This past Sunday, residents of Hawaii were sent an emergency alert to their phones. It stated, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Understandably, this caused some consternation among the Hawaiian population. It was a false alarm, but a message stating so wasn’t sent out until 38 minutes after the initial alert. So, for over half an hour, a whole lot of people in our 50th state thought that they were going to die in nuclear fire. How very retro.
There are an endless number of reasons why Donald Trump isn’t fit to be president, but it is his nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea that is the most frightening. After the end of the Cold War, it felt like a relief. The idea of nuclear war, while not being at the forefront of conscious thought, was nevertheless a constant presence in our lives back then. It genuinely felt good to no longer have that Sword of Damocles dangling over all of our heads. (That relief is largely imaginary, owing to the possibility of an accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon, but that doesn’t mean the sense of relief didn’t happen.)
And now, that feeling is back.
It’s not just that North Korea has nuclear weapons, and now has ICBMs capable of reaching most of the continental United States (thanks, in part, to Russia supplying North Korea with technology and expertise). It is also that no one can be sure that any use of nuclear weapons won’t lead to a worldwide conflagration.
Nuclear policy is murky. The people in charge have ideas about how things would go should either the United States or North Korea initiate a nuclear conflict with each other, but no one really knows. One sure thing is that the United States has far more weapons than North Korea. We possess enough nukes to scorch the surface of the earth and possibly leave it uninhabitable. Weapons we have developed have yields that are orders of magnitude larger than anything North Korea has tested or is thought to possess, although our arsenal is far smaller than it used to be.
Should an exchange occur, North Korea would be rendered a wasteland, while the United States would probably be able to absorb any damage and loss of life that would occur. And how horrible is that? From a purely statistical standpoint, we would win a nuclear war with North Korea, but in the process millions upon millions of people would be dead, and for no clear reason other than two countries had a war of words that escalated past all sense. It would be a tragedy of historic proportions should any conflict occur, and that’s before considering the horrific reality of the world after. It’s a grey place, totally unseen and unpredictable. But nothing would ever be the same again. That’s the good outcome.
There is another, more frightening scenario, but one that is also more likely. That is, there is no such thing as a limited nuclear exchange. Command and control systems in the United States, Russia, China, and other nuclear powers, are designed for deterrence. They were created with the idea that a nuclear weapon is not an offensive weapon. The true benefit of having nuclear weapons is to convince other countries that have them not to use them on you. That means that any detected launch calls for a massive retaliatory response, i.e., full-scale nuclear war. And it might not matter that in an exchange between North Korea and the United States, none of the missiles would be headed for Russia and China. The very act of our launching could trigger a full response by those two countries, and vice versa. It’s referred to as mutual assured destruction for a reason, and while it follows an insane logic, it is logical.
We like to think that we have complete control over nuclear weapons, but we don’t. While they are sitting in their silos or snug aboard a submarine is when we can sleep at our soundest, because it’s as safe as the world is going to get. But there is no guarantee that a single launch will remain single for long. The decision-making process and launch protocols invite armageddon.
Right now, we have a president who is incapable of understanding, or even being curious about, the nuances of nuclear weapons. He is cavalier about their destructive power, and seems unconcerned about the world that would be created by their use. Every world leader who has nuclear weapons must be a little cagey about when they would use their nukes, because it bolsters their deterrent capability, but Trump is something different. People have picked up on that, and that is why that old familiar feeling from the Cold War days is back.
I’ve thought about how I would react should an alert appear on my phone someday. If it turned out to be real, I would be deathly frightened, and would probably try to find a basement to cower in, but I would not expect, nor want, survival. Our picture of nuclear war has been colored by Hollywood, and by the fact that no weapons have been used in anger in over 70 years. We have a picture of one or two, or maybe even three, mushroom clouds rising over a city. The reality is far worse. At the height of deployment, the Soviet Union had over 100 weapons targeting Washington D.C., and we had over a hundred targeting Moscow. In an exchange lasting an hour or so, that’s over one detonation a minute. One may be able to survive the first detonation, but all the ones that come after? Not a chance.
The numbers of deployed weapons are far less these days, but there are still enough weapons targeting the population centers of the United States that within a few minutes of the first detonation, all incoming weapons would have no purpose other than making the pebbles bounce.
The detonations would send clouds of debris into the atmosphere and massive firestorms would add ash. The world would be blanketed in a dark cloud that wouldn’t let in sunlight for years, maybe even decades. The food chain would collapse, and even those in countries free from nuclear strikes would starve to death. And all this happens before even considering the effects of radioactive fallout.
So, I would cower in an inadequate basement shelter waiting for the end, but at least I would go to my death absolutely positive that surviving would be worse. Thank you for this, President Trump.