Nuclear Ghosts


Whenever I start reading about nuclear weapons, I can’t help thinking about the photo above, one of the most amazing images I’ve ever seen in my life. It sums up so much of the cognitive dissonance one has to experience, in retrospect, when considering post-WWII nuclear policy.

It’s a photo of the Upshot-Knothole Grable test, part of an attempt to develop an artillery-based delivery vehicle for a tactical nuclear device. That’s right, they wanted to shoot a nuke out of a cannon. The gun you see in the foreground is an 11-inch artillery piece. You can see video of the test here.

In an immediately postwar military context, such a delivery vehicle is completely crazy…and yet not crazy at all. The miserable truth is that the exploration of tactical nuclear options may have been a relatively moral impulse within the war machine, compared with the drive to create weapons in the megaton-range — which, by 1960, would result in RAND Corporation rocket surgeon Herman Kahn popularizing the term “megadeaths” in an attempt to distinguish between two “tragic but distinguishable postwar states.”

Herman Kahn’s 1960 book On Thermonuclear War posited those two states following a nuclear war to be one in which the numer of civilian deaths was two million and one where they numbered 160 million — or 2 to 160 “megadeaths.”

Does that seem crazy to you? It does to everyone, I guess. But the great thing about being me is that I understand what Herman Kahn is getting at. I can also understand why the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons seemed like a great idea, given what many thinkers thought was the inevitability of an East-West conflict. Kahn was talking about strategic nuclear war; in a limited nuclear exchange, civilian deaths would be much lower…theoretically. In early-to-middle Cold War thinking, if there was a nuclear exchange, the trick would be to make the greatest use of the smallest number of weapons. That problem seems a lot more interesting to me in historical terms than the later Cold War problem… which was for both sides to expend a great deal of resources maintaining huge arsenals of relatively large devices that must never be used.

Is it that the development of tactical nukes might have limited an early Cold War nuclear exchange to military targets, thus resulting in fewer civilian casualties than a conventional war? Or is it that tactical nukes would have made it more likely that a regional conventional conflict would go nuclear?

History seems to imply neither, since there has not been a military nuclear exchange since Nagasaki. (Knocking on wood.) One could also argue that it was strategic weapons development that created a balance of power that prevented a full-scale war on the level of World War II. Since both views require indulging in moral dissonance on an epic scale, both views, to me, are both equally arguable and equally bankrupt.

But who would you rather invite to dinner, these guys:

W48 155-millimeter nuclear shell

Or these guys?

World Targets in Megadeaths

In both cases, as Ronald Reagan would say, “They’re from the government. They’re here to help you.” In this case, those words really are terrifying.

It’s easy to spew platitudes about how awful nuclear weapons are, but I consider that to be the luxury of the comfortable. It was not so very long ago that Europe lay in ruins, which is why nuclear weapons development, deployment, and policy serves to expose the fundamental challenge of all attempts at moral violence — and, more importantly, attempts to resist committing it. American pacifism in the 1940s could have saved anyone from Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chelmno or Baba Yar. A world suspended in the balance of nuclear terror was the world in which the Vietnam War, the Cambodian Genocide, and so many other atrocities occurred. Almost all of them were aided and abetted by the Cold War. Many were directly attributable to it. Those that weren’t were permitted to happen partially because powerful countries were fighting an ideological battle in which the bodies of innocents were secondary. If things haven’t improvd all that much since the Cold War, it’s because we as a species are still fighting it, albeit with different players.

The point at which any one person crosses from scientist to executioner, from warrior to murderer, from statesman to psycho, is not always clearly defined. Disaster comes slowly, by whispers. It arrives in the night, not as a haunting — but on the nights when you sleep, unhaunted, having forgotten about the screams, or maybe never having known. As a species, only our ghosts can save us from the nightmares.


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