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Mutually Assured Destruction: a Game for Mad Men by Phillip Sutcliffe-Mott

The United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. These countries have all detonated nukes in the last century. North Korea and Israel likely have arms too, perhaps homebuilt or perhaps imported. All but two of these detonations were on unpopulated testing sites.

Fission weapons are, to leap into technicality, like 20,000 tonnes of TNT when dropped. The US showed our world as much over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing, by the most conservative possible metric, 129,000 people with two bombs. If they were dropped on a 21st century-dense population, the loss of life would be orders worse.

Consider such imprecision. Some years ago, I asked Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program, what nuclear weapons can do:

“If cities are attacked, large fires would result, sending enormous amounts of soot into the upper atmosphere, where it will soon circle the earth. This will lead to global cooling over a period of years or decades (depending on how much soot is produced) and reduction of agricultural output, causing people to starve. For example, a “small” nuclear war between India and Pakistan that involved 100 nuclear weapons could lead to the direct deaths of some 20 million people and the eventual starvation of a billion people.”

Dr. Gronlund refers here to India and Pakistan, farmers of fission and fusion devices. Fusion weapons have a destructive force of 10 million TNT tonnes, 500 times that of those dropped in 1945.

The numbers alone reveal the poverty of these weapons. Inaccurate. Indiscriminate. Do they allow for finer decision making in warfare? Or do they sweep the desk as Haig one hundred years ago? Surgeons prefer scalpels to sledgehammers, and the UK’s £31 billion Trident fund would, pound for pound, provide more peacekeeping given to diplomatic, military, police, and intelligence services. Those who consent to the front line.

When a state proliferates in a nuclear fashion, it reneges on the Hobbesian contract. In a “nuclearised world ... the state puts one’s family in the front line”. [Martin Amis, Experience, p.225]. It shows nationality and citizenship for the sanctimonious protection racket it has become. The war between Japan and the United States ended because innocents were massacred and every survivor became a hostage. No one won. It merely ended.

Indeed, the fires of 1945 did not touch Japan’s leader. It is not enough to say nukes are imprecise. They work because they target the innocent and are as vicious as they are blind. Only this, their continued safety, allowed Hirohito and his commanders to surrender.

That’s the point of your common or garden war crime. To fire a single nuclear bomb is at best the mass murder of innocents, which is why, if the nuclear project is to continue, it is existentially important that all involved be sane and interlocked by equal risk.

This schema, mutually assured destruction, is the foundation of the pro-nuclear argument. It assumes that, to avoid retaliation, no one will fire nuclear weapons.

But what happens if those that fire first care more for their nuclear intentions than their populace? For them, mutually assured destruction holds little value. All you need is one nuclear state with a disregard for normal human ethics to lay bare the “ephemeral nature of its deterrent efficacy”, eventually rendering the exercise of continued humanity moot. [Dylan Suzanne, ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, in Philosophy Now, Issue 37].

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea isn’t big on irony, which is why everyone calls it North Korea. Kim Jong-Un and his cadre are the state as far as they’re concerned, and their people are a resource. Whole armies protect their palaces, and, being a nation founded on paranoia and inequality, it’s likely they have a fallout survival kit. Bunkers. Supplies. All the perks.

And they’re not too worried about their people in any humanist sense. Judging by their everyday approach to media, politics, agriculture, and laws, having great numbers of its own die to achieve their goals is par for the North Korean course.

So, return to that premise: what happens if the party that fire first care more about their nuclear intentions than their populace? Or their infrastructure?

When we say that maintaining a nuclear arsenal stops nations like North Korea from holding us hostage, we claim North Korea cares about its public. We claim its state-heads couldn’t protect themselves in the fifteen to twenty minutes it would take our nukes to reach them. We claim their intentions, albeit revealed by standard military egotism, comes from a place of rational military imperialism. These are claims we should not make.

The North isn’t locally-minded at all when it comes to expansionism. Apart from a few forays with Seoul across the DMZ, it’s tactics are long-range, both ballistically and imagistically. The commentariat say North Korea is isolationist, but the closed borders, concentration camps and all-subsuming propaganda are actually a means to an international end.

The violence and suppression it’s committed on its own folk have consolidated its base. Some brutal housekeeping aside, they have nothing internal to worry about. This has given the state the tools needed to project itself globally. Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il may have focused their power inwards and on neighbours, but the current young despot began his career with a fully-formed totalitarian state.

I ask what happens when a young man is handed a nation and worshipped without challenge or trial. What happens if such a man is surrounded by mad generals who’ve spent decades drinking in their own delusions, never being told no as they do so? This, I argue, does not suggest sane, strategic behavioural patterns.

The central party of North Korea would not care if its people died. Killing its populace, indirectly or otherwise, wouldn’t cost them anything. When you own your nation’s culture and media, you can tell holocaust survivors whatever you want. All you have to do is spend half a century brainwashing millions to love and fear you, and North Korea have done just that.

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