Of Witchcraft and Weaponry

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.

9 thoughts on “Of Witchcraft and Weaponry”

  1. Witches, yes – but with the understanding that witches don’t really exist. And that nightmares aren’t really happening; they stop as soon as you wake up. And that as soon as the first nuclear bomb goes off, everyone on the planet will suddenly wake up and say, Stop, this is crazy! Won’t they?
    Clear thought isn’t the issue; it’s thought of any kind. (And difficult moral choices are for grown-ups.)
    Don’t look under the bed; something might really be there.

  2. Even scientists were not immune to the witchcraft – they even introduced it into science in the form of Nuclear Winter cum Nuclear Autumn. In fact Carl “Billions and Billions” Sagan drank so much of the Kool Aid he actually used his clearly inadequate climate model to predict ecological disaster on TV when the Kuwait campaign started in 1991. The black rain that actually fell (and was predicted by his opponent in the debate) destroyed his credibility on matters envirnmental forever.

  3. It’s quite a sight to see all the people who have been obsessing about nuclear weapons for the past fifty years now downplaying the actual possession of nuclear weapons by North Korea and the immanent possesssion of nuclear weapons by Iran. Their use cannot be all that far off if Iran gets them.

    After all, there had been this general assumption that chemical weapons were beyond the pale for most of the 20th Century, but when Saddam finally used them, nobody did anything really effective. It’s not a good precedent.

  4. Nasser used chemical weapons in Yemen in the early ’60s, but he didn’t use them against Israel. Maybe that’s because he couldn’t penetrate Israeli air defenses, but he probably also assumed Israel would retaliate harshly, perhaps with nukes. Today Israel has a lot to worry about WRT Iran, but so do other countries. A nuclear Iran will be greatly tempted to take over Saudi Arabia. They won’t even have to take possession, at least not at first. All they need do is threaten the cities and oil fields and shut down production. That would pop crude prices, greatly increasing Iran’s income and destabilizing the Saudi regime. The Revolution runs on money, and the more money the mullahs can generate for themselves the more powerful they will be. And they will have a strong incentive to get moving with their big plans before SA, Egypt et al can develop their own nuclear capabilities.

    Interesting times are on the way.

  5. The oil areas of Saudi Arabia near the eastern border have substantal Shiite populations. Iran could foment an insurrection and then propose to send a “peacekeeping” force. Lots of potential trouble scenarios.

    I think Nasser’s use of gas in Yemen, and the lack of international response to it, were noted by Saddam and formed part of his basis for decision.

  6. If targeting Saudi oil would be such an effective strategy what’s to stop us from targeting Iran’s?

    I imagine it would be easy, every other oil producer would like it and it would throw Iran’s economy back to the stone-age cutting off their ability to fund any kind of program or terrorist attack.

    Is $5 gasoline the only thing standing in the way?

  7. On the other hand, they support a strategy which implies the deliberate killing of millions of civilians.

    They wouldn’t actually nuke somebody who, say, nuked Israel or NYC.
    They support a strategy which implies that they will threaten to deliberately kill millions.
    The wand they wave isn’t massive retaliation, it’s talking about massive retaliation.
    They believe talking, by the appropriate experts, solves everything, and that therefore they won’t have to worry about and make credible plans for actually following through on their threats.

    This is still magical thinking, just not quite the magical thinking you were thinking.

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