Nuclear War: Coping with Absurdity


Predicted fallout patterns from a nuclear attack on the United States. Credit: Warner Schilling.

I just attended another session of my Methods of Military Analysis class with Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute. We’ve been going over methods of combat modeling in recent weeks. Today we got around to modeling nuclear warfare exchanges, during which I noticed that the frequency and intensity of the laughter was much higher than one might expect for the subject matter.

We weren’t laughing out of callousness but out of reaction to the absurdity of it all. The calculations for destroying each of hundreds of hardened missile silos, submarines, and aerial bombers with a high degree of probability is so complex and technical that one cannot delve into the material while simultaneously processing the gravity of the damage to man and material that would result even from a military “victory.”

In a war between nuclear powers, each side is incentivized to preemptively destroy the other’s nuclear warheads by targeting them with one’s own. Once a country has acquired a certain number of deployable nuclear missiles, destroying even 99% of them still leaves that country with the power to kill millions of one’s own citizens. Models that approached complete destruction of the US or Soviet nuclear stockpiles implied genocidal damage. For most of us in the room today, the only emotionally available response other than losing all faith in humanity was just to laugh at what a self-defeating proposition the Cold War threatened to become for entire societies.


  1. jkmhoffman says:

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

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