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Nuclear War: Inevitable?

05-Apr-09 12:54 am EST Leave a comment Go to comments

North Korea launches rocket: reports – Sympatico / MSN Video (click image above to play)

There’s been a nagging question on my mind since childhood: will I ever live to see nuclear weapons used?  When I was very young; between 8 and 10 years of age, I used to have nightmares about nuclear attack.  Of course, this was in the last 1970s and early 1980s, which was the height of the cold war.  Most of my younger friends can’t relate because they just don’t know what it was like growing up with the fear that the Soviet Union could vaporize every major city in North America, including nearby Winnipeg.  The city was a strategic nuclear target thanks to the convergence of the CN and CP railways, being home to Canada’s 17th Air Wing and perhaps the proximity of Fargo, North Dakota a couple hours drive south.  The military base at Fargo houses a number of ICBM launch facilities and was thought to be the target for some of the larger ordinance the Soviets would use in any nuclear exchange.  It may say something about my childhood obsession with nuclear cataclysm that these were all facts I’d become aware of before adolescence.

But all that changed when the Soviet Union suffered its economic collapse and my nightmares went away.  And the thought occurred that maybe, at some point far in the future, we’d have to deal with the possibility of terrorists getting their hands on nukes or other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  While certainly a legitimate concern, at least there was the consolation of knowing that if a terrorist detonated a small warhead in a large urban centre, the likelihood was it wouldn’t mean the end of the world.  But then during the first Gulf War we started hearing about the possibility that Iraq might have a nuclear arms program.  And suddenly the reality of powers other than the “big 5” on the UN Security Council started to seem a lot closer than I’d expected it to be at that point in time.  At least, I thought to myself, if a smaller country got nukes they’d still be at a disadvantage in any confrontation with the major powers.  A country like Iraq didn’t even have delivery systems capable of reaching North America and if they tried anything, one or more of the “big 5” would surely incinerate any nation that tried to nuke anyone else.  It wouldn’t be mutually-assured destruction (MAD) as it was in the Cold War between NATO and the Warsaw Pact; rather “SAD” – singularly-assured destruction – for the smaller nation.

Indeed, any ambitions a small country had toward being on “equal footing” with the U.S. or Russia by getting nukes seemed little more than fantasy.  It would be crazy for any leadership to think getting nukes would gain a strategic advantage on the superpowers of the world.  And then we started hearing from North Korea.  Earlier this decade it even successfully tested its first nuke, effectively joining the nuclear club.  The only thing it’s lacked to start making real trouble for everyone in the region (including itself) are delivery systems capable of reaching the continental United States.

What baffles me is what North Korea hopes to gain here.  It’s already been engaged in talks, gaining concession after concession from the world’s powers while clearly making every effort to create rockets that could attack the United States.  But while it’s enjoyed some success at the bargaining table and has apparently put its nuke program on hold from time to time, it still seems intent on preparing for a war that it couldn’t conceivably win.  It would likely be suicide to even start, because if the game is hurling missiles across the Pacific – the United States will win with breathtaking alacrity.

Even worse for North Korea, the U.S. leads the world in missile intercept technology and in this field is years – perhaps decades – ahead of its nearest competitor.  And Patriot missiles are just the tip of the iceberg, because it goes without saying that there are technologies kept well out of public view which might well be able to knock anything North Korea has out of the sky.  Unfortunately, nothing is fool-proof and with nukes, lets face it, if one gets through countermeasures it’s a pretty big disaster.  But North Korea won’t have a large number of missiles to fire at the United States for quite a while.  So it all seems perfectly crazy to engage in a strategy that has zero chance of working.

Strangely, this is actually a bad thing for everyone.  If the leadership is actually as delusional as it appears, they might still cause a great deal of trouble.  They may not be able to get an ICBM all the way to San Francisco, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless.  They could still attack Japan or perhaps even South Korea.  Whether the current negotiations (which bear a striking resemblance to appeasement) aren’t actually allowing what could be a relatively small problem now to turn into a much bigger one later – is still very much an open question, in my view.

And – in the longer run – I wonder whether nuclear war isn’t inevitably.  If it’s not North Korea, then could it not just be someone else down the road?  I have the feeling the clock is ticking on the question of whether a nuclear conflict will occur – will a crazy totalitarian dictator push the button?  Or maybe a religious extremist?  A terrorist?  We really do need to clean up this world and eliminate starvation and poverty in the next few decades if we’re going to avoid turning my nightmares into reality.  But I’m just not seeing the kind of progress there needs to be, although there seems to be growing acceptance about what needs to be done to turn Earth into the kind of world everyone can be happy in.

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Terry Glavin

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