What is the probability of nuclear war?

The age of nuclear war began only a short time ago, in August 1945, less than two years before I was born. So far, WWII has been the only nuclear war. Since then, the number of nuclear weapons, their destructive power, the means for delivering them, and the number of countries possessing them, have all increased steadily. Nuclear deterrence—sometimes called mutually assured destruction or MAD—has apparently prevented the wars and conflicts since Hiroshima from becoming nuclear, although there have been many close calls.

I am a child of the Cold War and of the age of nuclear annihilation. I can distinctly remember the pervasive fear, usually in the background, but always there. At school we had atomic bomb drills. We were instructed that if war was coming we would be evacuated  across the mountains and out of the blast range. Mother told me to be brave and do as I was told. I was terrified.

Later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I believed the end of the world was imminent.  I remember riding on the bus, hearing a radio playing the news, and thinking, “What’s the use of it all? Everything will end soon.” Throughout my childhood and youth, the possibility of instant annihilation, of a searing flash and seeing one’s long shadow stretch out ahead just before blackness, was a constant companion.

We now know that the early fears of atomic attack were hype. In the early 50s, when I was in elementary school, there was no possibility of a Russian attack. The US government knew perfectly well that the Russians had few bombs and no assured way of delivering even one of them to the continental US. The scares, the drills, the fears, were to motivate support for the Cold War.

However, by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat was all too real. Now, there were hundreds of nuclear weapons on each side. Now, there were H-bombs rather than puny A-bombs. Now, these weapons were mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could launch from the other side of the planet and wipe out cities in fifteen minutes.

And today we know how very close it came to war. Apparently, it was the decision of a single Soviet submarine officer, Vasili Arkhipov, which saved humanity from nuclear annihilation. That the fate of humanity should turn on a single decision by a single human being is beyond insane. But this insanity is the norm.

Deterrence has worked—or “worked”—up until now. How much longer will this be true? This is a question no one can answer. No one knows the probability of failure, except that it is greater than zero. And given the consequences, anything above zero is insane.

David Krieger, in his article Probability of Nuclear War, quotes an interesting calculation by Martin Hellman, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford:

Even if nuclear deterrence could be expected to work for 500 years before it failed and destroyed civilization – a time period that sounds highly optimistic to most people – that would be like playing Russian roulette with the life of a child born today. That’s because that child’s expected lifetime is roughly one-sixth of 500 years.

Think about it: from the perspective of an average human lifetime, the chances of experiencing nuclear annihilation is 1 in 6, like spinning the barrel of a six-shooter, putting it to your head, and pulling the trigger. Hellman adds:

Not knowing the level of risk is a gaping hole in our national security strategy. So why does society behave as if nuclear deterrence were essentially risk free?

If it’s true that each lifespan has a Russian-roulette probability of experiencing a nuclear holocaust—and remember this is an optimistic scenario—then we should be as concerned today about the nuclear threat at least as much as some—many—people were during the first Cold War. But here we are again, in a new Cold War, with the US once again moving aggressively against Russia, stationing troops and missile systems right up on their borders, concocting all sorts of phony war propaganda, demonizing their leaders, all of this driving up the nuclear threat level. And today, unlike the first Cold War, when so many of us were afraid, there is almost no awareness of the danger.

Diana Johnstone points out that our sense of the relative importance of things is all out of balance. People are obsessed with trivial issues, like where transgender people can pee, and with concocted war propaganda, like the Russia-gate accusations against Trump. Even the vast worries about global warming are out of proportion:

But wait a minute. The damage to human society, and to “the planet”, from the projected rise of a few degrees of global temperature, while commonly described as apocalyptic, would be minor compared to the results of all-out nuclear war. More to the point, the degree of human responsibility in climate change is more disputed among serious scientists than the public is aware, due to the role of such contributing factors as solar variations. But the degree of human responsibility for nuclear weapons is unquestionably total. The nuclear war peril is man-made.

Johnstone documents the obsession of US war planners with using nuclear weapons to achieve absolute dominance of the planet, even to the point of seriously contemplating nuclear war as the method. One high-level study from the Cold War era concluded thus:

The general consensus has been that while a nuclear exchange would leave the U.S. in a seriously damaged condition, with many millions of casualties and little immediate war supporting capability, the U.S. would continue to exist as an organized and viable nation, and ultimately would prevail, whereas the USSR would not.

The US would ultimately prevail. Even after a nuclear war. This was the mentality. This is still the mentality. The US—the exceptional nation—has the right to rule the planet, and even if this takes a nuclear war, the US will “ultimately prevail.”

The United States has always been the engine—the relentless driver—of nuclear terror. It is the US obsession with control, with domination, with waging “war unto utter destruction” of every opponent, so that “ultimately” the “exceptional nation” can achieve its satanic destiny, unchallenged domination, that places the entire of humanity, the entire of civilization, the entire of the planet, in danger of annihilation.



Categories: War

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