Hardly Anyone Is Thinking Logically About The Risk Of Nuclear War
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved its symbolic Doomsday Clock to ninety seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been set since its founding after the second world war. Chief among their reasons for doing so is the increasingly dangerous war in Ukraine.
A statement authored by the Bulletin’s editor John Mecklin is as biased against Russia as any mainstream western punditry today and makes no mention of the US empire’s role in provoking, prolonging and benefiting from this conflict, yet it still provides a fairly reasonable appraisal of the magnitude of the threat we’re staring down the barrel of at this point in history:
This year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight — the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.
The war in Ukraine may enter a second horrifying year, with both sides convinced they can win. Ukraine’s sovereignty and broader European security arrangements that have largely held since the end of World War II are at stake. Also, Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks.
And worst of all, Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict — by accident, intention, or miscalculation — is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high.
Mecklin encourages dialogue between Russia, Ukraine and NATO powers in order to de-escalate tensions in “this time of unprecedented global danger.” He quotes UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who warned last August that the world has entered “a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.”
We came a hair’s breadth from nuclear annihilation during the chaotic and unpredictable brinkmanship at the height of the last cold war, and in fact had numerous close calls that could have easily wound up going another way. As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, humanity survived the Cuban Missile Crisis by “plain dumb luck”.
There’s no logical basis for the belief that we’ll get lucky again. Believing nuclear war won’t happen because it didn’t happen last time is a type of fallacious reasoning known as normalcy bias; it’s as rational as believing Russian roulette is safe because the man handing you the pistol didn’t blow his head off when he pulled the trigger.
But that’s the kind of sloppy thinking you’ll run into when you try to discuss this subject in public; I’m always encountering arguments that there’s no risk of nuclear war because we’ve gone all this time without disaster. One of the reasons I engage so much on social media is that I find it’s a good way of keeping tabs on the dominant propaganda narratives in our civilization and understanding what people are thinking and believing about things, and nowhere have I been met with more fuzzbrained comments than the times I’ve written about the need to prevent an entirely preventable nuclear holocaust.
The most common response I get is something along the lines of “Well if there is a nuclear war it will be Putin’s fault,” as though whose “fault” it is will matter to us while we’re watching the world end, along with the related “Well Russia shouldn’t have invaded then” and “Well Russia should stop threatening to use nukes then.” People genuinely don’t seem to understand that in the event of a full-scale nuclear war, it will really be the end of everyone. They still kind of imagine everyone still being there and shaking their fists at Russia afterward, and themselves sitting there feeling self-righteous and vindicated for correctly saying what a bad, bad man Vladimir Putin is.
They don’t understand that there will be no pundits discussing the nuclear armageddon on Fox and MSNBC, arguing about whose fault it was and which political party is to blame. They don’t get that there won’t be any war crimes tribunals in the radioactive ashes as the biosphere starves to death in nuclear winter. They don’t understand that once the nukes start flying, nobody’s shoulds or shouldn’ts about it will matter at all, and neither will your political opinions about Putin. All that will matter is that it happened, and that it can’t be taken back.
Another common response when I talk about the looming threat of nuclear war is, “Oh so you just don’t care about Ukrainians and you want them all to die.” The other day some lady responded to a Twitter thread I made about the need to avoid nuclear armageddon by saying that I must love rape and war crimes. People sincerely believe that’s a valid response to a discussion about the need to prevent the single worst thing that could possibly happen from happening. It really doesn’t seem to occur to them that they’re not actually engaging the subject at hand in any real way.
Slightly more perceptive interlocutors will argue that if we back down to tyrants just because they have nuclear weapons then everyone will try to get nukes and those who have them will become more belligerent, which will end up making nuclear war more likely in the long run. This response is a straw man fallacy because it misrepresents the argument as “just back down” rather than a call to engage in diplomacy and dialogue to de-escalate and begin sincerely negotiating toward detente, none of which is happening to any meaningful extent in this conflict. More importantly, it pretends that Russia is just invading its neighbor out of the blue instead of the well-documented reality that it is in fact responding to provocations by the US empire. The US has a moral obligation to de-escalate a conflict it knowingly provoked to advance its own interests, especially when that conflict could kill everyone in the world.
The whole “We can’t just back down to bullies like Putin” line of argumentation is further invalidated by the fact that it’s one thing to draw a line in the sand that must never be crossed — even if in the face of armageddon — but it’s quite another to say that line should be over something as small as who governs Crimea. This planet is populated with eight billion humans and countless other sentient creatures, very few of whom care one way or another who governs Crimea and almost none of whom would be willing to watch their loved ones die over it. Wanting to draw the line there is obnoxious, arrogant, and absurd.
And that’s just the shoddy brainwork of the rank-and-file public; the thinking of those who actually got us into this situation is surely just as dogshit. From what I can tell standing on this side of the thick veils of government secrecy which separate us from the truth, it appears to arise predominantly from a combination of immense hubris and zealous groupthink; hubris to think they can control all possible outcomes in a game of brinkmanship with so many small, unpredictable moving parts, and zealous groupthink in mindlessly adhering to the imperial doctrine that US unipolar planetary hegemony must be secured at all cost. They’re playing games with the life of every creature on this planet, and anyone who thinks that’s smart or wise should be as far from such decisions as possible.
The logical faceplants I’m describing here seem to arise partly from the fact that our civilization is completely inundated with empire propaganda about this conflict, and partly from the fact that people just haven’t thought terribly hard about nuclear war and what it would mean. The latter is probably because the prospect of everyone dying horrifically is such a huge, heavy, uncomfortable subject to sit down and deeply grapple with to the extent that it demands. For most people it’s just this vague, blurry mass in the periphery of their awareness, because they’ve been doing all these weird mental gymnastics to squirm and compartmentalize away from this thing rather than facing it.
But if ever there was a time to start doing some rigorous independent thinking and stop trusting the authorities to sort things out, it would be now. They’re showing us every sign that they’re just going to keep ramping up these games of nuclear chicken until they either fill their bottomless need for more complete global control or get us all killed trying. People need to start waking up to what’s going on and start making things uncomfortable for the people who are driving our world toward total destruction.
It does not need to be this way. Peace talks are possible. Diplomacy, de-escalation and detente are possible. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. We need to start building some public pressure to end this madness, because if the mushroom clouds ever show up, there is not one person alive who in that moment will believe that it was worth it.
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