The Debate

How Should We Write About Nuclear Weapons?

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The Debate

How Should We Write About Nuclear Weapons?

How should one combine the human with the abstract when writing about nuclear weapons?

How Should We Write About Nuclear Weapons?
Credit: Dr. Strangelove/Wikimedia Commons

This week, India test fired a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) reportedly capable of hitting all of China with a 15-250 kiloton nuclear warhead. As usual, The Diplomat (yours truly) covered the launch noting that the missile is part of the country’s credible minimum deterrence principle (or perhaps credible deterrence), which requires an assured so-called second-strike capability.

Of course, what I did not mention (and what a lot of analysts writing on nuclear weapons often fail to mention) is the impact that these weapons have on human beings and the environment.

In that sense I am following the tradition of the megadeath intellectual Herman Kahn (a possible model for the character of Dr. Strangelove), who wrote in On Thermonuclear War: “I will tend to ignore, or at least underemphasize, what people might consider the most important result of a war—the overall suffering induced by ten thousand years of postwar environment.”

Yet, the omission that these weapons can incinerate millions, destroy entire cities or countries, and kill generations of families in seconds should be, among other things, analytically suspect, even if the threat of precisely such organized mass killings (i.e. nuclear deterrence) has prevented the actual use of nuclear weapons in the past. As I wrote in March 2017 (See: “War Kills: Understanding Military Capabilities in Context”):

[I]f “the concrete melts into the abstract” as George Orwell put it, there is a danger to slip into intellectual insincerity when doing analysis. The overuse of euphemisms and theoretical concepts (“collateral damage” or “nuclear deterrence”) often gives “solidity to pure wind” in which we discuss war and national security abstractly (remember the Domino Theory?) rather than in concrete terms.

I pointed out that these abstractions can inadvertently lower the threshold for engaging in military conflict. I expanded on this idea in September 2017 (“What Twitter Taught Me About (Nuclear) War With North Korea”):

[S]ocial science neologism by design can detach us from what is most salient when discussing the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula: the appalling enormity of nuclear war.

For example, using the term “countervalue targeting” rather than clearly stating what it stands for in a nuclear conflict, i.e. the killing and maiming of tens of thousandsif not hundreds of thousandsof civilians in cities is an atrocious euphemism (full disclosure: I have used the phrase before) and is open to an Orwellian indictment that it is designed to make “murder respectable.” 

In other words, professional jargon, while expediting the efficient and coded traffic of certain ideas surrounding nuclear strategy among experts, can have a dehumanizing effect in which the connection between a 60-kiloton warhead and 300,000 incinerated humans becomes a mere abstraction. It is also analytically confining and vicariously perpetuates conventionally thinking. As Louis Menand wrote in a profile of Herman Kahn that framed the attitude of U.S. defense intellectuals during the Cold War:

The attitude was: We are trained scientists. We’ve studied the situation with detachment and disinterestedness; we have taken nothing for granted, given no hostages to sentiment. And we conclude that the world as it is—in this case, a global rivalry between two nuclear powers in an escalating arms race—is acceptable (…)

Yet, “acceptable” is precisely the word one probably would not want to use when, as part of an ongoing nuclear arms race in South Asia, an ICBM with the power to kill hundreds of thousands of people is being test fired.

Relying on professional jargon often makes a writer implicitly endorse conventional thinking about nuclear strategy. This normalizes the paradoxical logic of nuclear deterrence of which the Indian ICBM tested today is an integral part, and encourages the writer to dismiss “thinking outside the box” for the lack of strategic and political realism. These sentiments are then passed on to the reader (often by yours truly).

How then should one combine the human with the abstract when writing about nuclear weapons?

It is important­ — in both the short and long term — to repeatedly emphasize the utter abnormality of the existence of such destructive weapons. In more concrete terms, ceterum censeo argumentation should be pursued, which more frequently challenges established political and military thinking on nuclear weapons in countries across the world, whether it is pushing for a global no-first-use policy or a global elimination of land-based ICBMs (not to mention “launch on warning”).

So here is my first and last attempt to do so: “Ceterum censeo arma nuclei delenda esse.” (“Furthermore, I propose that nuclear weapons are to be destroyed.”)