Destruction is Still Mutually Assured
♫ atom bomb baby little atom bomb ♫
Americans have been in a strange state of affairs for a long time: we continue to project military force across the globe, typically in ways that produce civilian casualties and which invariably influence domestic affairs in sovereign countries. We maintain the world’s most expensive military and, while on a per-capita basis the size of our fighting force is not particularly large, we still have something on the order of 1.5 million active duty personnel, with another million in the reserves. Our military footprint in terms of bases and facilities is absurd and unprecedented in size. We’re perpetually involved in the deployment of destructive power to achieve our ends in all manner of places on earth.
Yet we as a people don’t experience the repercussions of all of this, thanks to the advance of technology and sociological change. Iraq and Afghanistan were long and painful wars, as well as hideously expensive, but the human costs were primarily borne by the civilian populations of those countries. Yes, many US soldiers suffered serious wounds and psychological harm, and something like 4500 were killed in Iraq and 2500 in Afghanistan. But those are small percentages of the 1.5 million and 800,000 who respectively served in those wars. Increasingly American military operations are low footprint affairs, with drones and satellites now playing a large role in our projection of power, thus reducing both the opportunities for casualties and the number of those who directly witness the human costs of their actions. And as large as our military is, it’s much smaller per capita than it was during the Cold War, to say nothing of WWII, meaning that fewer and fewer Americans feel personal connection to warmaking.
America is in the war business, but most Americans themselves neither buy nor sell. War orbits around us invisibly - dare I say, silent but deadly.
I say all this as an attempt to sort out how it is that we’ve gotten to a point where so many people feel comfortable getting cavalier about war with Russia. Yes, of course the Commentary crowd is raring to jump into a war that generations grew up dreading. But there’s a remarkable amount of mainstream fervor for being “strong” and “assertive” with Russia right now, and I can only guess that it largely stems from the fact that we’ve been insulated from the horrors of war really since Vietnam, thanks to the unipolarity of the post Cold War world, the remarkable advances in emergency medicine made in the past 50 years, and our increasing focus on a “nimble” army. These things have made conflict easier to bear for a citizenry that, in turn, doesn't fear conflict the way it should. One way or another everyone’s rattling that war drum, man.
There’s many many more. And, of course, there’s always room to drag more potential antagonists into our aggressive posturing.
I feel like something’s getting lost in the wash here that we probably shouldn’t lose track of. Namely, Russia has the world’s largest nuclear stockpile and the means to deliver many of its warheads inside the United States. Seems important!
Now it’s true that there is not at present, and probably never was, sufficient nuclear weapons in the world to render the entire United States a radioactive Mad Max hellhole. But Russia’s nuclear weapons are more than capable of devastating America’s northeastern megalopolis, causing immense damage to southern California, and otherwise rendering large portions of our country at least temporarily uninhabitable. The human costs would be immense. The Russians have some 4,350 nuclear warheads and 500+ ICBMs, along with ten nuclear warhead-armed submarines. While the Russian arsenal is a far cry from the insane heights of the USSR’s peak nuclear capability, they are still more than capable of sending a sub up to deposit a nuke into the heart of a major American city. America has more than enough capability to retaliate in a way that would obliterate Moscow, of course, but that’s not much comfort, is it? That’s the whole thing with mutually assured destruction, that the destruction on each side would inevitably be so immense that retaliatory power becomes somewhat irrelevant. This is to say nothing of the longstanding belief that Russia never fully dismantled its biological and chemical weapons operations in line with treaties. (To be fair, if you think the United States did itself, I have a bridge to sell you.)
I’m old enough to have experienced the fear of nuclear war with the USSR as a child. I don’t think we ever did the notorious “get under the desk” drills at my elementary school, but certainly there was a constant low-key hum of fear in the background. There was genuinely a non-trivial chance that the world would erupt into global thermonuclear war. And while the Cold War was a festival of saber rattling and warmongering there was at least a communal understanding of the impossibly high stakes involved in any potential conflict between the two superpowers. But 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we have a generation of young adults who weren’t alive to experience that fear and many more people who seemingly have forgotten what it was like. That’s bad. The Yooks still got the nukes, and so do the Zooks. All it takes is one bad day and we’ll see untold human devastation even from a dramatically smaller worldwide arsenal.
Do I think it would be good if Russia invaded Ukraine? No. Do I think that Russia invading Ukraine would be as bad as a nuclear war between the countries with the two largest nuclear stockpiles? Also no. Not even close, actually. And so from a purely utilitarian calculus I have to argue that blithely advocating for increased aggression with Russia is a terrible idea. That does not require any dipping into my repository of anti-imperialist ideals against America dictating the world’s affairs. We never for a moment took our finger off of the button and neither did they and it’s kind of incredible that the world has gotten so complacent about this.
Serially underestimating the costs of a hot war between major powers has gotten too easy in a country that has not seen major troop casualties since Vietnam. For example, the economist Noah Smith recently took to Twitter to attack The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig for expressing skepticism about the United States entering into war with China over an (absurd) hypothetical invasion of Japan.
Well, leaving the inane question aside, it strikes me that the bravado evident in this larger Twitter thread can only emerge from someone who has not really comprehended that which he discusses. China is a nuclear power. How big is their arsenal? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Nobody knows for sure. It’s certainly much smaller than Russia’s, but then if there’s war in and around Japan it would probably be trivially easy for them to deploy their warheads there. Besides, the Chinese have the largest armed forces on earth in terms of number of personnel and have significantly modernized their military in the past decade. If we fought in their hood, and Japan certainly applies, there’s a real, genuine, no-bullshit chance that we would lose. Oh, and a hot war between the US and China would destroy the global economy, although I suppose China invading Japan might very well do that anyway. This is a trolley problem, a dorm room hypothetical, so there’s no good answer. But whatever the right answer is, it’s absurd to suggest that a desire to avoid such a conflict makes one a tankie.
Many have lamented that the rise of drone warfare and other mechanizations of war will make the American people even more diffident towards the constant bloodletting that takes place in our name. Beyond that, we simply live in a narcotizing culture, one where large swaths of our citizens enjoy great material comforts (even among some of those who also struggle under serious financial hardship) and can access all manner of ways to evade and ignore what their country’s immense destructive apparatus is doing. I’m sure in short order people will be floating in the metaverse watching inane YouTube bullshit while a feeding tube keeps them alive and a fentanyl drip ensures they feel no pain. For now we merely have a distracted and desensitized country that can't remember the horrors of combat. Meanwhile, approaching 20 years since the second invasion of Iraq, the powers that be are once again itching for wars that will not take their lives or the lives of their daughters and sons.