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We Must Contemplate the Unimaginable Costs of a Nuclear War to Prevent It

An all-too-human mix of everyday mistakes, incompetence and heightened emotions could bring us to nuclear annihilation.

A panoramic photograph of the aftermath of the atomic bombing is seen exhibited in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on September 11, 2023, in Hiroshima, Japan.

Despite Russian hints about the use of nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine, consider it strange — amid other world-endangering possibilities — how little attention nuclear destruction gets anymore. And that’s despite the fact that there are now nine (yes, nine!) nuclear powers on this planet, ranging from the United States, Russia, and China to Israel and North Korea.

Still, at some point in your life, you’ve probably heard about the theory of “nuclear deterrence” embraced by so many in our military and those of other major powers globally. The idea is that nuclear weapons actually keep us all “safe” by their mere presence in the hands of those powers. According to such thinking, their existence restrains the leaders of such countries from directly making war on each other for fear of setting off a world-ending nuclear conflict. And in that context, yes, the U.S. military spends tens of billions of dollars annually on the upkeep of some 5,428 nuclear weapons of every sort and their delivery systems to keep us safe. Worse yet, it plans to “invest” upwards of two trillion dollars more “modernizing” that arsenal in the coming decades.

As a retired military officer’s spouse steeped in exactly this line of thinking, there were times when I did indeed find it at least somewhat compelling. It’s true, after all, that since the U.S. used two nuclear bombs to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, taking hundreds of thousands of lives in those blasts and their aftermath, and Japan surrendered, ending World War II, the absolute number of deaths in armed conflict globally has decreased. Nonetheless, over the last decade, when I listened to people I knew (and didn’t know) extolling nuclear deterrence at military get-togethers and in the popular press, I couldn’t help thinking that our capacity to threaten, torment, and kill one another has not exactly abated in that same 78-year period.

To take just the most obvious recent example, nuclear weapons no more prevented Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine than they had stopped the U.S. invasion of Iraq (based, in fact, on the false claim that autocrat Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction). Nor have they recently stopped the U.S. from sending close to $50 billion and counting in weaponry and ammunition, not to speak of training and intelligence technology, to Ukraine in response. And count on one thing: some of what our country has provided will impact Ukrainians for generations to come, including depleted uranium tank shells and cluster munitions, those bundles of bomblets banned by more than 100 countries because of their indiscriminate tendency to go off years later, often killing innocent civilians.

In an era marked by so many advances in healthcare, green energy, and food production, which would seem to offer other ways of helping stabilize weak states we fear, the U.S. has progressively expanded its military involvement to some 85 countries globally. There, our soldiers and contractors occupy bases, train local forces, run prisons and intelligence operations, fly drones, and sometimes fight alongside local armies, often in settings with far laxer human rights standards than ours.

Today’s unmanned drones also make it possible to wreak violence without having to witness the consequences. But make no mistake, in recent years, the world has seen an increase in the incidence of violent events like politically motivated armed conflict between warring factions and politically motivated assaults on civilians, as well as violent protests and mob attacks. In other words, nuclear weapons have not deterred the sorts of violence that keep many of us up at night and can cause measurable health problems.

The Proliferation of Violence

In these decades, the lack of deterrence of violence itself, even if not the nuclear version of it, has been profound. The Costs of War Project at Brown University, which I helped found, has made it all too clear that suffering from armed conflict extends far beyond the battlefield and generations into the future. If we are going to say something about “deterrence,” then we need to be clear on what we’re deterring. After all, thanks to just this century’s conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen, our project has estimated that 4.5-4.7 million people have died from bullets, bombs, improvised explosive devices, drone missiles, and other versions of war’s violence, as well as from disease, accidents, and various side effects and aftereffects of such conflicts (not to mention suicide).

In these years, a staggering number of people have had their lives forever changed by losing limbs or loved ones, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain — and all such suffering from war-making doesn’t even take into account certain signature consequences of prolonged conflict like the deterioration of democracy or the loss of educational opportunities, not to speak of the mass displacement of populations. It’s true that, as conflicts go, the forever wars our country has fought since September 11, 2001, don’t faintly measure up to the direct slaughter and bloodshed of World War II. Still, when it comes to human suffering globally (the Holocaust aside), the scale of what we’ve witnessed in these years of our disastrous Global War on Terror (even before the Ukraine War began) should be considered stunning.

The question we at the Costs of War Project return to endlessly is: How do you measure the indirect effects of war? What kind of “security” — if any — has prevailed in the era following the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

A Very Small Margin of Error

Of all our preconceptions about nuclear weapons, what’s probably the most destructive is the unstated assumption that they are the sole alternative to a more constant state of conventional warfare. There are, of course, conflict-resolution options that don’t involve violence at all, including diplomacy, the use of targeted intelligence, and anti-poverty programs the likes of which the United Nations and its affiliated human rights and humanitarian organizations promote. Conventional warfare exacts staggering opportunity costs and only makes it harder for leaders to pursue such routes.

Yet the sole type of conflict that could foreclose all alternatives whatsoever is, of course, nuclear war. It could vaporize the very skeleton of civilization — infrastructure, communications, government, and of course people in staggering numbers — all potentially in a matter of minutes, or less time than it takes you to read this piece.

These days, however, we in the U.S. seldom talk about the ever-present possibility of nuclear annihilation by, for instance, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), warhead-bearing projectiles capable of traveling thousands of miles (of which the U.S. and Russia have about 400 each). To be sure, there are checkpoints in place that the leaders of each country would need to cross to launch such an attack, but an error, or even confusion, at any one of those checkpoints could lead to disaster.

Scenarios that would place us all on the brink of nuclear annihilation could involve an all-too-human mix of everyday mistakes, incompetence, and heightened emotions. Consider, for instance, the possibility that a simple accident might detonate a warhead before it even leaves the ground, killing untold numbers of people. For example, in 1980 at a Strategic Air Command base in Damascus, Arkansas, a technician tasked with maintaining nuclear-armed ICBMs (capable of producing an explosion several times the magnitude of both bombs that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima) accidentally dropped an eight-pound socket from a socket wrench. It punctured one of those missiles, causing it to explode and blow its nuclear component out of the silo. Fortunately, that didn’t explode and so only a single worker there was killed. Had the attached warhead detonated, however, staggering numbers of people might have died, including then-Arkansas governor and first lady Bill and Hillary Clinton and then-Vice President Walter Mondale who, at the time, were about an hour’s drive away.

According to Command and Control, a documentary director Robert Kenner made about that incident, as of 2016, somewhere between 32 and 1,000 near-misses of the same accidental nature had occurred. Consider it a matter of sheer luck that no warhead has ever detonated.

A different kind of near disaster occurred in November 1979, when a military officer accidentally lodged a realistic training tape indicating the launching of a major Soviet nuclear attack aimed at the U.S. in the military’s early warning system. President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had only minutes to decide what to do after being contacted about a massive Soviet missile attack. Luckily, his team soon learned that there was no such attack, but the false alarm led to at least 10 fighter jets taking off, the convening of a threat assessment conference involving all three command posts of the nuclear triad, and the launching of the president’s doomsday plane, all of which would have made it far too easy for us to proceed with a “retaliatory” strike.

And in yet another near-world-ending miss, in 1995, the U.S. and Norway launched an atmospheric testing rocket over Europe to study the northern lights. Russian officials mistook it for a U.S. Trident missile. Within minutes, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had for the first time ever activated that country’s “nuclear football” allowing him to communicate with his military leaders in the event of an attack. Even in that chaotic post-Soviet moment, however, Russia had a good enough early detection system for its officials to quickly realize that the country wasn’t under attack. Still, consider that another daunting moment near the brink.

Other near misses have involved everything from faulty computer chips to high-altitude clouds to ailing Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s desire to stoke Russian fears of an imminent American attack and so consolidate power. In most cases, a handful of vigilant people caught errors in defense systems and intervened in time.

From my point of view, any one of those examples represents too high a risk to take when ordinary people like us could face the prospect of dying thanks to a nuclear attack or its fallout. Even a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, which have far smaller arsenals than the U.S., Russia, or China, could cause a planetary “nuclear winter” and a global famine that might wipe out — yes! — billions of us.

Given our costly lessons about how politicians can use misinformation or disinformation to rally people — think of George W. Bush wielding those Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” as a justification for his baseless invasion of that country! — it should come as no surprise that those of us psychically prepared to dehumanize an enemy state can easily be convinced to do so. Take, for example, the present conflict in Ukraine. When Ukrainian drones were sent over the Kremlin in the spring of 2023, a Christian apocalyptic group using the official-sounding name DEFCONWarningSystem alerted Twitter followers that the Russian leadership was readying a nuclear response. All too many of them took the message to heart and retweeted it, stoking rumors of imminent nuclear conflict (though fortunately no truly important people took it seriously).

Still, however nuclear rumors can spread, in or out of official circles, control over life and death on this planet remains in the hands of a powerful few who are no less likely to err than the rest of us in times of stress. In retrospect, it seems all too appropriate that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist in the creation of the only nuclear bombs ever used in battle, paraphrased a passage from the Bhagavad Gita after watching the world’s first nuclear fireball explode during the Trinity test in New Mexico. “Now,” he said, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Mrs. Oppenheimer

As a military spouse, I’ve witnessed the tension and fear in those having to think about how many people would die in a nuclear war. I also understand why most of us, including those in the military, would rather not think about such possibilities at all. In fact, the limited information military spouses like me received included little more than brief warnings about what to do and where to take our children should such an attack ever take place.

One thing is certain, though, and tells you all too much about our dangerous world: the reality of nuclear weapons and what they could do to us can’t be found in the antiseptic, highly technical picture painted by the Pentagon’s own Nuclear Matters Handbook 2020. It hardly mentions “death” at all. Quite the contrary, it focuses instead on how (of all the grim things to worry about) to maintain the “survivability” — yes, that’s the term used! — of our nuclear arsenal.

Growing up in a multi-ethnic community in New Jersey that included both robust Japanese-American and Jewish populations, I became accustomed to firsthand accounts of the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and even some of the horrors of the only time nuclear bombs were ever used. The specter of loss and suffering from nuclear war I absorbed then — of children vaporized, faces melted, and cancers growing beyond control among the survivors — will never leave me.

I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t bring myself to see Christopher Nolan’s hit film Oppenheimer, which, as you undoubtedly know, chronicles J. Robert Oppenheimer’s creation of the bomb and his later advocacy for its abolishment. His wife, Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer, a botanist with an eclectic educational background, had a greenhouse and experienced mental-health struggles as she raised a family and moved around the country with him.

I wonder now how her husband’s “career” impacted her. I suspect her greenhouse was probably, like my writing, a way to connect with life and the potential for positive change while being a secondhand witness to horrors beyond imagining. It would have been an ironic contrast to the scenarios of death with which she was in many ways complicit, as in a sense we all are in this country.

I hope she had a good sense of humor. I suspect she wasn’t allowed to say much, but I would have liked to know her better.

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