Contribution to a Roundtable: How to Ban the Bomb
At least once a day, sometimes once an hour, I look to the sky, especially towards the west, towards the Trident Submarine Base at Bangor, WA, and wait for the flash. We live 28 miles by air from the Naval Base Kitsap, home to Trident submarines and the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific (SWFPAC) that “provides the capability of assembly, storage, checkout, onload and offload of missiles; ensures custody, accountability and control of strategic weapons and material; publishes and maintains START procedures and conducts START inspections; and provides technical engineering services for guidance, missile, and launcher support equipment.”
According to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, the SWFPAC and the eight Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) homeported at the adjacent Bangor Submarine Base are thought to store more than 1,300 nuclear warheads with a combined explosive power equivalent to more than 14,000 Hiroshima bombs.
This is the prime counterforce target in the United States, the first place that any entity that wanted to attack the US nuclear forces would strike hard and fast. Bangor is a magnet for a counterforce strike or some kinds of terrorism.
Twice a day, I feed my two horses and walk my dogs through a lovely meadow full of wildflowers, and I try to explain to them that this may end at any moment. I hope we’ll be together. Since we are so close to Bangor, I think we’ll go quickly in the blast and burn phase, probably vaporized, so I have not gotten a gun or something to shoot the animals so they won’t suffer from anything from lack of food and water to injuries. I really don’t want them to suffer. My youngest dog, Tara, watches the sky carefully, noting ducks but also airplanes and helicopters. We feel a similar sense of dread, I think. I have no hope that my grandchildren will inherit anything. We have no family heirlooms or jewels. It is difficult to live with a fairly complex understanding of annihilation, nothingness. A complete and final End, the curtains blown away and no theater. I’ve been doing this for nearly forty years. Each moment is a surprise to me.
The only recent book I know that captures the complete end of everything is Remembrance of Earth’s Past, also known as The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. I highly recommend this trilogy, for two reasons. First, the author augments the concept of omnicide, the death of all, with the concept of mundicide, the death of planets. In addition, the second volume, The Dark Forest, Liu examines a game theory problem that underlies all discussion of nuclear weapons, disarmament, national security, and alliances—the problem of selfishness and, hence, defection. As you all know, nuclear weapons theory and the theory of deterrence are built on game theory, ideas developed in the Harvard Department of Economics during and after World War II. Two countries, each with nuclear weapons, are in a non-zero-sum game: they can hold off using them and go about business (each gains), they can blow each other up (each loses), or they can try to trick one another into holding off use while intending a swift first strike. This is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, as illustrated in the television show Golden Balls. The rational solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma is to defect, not to cooperate, even though cooperation has a high payoff.
It is only over time, with an elongated shadow of the future, that cooperation makes sense. Another Harvard non-zero-sum game is Chicken, dramatized in Rebel Without a Cause. The Dark Forest game is built on probability. If a stranger knocks on your door or planet, it is better to annihilate them right away, making the assumption that they want what you’ve got, rather than hope for cooperation or friendship. The door bell ringer wants your money or life. A communication from outer space probably wants a place to expand, your planet. In Three Body, Liu illustrates that it is best to lie low, don’t answer the door, and don’t expect kindliness from extra-terrestrials. Stephen Hawking agreed.
Many people these days seem to think Donald Trump is “playing” chicken with US foreign policy, but then most scholars of deterrence theory assume that the players are rational or sane, while there is considerable evidence that Trump is not. One of the flaws in nuclear deterrence theory is the assumption of rationality.
I love David Krieger, and I appreciate his essay, especially the poem at the end. I appreciate his life work.
In general, I have only admiration for Krieger's essay. Just for the sake of intellectual fun and games, let me make a few additional points. First, I am sick of humanity and sick and tired of anthropocentric points of view. If Homo sapiens represents one species, please consider there are estimated to be from 3 to 30 million animal species, with 10,000 new ones discovered each year. I find estimates of 400,00 plant species. Tom Lehrer sang that we will all go together when we go. Sadly, this includes butterflies and snap dragons and Komodo dragons and lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
A fundamental starting point to the omnicidal discussion of nuclear weapons is the importance of human beings and the ages-long distinction between Homo saps and others that somehow validates human ownership and a right to manipulate or annihilate the biosphere. Who speaks for the trees? The Lorax, of course! If there were world enough and time, I would start a Lorax Society to try to engage every biologist, veterinarian, farmer, fisher, gardener, farrier, animal trainer, animal rights activist, and plain animal lover and admirer into nuclear abolition action. Perhaps tardigrades or maybe cockroaches will make it, but most of the plants and critters on earth are going to die by blast, burns, radiation, and starvation because humans are making a big mistake. We humans shouldn’t have dominion over other life forms, and certainly we have no intrinsic rights to deform and destroy them. Under current circumstances, we should use our big brains to get out of this mess, and nothing less than nuclear abolition must be the goal. It is the Pottery Barn policy: we break it, we own it. We are breaking the planet and must fix it.
Another thread running through this important GTI conversation has concerned male-female differences, sexism, and feelings. I find the Heart Sutra from the Buddhist tradition to be useful here:
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness;
Emptiness is not other than form.
The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.
Feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all physical and chemical manifestations of life energy within our brains, none especially different from the other. Mental formations are the stories we tell ourselves about reality and life, as ephemeral as feelings although they feel more reliable. Although I have co-authored three books about sex differences, when it comes to nuclear weapons, I don’t think there are a lot of relevant differences. Females engage in conflicts, “catty undermining,” and deceptions. Everybody can be nasty, and everybody can waste time. Males and females can push buttons with launch codes. The reality of nuclear war is so painful that young or old, male or female, we watch cat videos rather than saving our poor planet. From Prufrock: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” So do the men.
Nuclear war is a bummer. I have been called a Cassandra and a Debbie Downer. It is hard and painful to think about nuclear war at all, and once we do, dreadfully easy to lapse into abstract concepts (like game theory), magical thinking (god won’t give us more than we can handle) escapist nonsense (bunkers retrofitted for survivalists), end-times speculations (Book of Revelations, the Rapture), and alt-logic (nuclear war hasn’t happened yet, so deterrence must be working.)
I appreciate the notes of commenters who have mentioned that they are in deep mourning much of the time. Yes, I am too. And things are not getting better. While going from 70,000 nuclear weapons to 15,000 warheads is a Good Thing, the slow collapse of “liberal” aspirations and rise of nationalisms is not so good. Nor is the collapsing respectability of fact and reason. If we postulate that feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are the result of brain soup, I still believe in rocks and gravity, in verifiable facts and in something approaching truths.
Having just completed an audiobook journey through War and Peace, I can say that I think Tolstoy got it right. Neither genius nor philosophy accounts for what happens in war or battles. Shit or opportunity happens, and people react. It is chance, and chance alone, that got Napoleon in and out of Russia in 1812. It is chance, and chance alone, that gives me this hour to write this essay. The missiles may well be on their way.
David Krieger is right: nuclear abolition is our only chance for survival, and the likelihood is not high. The Back from the Brink proposal gives us some chunks of emergency first aid and a program that can be endorsed by organizations and governments. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) movement brought us the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed by 59 nations, seeking to give a voice and power to the 184 nations that will die if any combination of the nuclear 9 go to war. Very slowly, politicians in countries without nuclear weapons are expressing themselves, and it is no surprise that Costa Rica, with its zero military budget since 1948, is leading the movement.
Will there be time?
Prufrock once more:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Days go by in which I try to give myself a nuclear-free zone, at least for a few hours, but the shadows of the jets dispel the distractions. The Blue Angels are coming to Seattle today, so for a week, we’ll have loud but not lethal imitation warfare in the skies. Tara and I will look at the sky, waiting. Yes, I dare to disturb universe, I want to throw the switch and take this trolley off its death course. I know David Krieger dares as well. Daring to make change is the purpose of this website, and for that, I thank and salute you all!