The draft of the Pentagon’s proposed plan to “update” the United States’ nuclear weapon strategy is a masterpiece of double-speak.
The plan, titled the “Nuclear Posture Review” proposes that we modernize our nuclear weaponry, which is euphemistic phrasing for building more nuclear weapons and more efficient ways to deliver them accurately. The call for spending more than a trillion dollars on new nuclear bombs continues the unfortunate policy of the Obama administration to increase our nuclear capabilities even while calling for total dismantling of the world’s nuclear force at some future date.
More significantly, the document also proposes to expand the number of reasons that the United States would strike first. In 2010, the Obama administration significantly narrowed the scenarios in which the United States would drop nuclear weapons without first enduring a nuclear attack. Obama ruled out attacking any country that did not have a nuclear capability, and limited our use of nuclear as a response to large-scale conventional, chemical or biological attacks. But of course, that’s not how the documents put the conditions under which we’re willing to drop the bomb. In both 2010 and 2018, the Pentagon talks abstractly about nuclear weapons “playing a role” or making “essential contributions to the deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear aggression.” Nowhere do these documents ever use explicit language to describe our willingness under certain conditions to poison the Earth’s atmosphere and water.
The new Pentagon report calls for widening the circumstances in which we would unleash the fury of our nuclear arsenal to include cyber threats and terrorism, or as the current draft puts it, “violent non-state actors.”That’s right—the new strategy would consider letting a U.S. president drop an atomic bomb on a country harboring terrorists, killing tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and spewing deadly radiation throughout the planet. Interestingly enough, most stories about the updated nuclear strategy fail to mention the expansion of reasons for dropping the big one. Those that do, like the New York Times, focus exclusively on using nuclear weapons to deter “attempts to destroy wide-reaching infrastructure, like a country’s power grid or communications, that would be most vulnerable to cyberweapons.” No one mentions that the U.S. would now consider the nuclear option to fight terrorism, a far scarier change since the definition of terrorism and who is a terrorist is so amorphous and subject to manipulation. As with the past nuclear strategy documents, the 2018 draft also covers about 30 countries we consider allies, which means that at least theoretically, if a country dismantled Great Britain’s electrical distribution capability using a computer virus, the United States might literally go nuclear!
Double-speak is everywhere in the report. Consider this clever bit of logical twisting: “In no way does this approach ‘lower the nuclear threshold.’ Rather, by convincing adversaries that even limited use of nuclear weapons will be more costly than they can countenance, it raises the threshold.” In other words, the report claims that being willing to use nuclear weapons in more scenarios lowers the possibility of using them. It sounds as if the same propaganda machine that belches out the nonsense that allowing more guns will make people safer from gun violence is advising the Pentagon. And in fact, it might be, seeing that a number of companies manufacturing weaponry for the United States and the dozens of countries to which we sell arms also have divisions which sell firearms to individuals.
My favorite instance of twisted logic in the Nuclear Posture Review is the oft-quoted statement: ”We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.” Those of us who have watched the current administration develop and implement immigration, tax, trade, environmental and education policies that fly in the face of reality find an enormous amount of chutzpah in the ostensibly sober admonishment to “look reality in the eye.”
But beyond the irony of the Trump Pentagon invoking reality to justify expanding the possibility of a first use of nuclear bombs is the rhetorical slipperiness of the statement. The Pentagon says it looked at reality, but it really only considered that part of reality that helped to justify the decision to spend a trillion dollars on new weapons of mass destruction and loosen first-use standards.
It didn’t look at the interconnectedness of the world through trade, treaties and computerization that makes it much more dangerous to all countries to launch any kind of attack on a big power like the United States—interconnectedness providing the same kind of deterrence that nuclear advocates claim the possession of atomic bombs does. It ignores the great progress we have made in quelling disturbances through negotiations, economic sanctions and treaties. It doesn’t take into account the fact that with non-nuclear weaponry we have managed to reduce the threat of ISIS and that the number of terrorist episodes in the United States is down significantly over the past four decades. It doesn’t look at the reality of limited resources that could better be put to use in strengthening the American economy and helping lift up the poor and inflicted in the United States and throughout the world.
Finally, and most importantly, the Pentagon does not consider the awful reality of nuclear weapons: that they kill so many with one explosion and that the damage is not limited to the bomb site, but affects the entire globe. The writers of this proposal—which will likely soon become the official policy of the United States—should take a hard look at the reality portrayed in the thousands of photographs of the damage to humans wrought at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe then they would understand that the reality is that no first-use of our nuclear capability is defensible or justifiable. Nor is retaliation against someone dropping a bomb on us, for that matter. The only realistic policy to follow is to stop developing all nuclear weapons and start decommissioning the weapons we have. Our standing army and economic power in a tightly interconnected world should be deterrence enough to prevent others from exploding nuclear weapons and therefore to follow suit by eradicating their weapons.