Why do we pay taxes to increase our chances of being destroyed by a nuclear war?

The US and Russia have about 7000 nuclear warheads most ready to be launched at a moment’s notice in order to start an accidental nuclear war (Ivan Oelrich, Missions for Nuclear Weapons after the Cold War; the Federation of American Scientists; November 2004), and similarly for Russia. Why? Why are we so determined to annihilate ourselves?

One reason is that the Russians also have so many ready-to-launch weapons and we do not want to be in a position where they can strike us. And theirs have the advantage of being under much looser control so more likely to be launched accidentally. Suppose the leaders of our two countries were not mentally ill, what would they do? Obviously first make it impossible for them to be launched quickly, with mutual inspection to make sure we both do that. Then vastly reduce the number of nuclear weapons.  However it is clear that sanity is a disqualification for leadership of a major power.

A major attraction is shock and awe, as in Iraq. And that worked. We were so shocked by our weapons that we made major blunder after major blunder.  And we were so awed by them that we did realize they were irrelevant to the real problems — which are political and cannot be solved by bombs or missiles.

Why do we need so many weapons? Clearly because it satisfies our emotional needs.  The set of possible missions has been analyzed and the only one for which nuclear weapons is relevant is retaliating against Russia after an accidental nuclear strike. It is obviously much safer (and cheaper) to prevent a strike by mutual de-escalation.   Since it makes no objective sense it is clear that there must be strong emotional reasons for this suicidal impulse. There are people, unfortunately far too many, for whom weapons are extremely emotionally rewarding, even just thinking about them. It is like sex (in many cases as with this, pornographic). The rewards of just thinking can be intense. The sexual aspect can be seen quite clearly with the National Rifle Association, whose members need guns as a substitute for the organ they have no confidence in. Of course people cannot have Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles around the house, as much as they might like to. But knowing that they are there, ready to kill millions (including themselves), provides satisfaction so intense that they cannot give it up.

Is this really what most American want? Perhaps a nationwide poll should be taken:

“When you pay your income tax do you agree that part of the money should be used, as it is now, for no other purpose than to increase the probability of a nuclear war that will destroy this country, and kill millions, including you?” “Enthusiastically yes”, “It sounds like a good idea”, “Probably not”, “Infuriatingly no!”

Let us see if this is what the country, not merely its weapons obsessed leaders, really want.

Of course we wouldn’t want our tax money to be used only to increase the chance of a nuclear war, would we? There are so many ways it can be used to harm us.

We are the most powerful nation in the world. Some believe that it means that we can do what we want while telling everyone else they should not do what we do. But of course people do not act like that. This is obvious to everyone except the egomaniacs whose desire to show off that they are better than everyone else and give others orders (which they do not obey) overwhelms their common sense. Because we are the most powerful nation on earth people will do as we do — rather than, as we would like, regarding us as special and giving us special privileges. We set the example, and others  — like it or not (and we definitely do not) — follow.

Thus when we spend our tax money to build (of course not only) nuclear weapons, or even when we hint of doing that, we encourage rogue states and terrorist groups to do the same. Perhaps we should ask the American people if that is what they want. “Are you in favor of having your tax money used to encourage Iran, North Korea, Al Qaeda, and so many others, to build or grab nuclear weapons to be used against us?”  Certainly the present leadership of this country is. “Yes, I agree with our government that we should do what we can to encourage North Korea, Al Qaeda, and those many others, who have nuclear weapon desires to develop and increase their nuclear programs.  That is why I believe the US should have a strong nuclear programs whose only purpose can be to encourage others to also do so, which might lead to millions of American deaths and trillions of dollars of damage.” “No, the leaders of our country may be crazy but I am not.”

For many, especially in the leadership, the intensity of the attraction of weapons, especially the most dangerous ones, is far greater than the responsibility to protect the country.

Are there rational policies to deal with these? Yes, that is why they will never be adopted. It is necessary to do something impossible: accept that our national security is more important than our emotional needs. Also we have to accept that being the presently most powerful nation on earth does not mean that we can get away with anything, nor does it mean that we can do what others cannot or are not supposed to. Rather it means that we set the example, and others follow. We cannot avoid it. We teach by example. And if we emphasize nuclear weapons (Robert W. Nelson, Nuclear Bunker Busters, Mini-Nukes, and the US Nuclear Stockpile; Physics Today, Nov. 2003, p. 32), so will others. Their weapons, either directly or indirectly, threaten us. Our interest in nuclear, and of course other kinds of, weapons make more likely the destruction of millions of lives, many American, and trillions of dollars of property. This is what we decide — by our actions — should happen.

We need not deep strategic thinkers, but psychiatrists. What would they recommend?

Obviously get all the weapons off hair-trigger alert, immediately. One phone call can start the process, and with verification it should not take more than a week of two. Why do we not do that  — now (or better years ago)? Can anyone state a reason?  Then we should agree, and it shouldn’t take long, to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. Let us not negotiate the final number. That can be done later. Now we should decide on how rapidly to eliminate them, perhaps a couple of thousand a year, on each side. Once we get down to a few hundred we should pressure those countries with nuclear weapons to join us. If we are eliminating these weapons the pressure on others to do the same will be very great. At the point with each country having just a small number we can consider how far we want to go. But first we have to get there, not think about what to do when we are ready for the final step.

Of course there is much else that has to be included (Sidney D. Drell, The challenge of nuclear weapons: Physics Today, June 2007, p. 54).  However first the emotional problems must be dealt with.

Yet it is not only nuclear weapons that encourage the spread of nuclear weapons but any use of nuclear technology, such as radioisotopes and especially nuclear power. These we cannot avoid. Even if we wanted to the rest of the world, with good reason, will not. The question then is how to prevent such uses from encouraging the spread of weapons? That is an urgent problem can be seen from the fact that a new state has emerged as a nuclear weapons power about every 5 years! (W. K. H. Panofsky, Nuclear Proliferation: Capability versus Intent; Physics and Society, vol. 36, No. 1, January 2007, p. 9.) This perhaps has been slower than feared, but still too fast, in part because of the CTBT  (Jeremiah D. Sullivan, The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; Physics Today, March 1998. P. 24) and the Nonproliferation Treaty (which we are allowing to fray when we should be strengthening it).

We regard some nations as reliable, who can be trusted with nuclear technology, and others who we are willing to trust anyway, plus those who cannot be trusted (with anything). Obviously that is not the way they think of themselves. Any program to control such technology must apply equally to everyone (including the impossible, ourselves!).  As much as we wish to distinguish people (and of course everyone knows we can be trusted, don’t they?) that is not the way humans behave. As regrettable as it is others do not think we are better than they are. Thus for an effective system there must be equality, equality in inspection and equality in control. The question we face is whether we prefer to apply the standards to ourselves that we want to apply to others, or do we prefer acts of nuclear terrorism, even war, killing millions of our people? For many this is a very difficult question.

Clearly nuclear technology requires international control and inspection. Until we accept that, and accept that it applies to us as well as Iran and N. Korea we will have to accept that nuclear technology will spread and to more unstable states (if there are any), to subnational groups, to terrorists, increasing the chance of nuclear accidents and war and nuclear terrorist attacks against us.

Unfortunately designing such international control is not trivial. Too many governments are highly irresponsible (regrettably including ours). Here we need both deep strategic thinkers and psychiatrists.

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