclear holocaust in the Northern Hemisphere. To see this, consider the following analysis. Suppose, on average, that an instability emerges every half-dozen years. This is roughly the frequency of major rifts in the balance of power since World War II. Suppose furthermore that there is a 95% probability for peace during any one period of instability. That still leaves the odds at 1 chance in 20, or 5% probability, for the outbreak of full-scale war. Then inquire about the degree to which the compound probability for war increases as civilization navigates through several periods of such instability. In other words, how many episodes of instability can a technological civilization withstand before the total probability for war exceeds the total probability for peace? The answer is ~17 such instabilities, or ~100 years.
Self-destruction via modern warfare is, of course, always possible at any time, even when the nuclear powers are evenly balanced. No one really knows the exact chance for war during stable times, though we might imagine it to be very small. Computations like the one above imply that the probability for war not only increases a little during any one period of instability, but also grows steadily throughout the course of time, each chink in the power balance not being entirely independent. If, according to the above estimate, global instabilities raise the chance for war to 5% at any given time, then the compound probability for nuclear holocaust becomes higher than that for peace—namely, 51% —after only 10 decades. Should this sterilized examination of war and peace approximate reality, then we’re roughly half way to Armageddon.
Should the average probability for war during periods of instability be greater, then this type of analysis suggests that nuclear war could be imminent. Conversely, a lower probability for war during individual instabilities would mean that the nuclear powers might be able to avoid war for a longer time. Only if war’s probability in these circumstances is <1% can we hope to postpone nuclear catastrophe for more than a few centuries, a time interval still small in the cosmic scheme of things. Regardless of how minute the chance, though, the compound probability for war will sooner or later exceed that for peace, making full-fledged nuclear war better than a 50-50 shot.
The crux of any (admittedly simplified) objective analysis like this one revolves about the average probability for war during any one instability. Of course, no one knows this value for sure. Too many subjective factors enter, including the nature of humanity, which doubtlessly influences in some complex manner the response of governments either to trigger or to avoid nuclear self-destruction. Numerous sociopolitical factors play integral roles, but none of them can be quantified, and at any rate, in a rapidly advancing technological society, these factors may be nearly irrelevant. The nature of humanity might not come to the fore and play a role even in times of global crises. If not, then the argument is clear solely on the basis of probability theory, and it is this: Though the probability for nuclear war might be small during any single period of instability, a civilization can withstand only so many instabilities before the compound probability for war begins to exceed that for peace.
Naturally, there are always opponents of this type of analysis. Nor are they necessarily those permanently equipped with rose-colored glasses. They argue, for example, that our leaders wouldn’t actually retaliate, even knowing that some other government’s nuclear arsenal was due to arrive within the ~20 minutes that intercontinental ballistic missiles need to travel from one point on the globe to any other. But how can we trust any leader of a government to sacrifice its people for the good of civilization? Retaliation is becoming so mechanized—and fast—that the element of humanity is indeed minimized, perhaps lost. If certain parts of our “Defense” Department have their way, America’s response will soon be triggered only by radar-computing machines, not by the President. This elected official can override the computers by vetoing the machines’ commands, but in the event that he or she hesitates, our missiles will be up and away—automatically. We live at a time when command and control decisions are being transferred to robots. And, for better or worse, words like “humaneness,” “civilized,” and “survivability” don’t compute.
Others maintain that nuclear weapons will never be used. Retaliation, they claim, isn’t an issue because no one will be foolish enough to unleash nuclear weapons in the first place. But how can we afford to believe this viewpoint? That’s all it is—a belief. Warring nations have seemingly never failed to utilize the most potent weapon available to them. Since early history, the buildup of weapons and the prospect of war have been closely allied; the invention of arms has nearly always precipitated their use in warfare. With few exceptions, each new and deadlier weapon, from crossbow to guns to dynamite to poison gas to tanks to atomic bombs, has eventually been deployed on the field of battle. Historically, once humans have fashioned a new weapon, they apparently commit themselves to its use. Those who say that nuclear weaponry is different deserve a cold response: How can we be so sure that the goodness, the rationality of humanity, will surface in the nick of time?
Still others argue that, despite a full-scale nuclear holocaust, all inhabitants of Earth will not necessarily perish—a claim tantamount to saying that nuclear war is winnable. But the very concept of mutually assured destruction is designed to make this impossible. With so much overkill now stored in our nuclear depots, it’s equally likely that any humans surviving the targeted blasts would succumb to the postwar aftermath of radioactive fallout, economic chaos, ozone depletion, and climatic cooling. The cumulative effects of all-out nuclear war would be so catastrophic that they render any notion of “victory” meaningless. Winnable-nuclear war arguments are totally specious, offered by irresponsible people—the type, unfortunately, who have thus far generally overseen the design and making of nuclear weapons policy. Let’s once again hope that pronouncements like these aren’t true reflections of the real nature of humanity.
The currently misleading concept of mutual destruction must be reframed in more realistic terms to reflect the full magnitude of the cataclysm that a nuclear war would bring. Then, we can plan, not to limit nuclear weapons, but to ban them altogether. So, let’s change the philosophy of approach: Instead of arguing for mutually assured destruction, we should strive to reach a loftier goal of mutually assured survival.
All the above near-term, alas global, problems are surely a good deal more complex than here sketched, largely because several of them are interrelated. For example, should current sociopolitical attitudes remain unaltered, the chances that someone will unleash nuclear bombs—that’s the self-destruction problem—will surely increase as the number of inhabitants grows—that’s the population problem.
Current conflicts are destined to become further inflamed as people, perhaps whole nations, become desperate for food, energy, and resources. Wars waged solely to redistribute wealth may be the only way that poor countries, which feel they have nothing to lose, can hope to remedy their deteriorating status. Water, so plentiful in the oceans and to give but one example, will likely trigger wars regionally, then perhaps escalating nationally, as its freshwater type dwindles in the 21st century. The prospect that developing nations might catalytically induce nuclear war between the nuclear powers grows steadily. Even the specter of masked terrorists conducting nuclear blackmail with clandestine plutonium devices looms large on the horizon. Doubters should keep in mind that significant amounts of plutonium and enriched uranium, produced in American nuclear plants, are currently missing. Furthermore, at least one major American city has already seriously considered capitulating to a multimillion-dollar demand on the threat that the city would be leveled by a hydrogen bomb, a hoax which, at the time, neither the Atomic Energy Commission nor the FBI could discredit.
Clearly, the continued growth of world population and the incessant threat of nuclear detonation are the foremost problems confronting our civilization today. Change or be doomed. What do you choose? I prefer to stop all this.