Nuclear War: What are the Boundaries of the Real?

12 Jan

Last week I asked whether or not exoplanets are real. Sure, we can learn about it through a high-tech instrument up in space, and so know that, yes, it’s out there. But how real can it be if there’s little or no chance that we’ll ever go there? In the sense of “real” that interests me, the Moon became more real when Neil Armstrong set foot on it. And Mars became more real when we landed the first instruments on it, though not as real as the Moon, or real in the same way.

Tyler Cowen’s prompted me to have similar thoughts about nuclear war. He’s posted some remarks on Elaine Scarry’s book about thermonuclear weapons, and one of his commenters posted a link to a NYTimes review of that book by Richard Rhodes. The weapons are fully real in the sense I’m exploring. We’ve created them and we’ve tested them. We know that they work.

And we’ve used atomic weapons in war, two of them on Japan at the end of World War II. But that’s it, so far. During the so-called Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union built up huge stockpiles of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, but we never used them, though we may have come close at times (I’m thinking in particular of the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Why not? asks Richard Rhodes:

Why no one has dared, so far, is probably the crux of the matter, but that is not a story Scarry chooses to tell. Why we Americans collectively agree to tolerate concentrating world-destroying power in the hands of one fallible human being is another story Scarry bypasses, though it goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar logic or illogic of accumulating weapons so destructive that our only hope of surviving them has been to prepare to strike first and destroy an enemy’s weapons before he has time to launch them against us. Why our elected leaders continue to believe that such genocidal weapons are legitimate and moral in our hands, but illegitimate and immoral in the hands of our enemies, rather than eradicating them from the earth, as we did smallpox, is yet another mystery Scarry chooses not to investigate.

That somehow strikes me as in the same zone, broadly conceived, as my questions about the reality of planets we can know about, but cannot walk upon.

In his final paragraph Rhodes criticizes for Scarry missing the point in asserting that constitutional tools exist for controlling nuclear, albeit they are unused. Rhodes counters:

The difficulty isn’t that the kit of tools is missing the right wrench. The difficulty, despite several close calls, is that no one in authority believes the damned things will go off, and so everyone wants to play with them, like treasure hunters wallowing in a vault of golden coins laced with guardian scorpions, like children discovering the loaded gun their parents thoughtlessly neglected to lock away.

That strikes me as terribly on point. The people in authority don’t believe that nuclear war is real and so they want to play around with the weapons.

That marks one boundary of The Real in the sense that interests me. Being able to walk on a space body’s surface, or land instruments there, marks another boundaries. Perhaps climate denial/acceptance is another boundary.

Are their others?

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One Response to “Nuclear War: What are the Boundaries of the Real?”

  1. Charles Keil February 20, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

    Is Scarry pronounced the same as scary? You’ve tactfully suggested that this scary Scarry guy won’t deal with the real. Must be a Republican

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