The Twin Brother of Annihilation

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"As long as a nukeless world remains wishful thinking and pastoral rhetoric, we'll be all right."

Pastoral rhetoric? This, from a writer who later refers to a "nuclear umbrella"? The words are those of David Von Drehle, an editor at large for Time magazine, who couldn't resist a faint note of mocking arrogance as he announced his own winner of the Nobel Peace Prize: Little Boy, Fat Man and their progeny, the doomsday weapons that (not counting Hiroshima, Nagasaki and all those cancer deaths in Utah, etc.) have kept us so safe for the last 60 years.

Von Drehle's complaint was that the committee that awarded Barack Obama the prize did so primarily for his initiatives toward nuclear disarmament, which, he says, is a terrible idea because the only reason our suicidal species hasn't fought the Big One, World War III, is because the leaders of the West, the ones who brought us the industrialized slaughter of World Wars I and II, and between 62 and 78 million dead in three decades, saw the light, so to speak, when they began stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and manacled their bad behavior with the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD.

Thus, while further millions of Planet's Earth's residents have died in the wars of the last six decades -- the reign of nuclear weapons hasn't been, strictly speaking, benign -- and innumerable others have been displaced, impoverished, wounded and emotionally shattered, Von Drehle and the entire military-industrial establishment for which he speaks argue that, without nukes, those numbers would have been higher by some millions of people. As Winston Churchill put it many years ago, while the logic of MAD was still in its formative stage: "Safety will become the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation."

What the MAD minions tend not to add, but what is implicit in their argument, is that most of those millions spared by our avoidance of World War III are Americans and Europeans. We've found a different way to work out our issues, minimizing our own risks. The wars instigated by the West since 1945 have been proxy wars, guaranteeing that, in the reign of nukes, the war dead are primarily Third Worlders.

Nevertheless, the argument still holds: In a world held hostage by nuclear weapons, there are smaller aggregate numbers of war dead; therefore, God bless nukes.

Or maybe not. There are almost as many holes in this viewpoint as there are Western lives hypothetically saved from untimely termination by the nuclear blessing, beginning with the absolute unverifiability of the premise.

For instance, war historian John Mueller, in his book The Remnants of War, argues that if nuclear weapons had not been invented, "the history of world affairs would have turned out much the same as it did. Specifically, nuclear weapons and the image of destruction they inspire were not necessary to induce people who have been running world affairs since 1945 to be extremely wary of repeating the experience of World War II (or for that matter, World War I)."

Well, who knows? Whether the underlying premise is faulty or valid, the nuclear weapons industry is here to stay as long as people believe in sufficient numbers that our survival is "the twin brother of annihilation."

And this belief is where I take my most serious issue with Von Drehle et al, because its embrace is instantly stagnating. Human cruelty and self-destructiveness are enshrined as given: We have invested our future in their inalterable permanence. Suddenly the only way left in which humanity can grow is technologically. The possibility of moral and spiritual growth ceases: We will never govern ourselves wisely, learn collective impulse control or move to a new level of consciousness.

"You cannot solve problems with the same level of consciousness that created them," Albert Einstein famously said. Shortly before his death in 1955, he signed his name to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which includes this passage: "Here, then, is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?"

This and only this is the imperative that emerged from the carnage of World War II, and the world's greatest thinkers saw it then and still see it. They also saw that you cannot renounce war and remain committed to the development of nuclear weapons. The abolition of this stopgap horror, this mega-disaster still waiting to happen -- the Doomsday Clock is still set at five minutes to midnight -- remains crucial.

And this brings me back to the faint, biting edge of mockery in the Von Drehle essay: that peace and disarmament initiatives are wishful, naïve thinking, harmless fantasies at best, but under no circumstances to be taken seriously. We must, instead, continue investing in our own annihilation.

This is the cry of a multi-trillion-dollar industry that teeters on a toxic premise: that the human race can never grow up.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

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