we both go down together

(I have an awful lot of “something learned” posts built up over the last few months; the drafts all sit together in neat rows in my dropbox, forgotten or badly timed. Releasing them all at once would turn this blog into Nothing But Warwank, which is imperfectly desirable. But they’re going to come out some day.)

Nukes were It, right? After their invention, there couldn’t really be war between nuclear-armed nations; armies were obsolete and irrelevant, war was a matter of brinkmanship, with the end of mankind a scatter of warheads a way.

Well, obviously untrue in detail, but something that I hadn’t thought about came up in our Op Art lecture about nuclear strategy: how, for a while – possibly the most dangerous while the world had seen – nuclear weapons weren’t the be-all and end-all, and thus stood a much more terrifying chance of actually being used. (Asked Peter Gray, who really knows this topic, about this, and he confirmed it.)

In the early Cold War days, before both sides had an arsenal that could murder the planet (and the delivery systems to effectively use it), they were really just another weapon; generals’ bluntest instruments, rather than politicians’ final sanction. Another bomb, just one that could light up entire cities. The French honestly considered using nukes at Dien Bien Phu but decided against it because of how it would have fucked everything up forever; now, because they didn’t, we study the Vietnam War, rather than the French Indochina War, and the number of atomics used in anger stands at a mere two too many.

And to counter the Warsaw Pact’s numberless armies, and the deep-battle capability that unravelled the Japanese Empire in eleven days flat, NATO put nuclear warheads in damn near everything: nuclear artillery shells, nuclear landmines, nuclear depth charges, nuclear air-to-air rockets, shoulder-fired recoilless guns with nuclear warheads. Which, looking back, was utterly insane: but the concept of a “limited nuclear exchange,” whose limitations would almost certainly have been purely technical, somehow prevailed in the minds of planners.

Then came ICBMs and MIRVed-up citykillers by the thousands, and mutually assured annihilation. And in a nuclear total war, if you have the capability, everything is a target. Everything. Military, infrastructure, communications, agriculture, population. And that was so utterly, unconscionably insane that it made the world almost safe. For the first time ever, the idea that this weapon would be so horrific that nobody would dare use it – which builders of better weapons have been saying, wrongly, more or less since day one – was true.

But they weren’t the instant game-changer it’s too easy to believe. (For all the Soviet-downplaying postwar press, it wasn’t even the atomics which brought Japan down – look up Operation August Storm sometime.) For a few dark years, the game was the same; just got more fierce.

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