Talkin' World War III

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 29 2007 6:07 PM

Talkin' World War III

The return of the repressed.

(Continued from Page 1)

In somewhat less serious but no less noteworthy instances, this month has also seen the release of a deranged but somehow appealing film, Southland Tales, which envisions World War III beginning with a nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas. Add to that the prerelease announcement of Tom Clancy's EndWar, a World War III video game ("for advanced systems only"). And, oh, yes, the folk singer at the Atlantic magazine's anniversary party and his World War III ballad. (I'll get to that.)

World War III hasn't broken out, but an apprehensive foreboding about it certainly has. Of course, World War III has never gone away, in the sense that there are some 500 Minuteman missiles alone, lurking out there in underground silos below the northern great plains; all of them, according to Kristensen, "on high alert"—meaning ready to fire on command in 15 minutes or less—and many more on submarines and ready to load on bombers. They're no longer targeted on the former Soviet Union but are easily re-targetable.

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As the saying goes, nuclear war has until recently been "forgotten but not gone," the ghost at the feast. First, there was the decade-long "holiday from history," from the fall of the Wall to the fall of the Twin Towers. And then a different kind of nightmare supplanted nuclear war, the one that went by the name "the next 9/11."

Let's pause here for a bit of comparative nightmare-ology. Not to diminish the horror of a "next 9/11," but 3,000 died that day. At the height of the Cold War, the estimate for the number of killed in a U.S.-USSR nuclear war ranged from a low of 200 million to a high of everyone, the death of the human species from an Earth made uninhabitable by nuclear winter. Or, as one nuclear strategist once memorably put it, "the death of consciousness."

It didn't happen back then, in part, we now know, because of blind luck (misleading radar warnings on both sides that could have been, but weren't, taken as signals for launch). And because back then, despite the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence doctrine, there were only two main players, both semirational monoliths with an interest in their own survival.

Now, there are at least eight nuclear nations and who knows how many "nonstate actors," as the euphemism for terrorist groups goes. And some of these nonstate actors have adopted an ideology of suicidal martyrdom, even when it comes to nukes, and thus can't be deterred by the reciprocal threat of death.

That's what's so sad about Jonathan Schell's admirable, idealistic book. He wants to believe that the genie can be put back in the bottle, that we can unring the bell, and, if not "disinvent" nuclear weapons, then make them disappear with well-meaning treaties. And yet, in the beginning of his book, he makes what seems like an irrefutable case that the end of his book—a plea for total abolition of nuclear weapons—seems to ignore.

At the beginning of the book he notes that, yes, nuclear weapons can be destroyed, disabled, and decommissioned, but never disinvented. Ballistic-missile disarmament is relatively easy to monitor because missiles are so large. But bombs are different. Once information on how to make them gets out there, no matter what efforts good people employ to make them go away, bad people will keep building them. There is no foolproof inspection regime that wouldn't involve panopticonlike total surveillance of every human being on the planet to prevent what's known in the arms control trade as the "break-out" scenario, in which a group or nation takes advantage of a nuclear-disarmed world by assembling bombs clandestinely, and then putting their nuclear superiority to use.

In other words, I hate to say it this way, but if nuclear arms are outlawed, only outlaws will have nuclear arms. Even gun-control advocates, and I am one, don't believe that the abolition of all guns is possible or necessarily desirable. An outlaw with a gun can rob a gas station. If nukes are outlawed, an outlaw with nukes can rule or destroy the world, or blackmail it at the very least. Do we want a world where the only nondisarmed nuclear power is al-Qaida? What's to prevent such an outcome in the abolitionist scheme?

I don't want to be alarmist (actually I do, or rather I'd like you to share my sense of alarm), but I'm surprised there isn't a greater sense of concern about those Pakistani nukes. Forget Iran and Israel (Bush's hypothetical route to World War III). Pakistani nukes now represent the quickest shortcut to a regional nuclear war that could escalate to a global nuclear war.

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