Talk of using “tactical” nuclear weapons goes beyond prior MAD-ness

With talk of deploying “tactical” and “low-yield” nuclear weapons, American war planners have entered a new and surreal echo chamber of irrationality.

The old Cold War logic of nuclear deterrence rested on the horrifying but comprehensible concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). The Soviet Union would never dare strike the United States because it would be incinerated, and vice versa. Since nobody could win a nuclear war, the logic went, nobody would ever start one. Moreover, since there remained all-too-real possibilities for a war to break out “by accident,” there were incentives for nuclear armed nations to enter into arms control agreements that measurably reduced the likelihood of global atomic annihilation. MAD-ness, indeed, but a madness we lived with and survived for 70 years.

Now, however, there’s “advanced” thinking that the use of smaller nuclear weapons in conflict situations would not necessarily result in a world-ending event. A nuclear strike might in fact be part of a winning war strategy. And so the great powers, led by the U.S., have entered a new nuclear arms race, rushing to “upgrade” their arsenals to include the smaller, less destructive nukes.

The potential consequences of this new thinking, and the historically unparalleled threat that it poses, have been thrust onto center stage by the frightening reality of the Russia-Ukraine war, and the clamorous chorus of calls for tough U.S./NATO confrontation with Russian aggression.

Leaving aside all context here (and, as noted in a previous entry, there is a great deal of context to be digested in any serious effort to understand how this war came about), let’s make no mistake: Any use of nuclear weapons entails unacceptable consequences, both moral and practical.

Morally, detonating nuclear warheads of any size will result in at least tens of thousands, more likely hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of civilian deaths. Can deliberate mass death of such scale ever be justified in terms of any moral code worth the name, let along social work’s unabashedly universalist values and ethics? I think not.

Practically, there is little hope that a “limited” use of nuclear weaponry will remain limited, and will not escalate into a full-fledged nuclear exchange in the virtual blink of an eye. Whichever party to a smaller exchange perceives itself as “losing” will almost certainly retaliate with a bigger and more destructive response. The logic of escalation is implacable, the end of the process is starkly simple: the end of humanity, if not all planetary life – the absolute limit of irrationality.

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