Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Nuclear Paradox

There’s something about nuclear weapons that is inherently exciting and ultimately frightening at the same moment. Perhaps it’s the sheer raw power held in such relatively small amounts of matter, or the poetic, untimely demise that a sudden flash of nuclear energy produces. Either way, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a time where the threat loomed over us as an imminent doom: Not “Is it going to happen?” but “When?”

Of course, the bomb never dropped. Here we are, nearly two decades out from the “end” of the Cold War, and nuclear weapons are every bit a reality as they were before. Now, just as in the 50s and 60s, they’re used as a deterrent to aggression from other countries, and not so much as a method of attack during wartime. We’d never consider dropping nukes on Iraq or Afghanistan like we did to Japan. And why not? Collateral damage. We don't want to repeat mass civilian extermination.

In 1945, FDR died and Truman took the lead in the most horrifying war in Earth’s history. Hitler was done for, but we still had those pesky Japanese molesting our Pacific islands. After dozens of firebombs failed to halt Japan’s actions, Truman ordered the only two wartime nuclear weapon detonations in world history. So far.

These were puny nukes by today’s standards, detonating with a force of only 16 and 21 kilotons respectively. Regardless, the immediate deaths from the explosions totaled as high as 150,000 people and resulted in 245,000 deaths by the end of the year. It’s a good thing modern nukes have never been used, because they measure in megatons—more than fifty times the power of those two devices.

The Tsar Bomba, the most powerful weapon ever created, had an explosive yield of more than 50,000 kilotons. That’s 3,125 million times the power of the Hiroshima bomb that killed 80,000 people instantly.

It wasn’t our bomb, either; it was the Russians’. Our mortal enemies. No wonder we were so paranoid in the 60s. We spent four decades aiming nukes at each other with military personel who had fingers literally inches from the launch buttons. The stalemate was the only thing that stopped this incredibly deadly near-genocide from actually happening. We got lucky—and by “we,” I mean humanity in general.

And yet there’s something so spectacular about watching nuclear explosions. Maybe it’s our affinity for fireworks; maybe it’s the knowledge that we, as advanced primates, brought them into existence; maybe it’s the graphic visual of what could very possibly be the last thing many of us see. We like to stare death in the face when we know we’re safe, and through the television or computer screen, there’s no risk of radiation.

The concept of “nuking” something made its way into comedy awfully fast, probably partly as a coping mechanism. From the bomb-riding captain in Dr. Strangelove to Nelson’s “Nuke the Whales” poster in The Simpsons, we’ve adopted it as a cultural nuance worthy of laughter. Had “The Bomb” killed millions every year for 67 years, we probably wouldn’t be laughing so hard, but at this point, we don’t really worry anymore anyway. It’s almost like we’re waiting for something to explode.

"'Nuke the Whales'?" Lisa Simpson asks Nelson in disbelief, "You don't really believe that, do you?"

"Gotta nuke somethin'," he responds.

Over the past two decades there have been numerous efforts to put an eternal halt to what has been considered the biggest potential threat in existence to life worldwide. The United States and Russia agreed to scale back their nuke stockpiles, but still openly maintain massive quantities (in addition to the secret ones they’re not disclosing). Nuclear testing has been banned for years. The United Kingdom, France, China, India, and Israel have all held them since before the end of the Cold War, but never had more than a few hundred warheads to match the U.S. and Russia’s combined total of 19,500 (that’s 19,500 after greatly reducing armament). In recent years, Pakistan and North Korea have joined the club, with Iran rumored to not be far behind.

Is there need for worry? India and Pakistan have feuded for a long time, and they share a border. North Korea has ICBMs that can reach California. Russia leads the world in active warheads. None wants to fire first because of the fear of equal or apocalyptic retaliation. However, the concern is that the first fired nuke, or even a misinterpreted nuke attack on its way, might trigger a domino effect of massive, deadly destruction worldwide.

The thought of committing global suicide this way is a little bit magical. If we can’t achieve world peace, maybe we should just pull the trigger. There’s always someone out there plotting world domination, anyway. I did it myself, recently, in a game called Civilization V, in which you play as the leader of a primitive nation that grows over time. There are four ways to win the game:
  • Convince the other countries to acknowledge you as their leader through diplomacy
  • Develop “The Utopia Project” through specific social policies
  • Win the “Space Race” by being the first to colonize another planet
  • Blow up everyone else.
It was my intention from the very beginning to thoroughly dominate the planet by force, so I intended to build nukes as quickly as possible. I played as Julius Caesar, leading the Romans who were known for their uncompromising military prowess. Due to sinking all of my funding directly into researching weapons technology and building my army, the rest of the world stood no chance against me. I completely obliterated them all just a few turns before developing nuclear weapons.

As I stood as undisputed leader of the world (since there was no one left to dispute it), I scanned the map and realized it was all mine. I could finally focus on cleaning up the poverty and famine in my cities. After a few turns, my scientists informed me that the nuke was ready to be used. Unfortunately, there was no one left to nuke.

As I toiled away, mining and farming the Earth for the benefit of my citizens, my massive military aimlessly roamed the planet with no mission and no purpose. We developed the cure for cancer, and the infantry didn’t care. We built a spaceship and colonized another planet, and yet there was still no need for the military.

Then one day, as a fleet of adamantium-plated tanks rolled through a more remote region of the planet, they happened upon a barbarian encampment that had gone previously unnoticed. The group of twelve or so primitive humans beat the ground with sticks and threw rocks at the tanks. I ordered the vehicles to clear the vicinity and dropped my 50 megaton warhead directly into the center of the barbarian village, incinerating them and a nine square mile radius.

I paused to look at the destruction. Without enemies, there was no need for nukes.

If we have no enemies, we have no need for nukes.

But without nukes, we might have more enemies.

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