An old copy of Forbes ASAP (2/22/99) has an article on supercomputing which includes this quote from a nuclear weapons designer at Los Alamos:
Weapons designers play the societal role of witches in fairy tales–we scare people into behaving.
This captures very well the Cold War image of nuclear weapons–they are of the supernatural rather than the natural world; they belong to the realm of fevered nightmares rather than waking thoughts.
I’ve noticed that many liberals talk glibly and confidently about using the threat of “massive retaliation” to deter nuclear attacks by countries like Iran and North Korea–while at the same time angrily denouncing any conventional military operations by the US or Israel that result in any civilian casualties at all. On the one hand, they argue that it is morally unacceptable for Israel to destroy a terrorist rocket facility if there is a risk of civilian casualties. On the other hand, they support a strategy which implies the deliberate killing of millions of civilians. How can these opinions coexist?
I think it’s because, in their minds, nuclear weapons belong to the realm of witchcraft, not the realm of reality.
The threat that faces us in today’s world, though, is that the fairy-tale ogres will leave their home in the deep subconscious and emerge, their claws dripping with blood, into the daylight. Clearly, the Iranian leadership already lives in a mental world which is very close to the world of a dark fairy tale. Potential use of nuclear weapons is unlikely to fill them with the horror that it has long carried for most of the world.
Prevention of a nuclear nightmare may well require the making of some very hard and even brutal decisions, and I fear that Cold War psychology may be preventing clear thought about these matters. For example: It has been proposed that a number of our Trident II submarine-launched missiles be retrofitted with deep-penetrating conventional warheads, so that they could be used to destroy targets such as nuclear facilities without ourselves crossing the nuclear threshold. Liberals have tended to be aghast at this idea…to them, the ballistic missile as well as the nuclear weapon are things from the world of the dark fairy tale.
But which is really morally preferable?…using ballistic missiles with conventional warheads to destroy nuclear production facilities? Or waiting until the product of these facilities is completed and used, and then responding with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile aimed at a city?
I think the answer is pretty clear.