USS Clueless - Preemptive saturation nuclear strike

Stardate 20031024.1532

(Captain's log): Christopher Lansdown writes:

From your glowing descriptions of the possible outcomes, are you sure that a first-strike nuclear saturation bombing of NK wouldn't be a reasonable outcome? Not in response to threats or anything, just a general, "this is what happens to nuclear rogue nations" and NK goes bye-bye?

It's truly morally abhorrent, of course, but would it really be that much worse than the alternatives? I have a hard time believing that it could be a reasonable option, but nothing about NK seems believable right now.

First off, I could never support such a thing, ethically speaking. I wanted to get that out of the way up front because the rest of this will discuss the practical consequences of such an attack.

Ignoring the entire question of ethics, the broad and long-term consequences of such an attack would be catastrophic for us. It would drastically change our relations with the rest of the world, for the worse. It is, for instance, one of the few things I can think of which would cause even our closest friends to turn against us. America would become an international pariah, a nation afflicted with the moral equivalent of leprosy.

There's a risk that it could lead to a larger nuclear war. The Cold War is over, but the missiles we built for that war still exist, and so do the ones in Russia and China. We can't ignore the possibility that one or the other might respond against us, deliberately or through operational mistake, setting off the nuclear armageddon we all hoped we'd never see. The chance is low but the consequences would be horrific.

But I think the worst consequence is that it would eventually destroy this nation, from within. America survives and prospers because for all our arguments with one another, deep down most of us are glad to be part of it and support what this nation stands for, and are proud of it. That is the bedrock on which the foundation of our governmental system stands.

Such an attack by us could shatter that commitment. It could convert collective pride into collective shame; collective support into collective opposition, not just to the administration which ordered the attack but to the system itself, and to the nation itself.

Look at the way the Germans have wrestled with self-doubt for the last few decades after the revelation of the events of the Holocaust. The only way they could keep going was to totally repudiate their past, and to carry the collective stain of massive sin in their hearts and minds. It's ultimately the kind of thing that can only heal with generational turnover. When everyone who was born before 1960 has died, then it will be over, the historical page will be turned, and Germany will move on.

The Nazi government didn't last all that long. It didn't really have enough time to embed itself in everyone's minds, and to create the kind of steadfast and loving commitment which is the foundation of our system. Part of the reason why is that like so many other autocratic regimes, Nazi Germany almost immediately started using fear and repression to guarantee loyalty. It was (properly) seen by Germans as an anomalous event, and for most the question was how they'd managed to let such a terrible thing happen.

We Americans have a perception of national and constitutional continuity extending back more than 200 years. We have black spots on our history, but we've also done many great things, and I think the majority of us feel that deep down we're part of something large, something good, something valuable, something worth supporting and defending even if it isn't perfect and unblemished. We react to recognition of the blemishes not by feeling shame and repudiating the system, but by being dedicated to trying to improve it. The word for that feeling is "patriotism", and it's used respectfully by some and scornfully by others.

Without it, our system cannot survive. If we were to preemptively launch a saturation nuclear strike on NK without provocation, I think most Americans would see it as a terrible thing, a collective sin perhaps even worse than the Holocaust. But its effect on us would be greater than the effect of the Holocaust on Germans; we (most of us) would see it not as an anomalous event but as a demonstration that our system was horribly wrong, and that our belief in it was wrong, and our commitment to it was wrong, and that we collectively were responsible.

There's no close correlation between the facts of an event and the emotional impact it has on those involved. Emotional impact is more complex than that. Some people can be deeply traumatized by relatively mild things; others seem able to go through far worse with only minor effects. Any argument based on a rational comparison of the events of the Holocaust versus a hypothetical American saturation nuclear strike of NK, which tried to rationally argue that the Holocaust was worse, misses the entire point that this is not ultimately about facts, and that feelings aren't rationally derived from facts.

There'd be a voter revolt. The next election would repudiate the decision; the nation would change course. We might even put top leaders who ordered such an attack on trial, or yield them up to international tribunals. But that's only a detail; a new administration would not be able to restore our confidence or pride. Americans would not consider themselves absolved afterwards.

After the war, Germans asked themselves (more or less), "How could we have let them do such a thing?" They recognized a collective sin of commission as a people, but as individuals mostly viewed their own sin as one of omission. There was a perception of a monumentally evil core group of "them" who had actually done it, and a larger, more virtuous group of "we" Germans who might have prevented it but didn't, and thus didn't end up as virtuous as they felt they should have been. (It doesn't matter whether this is correct; what we're talking about is how people felt. Arguments about historical events and whether this view involved rationalization are irrelevant.)

But Americans would ask themselves, "How could we have done such a thing?", a critical difference. Where most Germans felt guilt primarily because they refused to stand against evil, most American would see themselves as having actively supported the system which had led to intolerable evil, and thus see themselves as being part of committing the evil.

Europeans in general see themselves as being ruled by their governments. We Americans tend to see ourselves as willing and committed partners in the system. We may or may not support the current administration, but we (most of us, anyway) support the system itself. We may not have voted for the most recent President, but we still vote in our hearts for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We may vociferously disagree with one another about particular issues, but we deeply and silently agree that we should all be able to speak. And we see ourselves as being actively involved with a government that exists to lead us and serve us but not to rule us. We believe that in the final analysis our government is an expression of what we are, and what we stand for. That's a deep and crucial difference, and I think that it's one of the sources of our strength.

Some political systems can operate effectively without broad support from the citizens. But because of the way we Americans think of ourselves as partners in the governing process and because of the way our system relies on that, ours cannot survive without broad support. If the majority of us cease to support the system itself, and cease wanting to be partners in it, then it will eventually fail. There are dozens of ways it could fall apart, and some of them take decades, but the end is certain. Without that deep citizen commitment, our system would eventually die or be transformed into something unrecognizable.

If our leaders did something profoundly bad, we would not psychologically shift the blame to others. There would be no "them" who did it; it would be "us" who did it. (There might be a "them" who carried it out, but it would be "us" who did it.) I don't think we would survive that by which I mean that I don't think Americans could continue to think of "we/us" and continue to feel pride in doing so.

So if we were to launch a preemptive saturation nuclear strike on NK without any significant provocation, then it would ultimately lead to the destruction of the United States of America as a nation, and as an idea, and as an ideal. I can think of nothing which would be worth such a high price.

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