(Author’s disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on any of the matters I’m about to discuss. I’ve never served in the military, never held any sort of government office, have minimal training and/or experience in matters political, and only a smattering of formal education about politics and government. I’m just one guy who reads a hell of a lot, who remembers a lot of what I read, who listens to those who know, and has way, way too much time to think about things.)
There’s a certain talk-show host out of Boston who has repeatedly put forth his solution to the mess in Iraq — “nuke ’em.” He elaborates that he really means we should use the biggest, most powerful weapons at our disposal to end the insurgency in Iraq, not necessarily nuclear weapons, but whatever it takes that doesn’t put a single American life at risk. I’ve also heard other people talk about using nuclear weapons on Iran, North Korea, and (my personal favorite) the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, the geopolitical center of terrorism.
Now, I don’t think I’ve ever been within 50 miles of a nuclear weapon (and if I have, they certainly didn’t tell me), but I have read up on them over the years. It’s partly a personal thing — my father was Army Air Force in World War II, stationed in the Pacific, and he might have been involved in any invasion of the Japanese home islands that was pre-empted by the use of atomic bombs. It’s partly a guy thing — we are attracted to things that go “boom;” I suspect it’s a genetic thing, part of the Y chromosome. And part of it is, I suspect, the part that makes me think about and look at truly ugly things, in the hopes of getting other people to think about and talk about them in the hopes of avoiding having to actually deal with them in reality.
Here are three things I have learned about nuclear weapons and their use, in ascending order of importance:
1) Nuclear weapons are, essentially, nothing more than really big bombs.
Nuclear weapons are not magical. They do not have mystic powers to disintegrate everything within a certain radius. There were survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were very close to ground zero. They are not the solution to all problems. And they really aren’t that useful — we have conventional weapons now that can inflict as much devastation as smaller nuclear weapons, and with the incredible progress we have made in weapon accuracy, there are fewer and fewer uses for bombs bigger than the largest conventional ones. There really isn’t much call in modern warfare for blowing up whole cities, when we can zero in on specific windows on specific buildings. Using a nuclear weapon has become the equivalent of hunting mice with shotguns.
2) Nuclear weapons are in no way simply big bombs.
Nuclear weapons are not simply explosives writ large. They have several side-effects that are extremely nasty. The first one is the electromagnetic pulse (EMP). This guarantees that any electronics (including my beloved computer) that is not specifically protected (“hardened”) within a certain radius will be fried beyond repair.
The second effect is radiation. The very land around a nuclear blast will be poisoned by radiation, from levels ranging from mild nuisance to kill you in minutes. And it will stay that way for a very, very long time. In short, don’t nuke any place important, because you won’t be able to occupy it for the foreseeable future.
The third is fallout. Radioactive material doesn’t stay around, it wanders. The lighter residue gets carried by the winds everywhere, and simply being upwind is no guarantee of safety. The fallout from the Chernobyl meltdown ended up circling the globe. There is nothing tidy about nuclear weapons.
3) Nuclear weapons, both strategic and tactical, are above all political weapons.
The decision to use nuclear weapons is always a political one. The reaction around the world to the use of nuclear weapons would be instant revulsion, and the offending nation would find itself an international pariah. And if that nation happens to be one as disliked as we currently are, and has the record of being the only nation to ever use them in anger before, it would be even greater. The sheer cost of using such a weapon would, in nearly any circumstance, vastly outweigh whatever benefits that would be gained.
Now, the United States has very carefully never spelled out its policy on the use of nuclear weapons. We have lumped them into the same category as chemical and biological weapons and called them collectively “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and said that we reserve the right to strike back with them if we are first attacked with WMDs. We have also refused to foreswear their first use, saying that we cannot predict what circumstances might arise that would leave us no choice to “go nuclear.”
Practically speaking, though, I don’t see the United States using nuclear weapons any time soon. Their presence remains a tremendous deterrant to anyone wishing to destroy us on the magnitude that the Soviet Union threatened, but there simply aren’t any circumstances around that would lend themselves to being solved with the use of nuclear weapons.
The only exceptions I can see would be in Iran or North Korea. If we receive proof that either of those two rogue nations are in possession of nuclear weapons (having already demonstrated they have the means to deliver them), I can see us using low-yield nuclear weapons to go after their underground research facilities. Especially if we can deny it, and blame it on a fortuitous “work accident,” much like the occasional Palestinian would-be bomber blowing himself up.
Or, perhaps, after one of those two nations actually uses a nuke. If that happens, and we see the loss of Seoul, or Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv, I can see the nuclear elimination of their nuclear facilities, followed shortly thereafter by massive devastation by conventional means.
But God help us all if that ever happens.