(1 September 2008; still topical on 9 August 2017)
The first, and also previous, nuclear war consisted of two atomic bomb attacks that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, on August 6 and August 9 of 1945. These attacks by the United States of America against an utterly defeated and prostrate Japan occurred in the last month of the Pacific War (which occurred between December 7, 1941 to August 15, 1945 for the USA) and were demonstrations of remorseless American power intended to deflate the triumphant spirit of a Soviet Union victorious against Nazi Germany (May 8, 1945), and to check the Soviet leadership from advancing its forces into Japan (despite being implored to do so by the Allies at the Yalta Conference six months earlier).
Tsarist Russia had lost its 1904-1905 war with Imperial Japan for control of Manchuria (northern China) and Korea, both of which Japan occupied until 1945. During World War 1 (1914-1918) and the Russian Civil War (1917-1923), a dozen nations invaded Russia, occupying many regions and fielding troops that supported the pro-tsarist, anti-Bolshevik White forces between 1918 and 1920. Japan supplied 37 percent of the troops in this Allied Intervention, 70,000 of the 188,000 total and by far the single largest contingent; they were all deployed in the Vladivostok (northwestern Pacific) region and were the last to leave, in 1922. A series of Soviet-Japanese border wars occurred between 1938-1945, primarily a 1938 war along the Siberian-Manchurian border (western-eastern) just northeast of Korea, a 1939 war along the Mongolian-Manchurian border (eastern-western), northwest of Korea, and the Russian invasion of Manchuria on August 8, 1945.
With the demise of the Japanese Empire, the Russians and Chinese consolidated their adjoining domains of control spanning the Eurasian landmass east of the Baltic and north of the Black Sea, Caucasus and Himalayas, for over four decades until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Over the last twenty years, the United States has actively sought to encircle Russia with military forces implanted in client states that are former Soviet Republics or Eastern European Socialist Republics, now independent, whose compliance has been bought. A similar policy applies to China and its surrounding south and central Asian states. This US policy is often personified by Zbigniew Brzezinski (the Carter Administration National Security Advisor credited with funding the advanced militarization of the Afghani mujahideen that included Osama Bin Laden), who characterizes it as geostrategic dominance radiating from the control of Caucasus and Central Asian republics, several rich in oil.
In recent weeks, US commentators (e.g., P. C. Roberts and W. S. Lind) on Russia’s intervention into the Republic of Georgia (a US client state in the South Caucasus Mountains) to reverse the Georgian invasion of breakaway region South Ossetia, believe the blundering belligerence of US policy toward Russia could escalate to the point of armed confrontation, and this would erupt into a nuclear war.
The logic assumed is that the U.S. would have to rely on missile-borne tactical nuclear warheads launched by air and naval forces to counter Russian troops and armor in the Caucasus, since the U.S. is too distant to transport its troops quickly, and many of them are bogged down in Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows, maybe also Iran by that time. The Russians could be assumed to use their tactical nuclear weapons to compensate for their possible disadvantage of having less technically sophisticated weapons systems relative to the ”smart bomb” precision-guided munitions and “stealth” delivery vehicles of the US military. Once a shooting war starts, the natural tendency is to reach for your biggest guns and fire away before the other guy can clear his holster.
So, is a new nuclear war possible? Let’s muse on this. After all, the time necessary for rationality to work its good is only available before the shoot-out, or after the killing is done and the survivors are ready to move on to the burials.
The purpose of war is to increase your degree of control OVER OTHERS. This is usually equated to having acquired greater political and military power. This is true even if the war is conducted as nothing beyond brigandage and piracy: plunder, profit and wealth are seen as increasing your power to control events. Using this metric, it is easy to judge if you have won or lost a war.
We proceed by inquiring about the psychological and technical enabling factors, and the political and diplomatic restraining factors for the outbreak of a nuclear war:
1, psychology: are the prospective belligerents easily inclined to war?
2, technology: are their military establishments ready for nuclear combat?
3, politics: can the ruling class be assured of maintaining control of its own population?, could there be a revolution if the war fares badly?
4, diplomacy: is the potential estrangement of and isolation from European states, and other allies, a significant restraint?; is it possible that in a mid-war or post-war weakened condition your state becomes unable to control new rebellions by imperial subject states, or to stop encroachments into your domain of influence by imperial rivals?
We can contract the previous four major questions in these two: have we identified all possible contingencies and devised alternative plans for each?, does the cost-benefit ratio for the war outweigh that of diplomatic alternatives, and after what period of time? We consider the four factors in turn.
Psychology: Remembering World War Two
It is important to know that the overwhelming fraction of the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany was provided by the Soviet Union (Russia and its union of socialist republics), and they suffered the greatest losses as a result. Consider the following numbers. The combined 1939 population of the fifty-five countries involved in World War Two (WW2) was 1.962 billion; the total number of war dead was 72.8 million, which was 3.7 percent of the 1939 population of participants. Of course, many of these countries bore only a slight to moderate burden in carrying on the war, while a small number provided the greatest efforts and made the greatest sacrifices (see “World War II casualties” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties).
The combined human losses of the Soviet Union, China, Germany and Japan were just under 73 percent of the total deaths for WW2. The Asian theater of WW2 was essentially the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, while the European theater of WW2 was essentially the Russo-German War of 1941-1945.
Let us look at the impact of WW2 on five selected countries, by using three ratios for each country, where these ratios are defined as follows.
the percentage of its 1939 population killed in WW2;
the ratio of its 1939 population to the 1.962 billion WW2 participants;
the ratio of its WW2 dead to the total WW2 dead;
(all ratios below are expressed as percents).
Soviet Union: 13.7; 8.6; 31.7.
China: 3.9; 26.4; 27.5.
Germany: 10.5; 3.6; 10.
Japan: 3.8; 3.6; 3.7.
USA: 0.3; 6.7; 0.6.
The Soviet Union lost nearly 14 percent of its population (every 7th person) in the war, and this mortality amounted to almost one third of the entire WW2 dead. China was three times as populous as the Soviet Union, so its loss of nearly 4 percent of its people (every 26th person) amounted to over one quarter of the entire WW2 dead. Germany lost over a tenth of its population (every 10th person), which amounted to 10 percent of the WW2 dead; and Japan’s loss of just under 4 percent of its people (every 26th person) amounted to nearly 4 percent of the WW2 dead.
Notice that the United States’ WW2 dead amounts to a fifty-fifth (1/55) of the Soviet total, and the 1939 national populations were comparable, the Soviet population being 29 percent higher. It would be very beneficial to the world if Americans, commemorating their Memorial and Veterans’ Days, would try imagining their feelings if they had suffered war as deeply as the Soviet people (every 7th person instead of every 324th person lost). Now, we never trivialize the real pain of war veterans, their relatives and and friends, however small a portion of a nation’s population they may happen to be. But, clearly, the impact of a WW2 experience like that of the Soviets will imprint a dread of war far more deeply into the national consciousness than a WW2 experience like that of the United States.
Another interesting numerical result is that the combined losses of Germany and Japan amount to only 13.7 percent of the WW2 dead, and the combined population of these two Axis powers amounted to only 7.2 percent of the WW2 participating population. Advanced industrialized nations hell-bent on war can drag in a multitude of victims vastly more numerous than themselves. A reasonable assumption for today is that the state planners and popular historical memories in both Russia and China viscerally appreciate the importance of this point, but that it may be dimly perceived in US popular imagination, and even dismissed by US policy-makers. This is probably the type of caution introduced by European allies when the U.S. engages them in multilateral diplomacy and planning, and which is so annoying to US unilateralists.
So, the U.S. may have a more casual attitude about bellicose posturing and nuclear war threatening bravado, while the Russians and Chinese are likely to be very circumspect and deliberate about threatening nuclear war; if they do, pay attention!
Technology: The Military Is A Hungry Robot
The US military is a brainless stomach that always wishes to be fed, it is the very definition of fiscal cancer. It has no other goal beyond immediate ingestion of capital drained from the US treasury, so all its pronouncements, papers, studies, proposals and testimony are devoid of meaning beyond their role as advertisements aimed at the audience of policy-makers heading the capitalist, government and propaganda ministries of the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). The purpose of these advertisements is to induce as many of these directorate-class individuals as possible to put their influence behind the many schemes for larding the military. So, we can expect any part of the military that sees initiating a nuclear war as an instant benefit to itself by calling its services into action, to lobby for it. A brainless stomach has no concept of consequences, or of others. “More” fills the conceptual space, and all the frenzied, convoluted babble is a drone of incantations intended to materialize that “more.”
While the hardware for nuclear war is complex, both the US and Russian military establishments have decades of experience with it, and they have maintained their training. These military forces could use their nuclear weapons as ordered without a significant number of technical or personnel failures. Some of the warheads launched might be duds, in that their detonation would be flawed and their full explosive yield would be unrealized; and some of the personnel might crack under the pressure of actual combat — either as a blind panic or an intentional rebellion — and fail at their posts. However, we can expect a low incidence of such failure in either the U.S. or Russian forces.
This is unfortunate from the point of view of preventing nuclear war. We now know that “a guy named Arkhipov saved the world” during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “During a naval skirmish between an American destroyer and a Soviet B-59 submarine off Cuba on Oct 27, 1962,” where “the destroyer dropped depth charges near the submarine to try to force it to surface, not knowing it had a nuclear-tipped torpedo…that the submarine was authorised to fire it if three officers agreed. The officers began a fierce, shouting debate over whether to sink the ship. Two of them said yes and the other said no.”
This was no failure of Russian military training (which like that in the arts and sciences is of unparalleled rigor), but instead the operation of vivid historical consciousness. I fear that the culture of the United States is so shallow and immature that thorough military training can transform any callow youth into a robot soldier attuned to his or her assigned functions, and unlikely to have the psychological depth and historical consciousness to question orders and training under conditions of extreme danger, urgency and confusion, or to recognize moments of pivotal importance.
Military establishments are intended to be robotic performers, reliable agents implementing commands abstracted and codified from the political directives of the national leadership. So, we should assume that by far the best way to prevent the military from proceeding with a nuclear war is by influencing the policy that it operates under, so that it is one of restraint.
Still, let me make a direct plea to any US soldier or sailor who finds themselves charged with launching a nuclear weapon: don’t do it, mutiny, revolt. Think, the more and sooner the better. Be Arkhipov. I think the Russians will be more restrained than the Americans about first use, but will have zero hesitation about second use.
Politics: Popular Loyalty Or Popular Revolt?
Because Russia is a lesser power than the United States, and because of the many and obvious provocations made by the US against Russia as part of its encirclement strategy, as well as the shameless advantage US capitalism took of Russia during the immediate post-soviet period of political fragmentation and economic reorganization, the Russian people will have no trouble supporting their government regardless of how any potential war with the U.S. transpires; they will always see themselves as the defenders, not the aggressors. This will be especially true if the U.S. fires first, which it delights in boasting it feels free to do; and we can be sure that if Russia does fire the first nuclear shot, it will be an evidently defensive preemptive strike. The expectation of popular loyalty, won by the robust revival of the Russian economy under Vladimir Putin’s administration, as well as a reaction to US belligerence, frees the Russian leadership of any fear about revolution erupting in reaction to possible reverses in a potential Russo-US war, even a nuclear one. Russia is united.
The US public is unprepared for the sacrifices attendant to a nuclear war, no matter how “tactical” and “limited.” Every nuclear munition carries the destructive power of many conventional bombs or cannons, and shot for shot every fall of a nuclear munition will produce proportionately many more casualties. US soldiers and sailors will fill coffins or dematerialize at rates not experienced since the Civil War. The American public has been protected, shielded and distracted from the impact of war, especially since the Vietnam War, but the number of casualties to be expected from even a limited tactical nuclear war would be impossible to hide (as the casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are hidden today), and the mollycoddled American viewing public would be traumatized on apprehending the magnitude and pace of the carnage.
The reactions to this fright would be varied, but in all cases they would contribute to the agitation of the public, a loss of placidity and thus an increased difficulty of social control. This triggers the primary anxiety of the ruling class. It is nearly inconceivable that US public agitation over the number of military casualties from a foreign nuclear war would rise to the same intensity as the Parisian public’s agitation about starvation in 1789, but the great fear of the US ruling class would be that it had become of the same type. Today’s paycheck-dependent US Americans are disunited by their fearful prejudices and diminishing expectations in an eroding economy, while the Russian people are experiencing historically significant economic growth and political stability. At what point of disaffection would the US public unite into storming its own Bastilles, at what level of unsatisfied wants — in a population indoctrinated to be self-governed by wants — would the US public acquire the motivational rage of a Cindy Sheehan and become the 21st century sans-culottes whose pikes were now the subject of the 2nd amendment?
We should not let such florid rhetoric carry us on flights of fancy of Phil Gramm (‘let them whine for cake’) types arriving at their Sidney Carton moment, but neither should we underestimate the potential for outbreaks of real social unrest in the U.S. as a consequence of losing people to a nuclear war of imperialistic hubris.
Diplomacy: Consolidating Conquest, Or Chaotic Collapse?
The imperialist imagination sees conquest as the method of consolidating power. The emperor projects a conception of order onto the world, and then seeks to subject each actual state and population into fulfilling an assigned role. Every country is a tile that fits into the grand mosaic of the imagined empire, adding its unique hue to the overall image and easing the interconnectedness of all others into a consolidated structure. Conquest is accomplished by force, bribery or inequitable alliance.
However, every tile of the world mosaic has its own conception of itself and its role in the world, so there is always opposition to empire. Most people call this freedom.
Imperialistic thinking assumes that power, the ability of superior force to hold sway, is the only dimension along which international relations operate. It ignores chaos, the ability of nature and reality to erupt with surprises, and entropy, the tendency of all structure to dissipate, as other dimensions of international relations. It is impossible to predict all possible outcomes of present situations, so it is impossible to devise perfect systems of control. While we are always free to take action, we can never be certain of all its possible consequences. Aside from our common-sense plans for managing the practicalities of our lives, the overall contingency plan that comes closest to perfection is to “go with the flow.” This is zen. The only thing we can ever really control is our own behavior. Because all known previous empires have collapsed, chaos and entropy being prominent in their demise, we can anticipate a similar fate for the American empire.
The Russian economy is booming in part because Russia is a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe. Russia is also a leading supplier of military and nuclear power technology. Many people easily ascribe the various conflicts occurring in Eurasia to rivalries over the control of oil and gas fields and the routing of pipelines. China’s exploding economy would love to plunge its straw — direct trans-border pipelines — into Iran’s oil pools and drain them without interference; Iran would love China to monetize its oil bonanza, so it wants to power itself with nuclear energy to maximize its oil profits. Russia is eager to supply Iran the nuclear power technology it wants, because it is a profitable business venture, and because they want the security of controlling the fuel cycle of a close neighbor, for the purpose of nonproliferation (of nuclear weapons).
However, these logical commercial synergies fail the most important acceptance criterion of US capitalism, “what’s in it for me?” The U.S. would prefer a compliant Iran drained to its benefit, such as in the days of the Shah, it would prefer Central Asian oil to flow south through Afghanistan and east through the Caucasus, Black Sea and Turkey, and it would prefer Europe to limit its energy dependency on Russia. It is not just a matter of increasing the oil supplied to the U.S., it is about throttling the sources of Russia’s and China’s growing economic power; it is about control.
We can expect the Europeans to try soothing the neo-con fevered Bush Administration, quietly behind closed embassy doors, from working itself into a rabid lather for nuclear war with Russia, initially in the Caucasus. This will have some influence, because the failure of Europe to join in a diplomatic demonization campaign against Russia, like the earlier campaigns against Iraq, would make it more difficult for the U.S. to proceed to war. Also, the U.S. is mindful that were it to be seriously weakened by a unilateral nuclear war with Russia, an unscathed Europe would easily step into control of its empire. After all, this is what Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman did to Winston Churchill’s British empire.
Also, Europe would worry that a nuclear war in the Caucasus might spread, war usually does when one side becomes desperate. If Russia were being “bombed back to the stone age” it would most certainly bomb the US bases in the Central Asian republics along its southern border. These would be legitimate military targets, and would no doubt be actively involved in the US war against Russia (why else are they there?). This would draw the Central Asian republics into the war and probably topple their ruling classes, which Russia would see as their just deserts. A similar catastrophe might happen to Poland and other Eastern European states hosting US missile systems. For Europe, the thought of the disruption of their oil supplies from Russia and Central Asia, along with the possibility of sustaining casualties from nuclear bombardment, should be enough to propel them into vigorous and sustained diplomatic action to restrain US belligerency. They will probably say all manner of nasty things about Russia, to mollify their infantile US emperor, and do as little as possible to disrupt their existing commercial arrangements with Russia.
Analogous to the situation of the US public, if Europe and American “allies” were to suffer directly and severely from the war, they might unite in revolt and then use their military forces against the U.S., or Russia, or both as they guessed would offer the best relief. What is that level of “direct and severe suffering” that would trigger a European military response? Good question.
There are many other possibilities for mischief once the US is embroiled in a nuclear war and inattentive to its empire. Other nations could decide it was an opportune time to settle their own scores with each other, independent of the US-Russia war. China and India fought a border war in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is believed to have erupted because the U.S. was completely preoccupied elsewhere. One can imagine Israel finding it opportune to accelerate its liquidation of the Palestinians, expand into Lebanon, attack Iran or a variety of its neighbors, or all of these, while the US was absorbed in a nuclear war radiating from the Caucasus.
Of course, a restraining consideration here is that the U.S. might not be capable or willing to assist and even fund Israel during the course of its own major war with Russia, unless Israel were a full-fledged partner in that war. If Israel were so blinded by its own ambition that it did join the war against Russia, then Russian arms would quickly and forcefully be turned against it, and this would almost certainly be joined by military actions from many states in the Middle East. The intelligent course for Israel would be to stay out of a US war against Russia (which will really look dirty to the US public as they see their own forces being nuked), but even then it might have to accept a diminished level of support from its great protector, and consequently a more successful opposition from its many subjects and neighbors.
Once the chaotic dimension of reality is realized, it becomes easy to envision any number of disastrous developments for each of the initial combatants, and even the initial bystanders. From any perspective, it is easier to imagine a negative cost-benefit ratio to this war than a positive outcome. For this reason, I think it less likely to occur. However, one must not underestimate the stupidity of imperialists, if war does break out then I think the Russians will have a clearer view of how to proceed, and this will mean painful losses for the U.S., its allies and enablers.
The great fallacy of the imperialistic mind is that the threat of destruction is equated with the power to control. Control is an illusion, chaos is the reality. A successful warrior dances with chaos, and success means simply that one is still alive.
Originally published as:
Will a Russo-American Nuclear War Happen (Soon)?
1 September 2008