553. Preponderance of small (XI)
Nuclear war is generally held to be a no-win situation, and yet this view has largely been created by popular media on the topic. While media productions about nuclear war have fallen off since the Cold War ended the residual cultural resonance remains, perhaps best summed up by the computer assessment in War Games (1983): “Strange game, only way to win is not to play.” A computer would never say that; only a human priest makes such a gnomic statement, the computer would just provide probabilities that various strategies would inflict different yields: x% economy collapsed; x% frontline forces disabled; x% workforce neutralised. Then you could “choose your own adventure”, aided by intuition, from the strategies presented by the computer.
The impression that nuclear war is unwinnable relies on certain very human emotions: nuclear war, being an awesome and inhuman event, eliminates agency—and this provokes fear in us. Pilots have little fear as regards flight because they control the aircraft, whereas we as passive passengers have no idea what goes on when we fly—and this can provoke anxiety. Anyone who has been on a twisty road late at night with a driver who only uses one hand and speeds along with the music at top volume knows the same sensation. This is why we also find events like the holocaust and WWI to be dismal and claustrophobic to contemplate: the process is mechanical and inevitable, without agency. Whether or not it is objectively safer to dodge around besieged Mariupol or to survive a nuclear blast, we naturally prefer the idea we could dodge around constant shellfire rather than confront “the bomb”.
Mass media plays on our fears around nuclear weapons. For example, there is an excellent docu-drama called Threads (1984) that details a nuclear attack and its aftermath on Britain; and it is terrifically well done—very grey and claustrophobic. Yet, as with many nuclear war media products, it was made by people who supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—people who had a keen interest in the portrayal of the worst-case scenario for nuclear weapons use.
I flicked through a book called Overkill: The Story of Modern Nuclear Weapons (1981) that my mother bought when she was at a polytechnic; it is a pro-CND book produced when CND had a little renaissance. The book contains certain conceits to support the anti-nuclear position; for example, it claims that it is inevitable that nuclear weapons will be used—and, further, that if they are used then the entire stockpile will be used; and, further, that after all the nuclear weapons are used there will be a “nuclear winter” that will almost certainly destroy all human life on earth.
What about alternatives? What about a limited nuclear exchange where one side calls a halt when it they decides, based on the options presented by the computer, that there is no way to achieve their objectives? What if people do not automatically escalate all the way? Notably, if you read books written by people in the military—as opposed to priestly BBC-CND productions—you find that the people who are responsible for nuclear weapons do not think in terms of total annihilation. So, for example, Sir John Winthrop Hackett’s The Third World War: A Future History (1978) features limited nuclear exchanges and then a conclusion to the war. Further, the idea that there would be a “nuclear winter” that would blot out the sun and end life on earth—shades of climate change in this argument—has also been disputed, even if total nuclear war were to happen.
Again, the masculine-feminine divide is relevant. Feminine (primitive): nuclear weapons terrify me, make me feel bad, and because this is so we must throw them all away or we will all certainly die—this is an either/or matter, no nuance. Masculine (mature): nuclear weapons are a powerful tool, they can be used successfully within certain parameters, and taken as a whole reduce the number of wars in the world.