We’re all Gonna Die (Maybe): The All-Too-Real Perils of Mutually Assured Destruction

Nuclear weapons are one thing when handled by calculating, loquacious politicians, and another thing completely in the hands of today’s leaders.

If the tensions between North Korea and the United States make you nervous, maybe they should. But rest assured that the threat of complete and utter annihilation is no new concept for our nation. The possibility of horrific nuclear warfare has loomed quietly over our futures more often than not since the advent of the atomic bomb and through the long decades of the Cold War. However, despite continuous and obsessive stockpiling, these weapons have remained dormant for the most part.

This sort of stockpiling, without concrete plans of usage, has lead to more than one arms race in the name of mutual deterrence. Mutual deterrence is the outcome of a state of Mutually Assured Destruction, MAD for short. Nations employing the doctrine of MAD hope to deter countries from making use of their nuclear caches for fear of an equally devastating counterattack. The possession of these potent weapons in large quantities ensures destruction for both parties, and, thus, there are no winners.

In 1967, the United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara promulgated the concept of MAD in a speech “Mutual Deterrence,” and it remains an important strategy to this day. Its effectiveness depends on a number of factors. One such factor is that the nations in question possess “second strike capability:” the capability to cause parallel damage to an aggressor nation after the aggressor’s first strike, rendering this first strike counterproductive. MAD also depends on the nation leaders’ tact and restraint, and mostly their desire to preserve not only themselves but the millions of other lives at stake. It is for this reason that MAD is no longer an applicable strategy.

Photo by Daniel Sarche

Cue North Korea’s aggressive missile tests, most recently over Japan, and Donald Trump’s brash threats of “fire and fury.” Neither Kim Jong-Un nor our president evokes any notion of tact or restraint. Neither leader has demonstrated a keen sense of empathy for the spectrum of citizens they govern. We cannot even depend on either leader’s will to live to ensure prudent decisions—in the age of high-tech bomb shelters, it will ironically be the one who pushes the “launch” button who is whisked to safety first.

MAD depends too much on politicians’ well-advised know-how and leaves no room for human error, for rash decisions, or for ill-placed power. However tenuously MAD may have worked until now, all it takes is one slip-up and then there will be no more need for defense strategy, with nothing to defend any longer.

MAD may seem like the only practical solution. To surrender, hands in the air, weapons clattering irretrievable on the ground, seems risky at best, a move founded on blind trust in the goodness of one’s adversaries. But the alternative enlists the same sort of blind faith that a detachment from MAD strategies requires: it enlists blind faith in our leaders, as unstable and uninformed as they may be. The Obama administration appeared to be seeking a middle ground with regard to nuclear weapons, developing missiles while projecting a cutback on nuclear spending. Trump, on the other hand, has proceeded to dramatically augment the United State’s nuclear arsenal without a second glance, modernizing weapons to the point where some critics believe that their precision and stealth will tempt the president into frightening territory: “limited” nuclear warfare.

MAD is perhaps not yet obsolete, but it is on the road to ineffectiveness. We cannot count on it anymore to be the primary safeguard against nuclear warfare. It is almost comical that the term Mutually Assured Destruction has been one that signified safety and peace. A second look at the term reveals how brutal the strategy truly is, especially in light of recent events and the reactions of this day and age’s authority figures. Mutually Assured Destruction has become more tangible than ever, no longer as an abstract political theory but as a vision of the desecrated remains of our homes and lives.

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