14 karmaJoined Dec 2020


It seems to me that this post fills an important void. Several commenters have said that they fear that letting people know that nuclear war wouldn't mean the end of the world would encourage them to take nuclear war less seriously.

First, let me say that I've spent forty years working to try to reduce the danger of nuclear war and (as I've gotten older) to eliminate nuclear weapons. I've received outside funding during only six of those years. Not asking for sympathy, I just want you to realize that I am quite serious about this stuff.

Partly because of that seriousness, I think it is essential to foreground reality in all arguments against nuclear weapons. In fact, I think it is the key to elimination.

I've spent some time studying attitudes toward nuclear war and I think landfish is exactly right that people often have unrealistic ideas about it. Mostly they exaggerate its consequences. I believe these exaggerations are far more harmful to attempts to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons than any realistic explanation of the reality might be.

Let me explain.

For the most part, ordinary people, when they don't use the exact words "nuclear war" refer to nuclear war as "the end of the world" or "apocalypse" or "Armageddon." These terms are colorful, exaggerated, and unrealistic. They are, in some ways, fascinating anthropological evidence. Two of these terms are religious terms (apocalypse and Armageddon). Why would it make sense to refer to a twenty-first century military phenomenon (nuclear war), in religious or mythical terms?

Why would millions of people use an apocalyptic story dating back thousands of years to refer to nuclear war? The short answer is that I think in some way apocalypse is a narrative that they are familiar with. They take a strange and uncomfortable phenomenon, like nuclear war, and they make it familiar and less threatening by covering it with a story they know.

But there is an important point about apocalypse stories -- they are all in the hands of God. If nuclear war is really the apocalypse then it is out of our control. Only God controls the apocalypse. Only God determines where the Last Battle at the End of Days will be fought (a hill called Armageddon).

Exaggerating nuclear war to mean the end of the world makes it horrible, no doubt, but it also makes it (perhaps comfortingly) beyond our control. It gives us a pass not to worry about the problem.

At least that is the way it seems to me.

I think facing the realities of nuclear war is essential.