Thursday, August 04, 2016

Trump and The Bomb

Because he's an ignorant thin-skinned bully with ADD,  a lot of people understandably do not want Donald Trump to get his hands on the nuclear codes. Now it appears there's a more specific reason.

It started with Joe Scarborough, who said this on his MSNBC show on Wednesday: “I’ll have to be very careful here,” Scarborough said. “Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on international level went to advise Donald Trump, and three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked, at one point, if we have them, why can’t we use them? That’s one of the reasons he just doesn’t have foreign policy experts around him. Three times, in an hour briefing, why can’t we use nuclear weapons.”

Scarborough did not name his source or the expert involved.  Trump's campaign denied it happened.  But as the LA Times suggested, it sounds like something Trump would say.

In his public statements, even in this campaign year, Trump has been all over the place on nuclear weapons.  And the Scarborough quote--which has been widely misquoted in press accounts, by the way--is entirely non-specific.  Is Trump asking about nuclear attacks on cities?  Or so-called tactical or battlefield nukes?

In terms of policy, even this much could have global implications, and I'm sure there are a lot of worried heads and pained stomachs among higher ranks of the military tonight.

But here's the biggest problem I see.  Trump's statements show a lot of ignorance about the role of nuclear weapons and nuclear policy, but the worst is ignorance of what they really are.  Politico described some of his statements, mostly in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews, including:

Trump also seemed to tell Matthews that he might retaliate against an attack by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, with a nuclear bomb.“Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?” Trump asked.

Politico follows this with a key quote:

He talks about nuclear weapons very loosely, casually—as if they’re just another tool in the toolbox,” said Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit that advocates nuclear arms reductions.

Such talk, while unusual these days for a major party presidential candidate, nevertheless reflects--it seems to me--a dangerous tendency in contemporary life and especially in popular culture.

After all, it's been more than 70 years since what are now relatively small atomic bombs destroyed two Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands.  It's been 50 years or so since any media has covered a nuclear test blast with pictures of the mushroom cloud.  The realities of radiation haven't been topics for decades.

These days, nuclear explosions are just video game effects.  Movies depict nuclear explosions as just bigger than usual blasts with mushroom clouds, and seldom come close to acknowledging actual consequences.  (The 2014 remake of Godzilla is a notorious example.)

The last time there was any serious explanation of what nuclear bombs are really like was during the brief debate in 2006 over the Bush administration's plans to use so-called nuclear bunker-busters against Iran.  (Cooler heads prevailed.)

I wrote about this at the time, and have written extensively on the subject--for example, here.  But here are the tweets: Nuclear bombs vary tremendously in size, but the smallest strategic bomb is orders of magnitude more destructive in blast, firestorm and long-lasting radiation than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Though smaller in yield, so-called tactical nukes are still nukes.  They are orders of  magnitudes more destructive than conventional weapons and for long periods of time.  Because their effects aren't controllable, they aren't actual "tactical."

There is no scenario in which "nuking" ISIS (which is after all not a place but a badly depleted army and decentralized terrorist organization) makes any sense, except as insane vengeance.

Nuclear weapons are by their nature doomsday machines.  A nuclear exchange of any size threatens not just large areas of the globe, but human civilization and much of life on Earth.  The latest research suggests that even an exchange of a few "small" nuclear weapons could be enough to kick up poisonous dust high in the atmosphere where it could block sunlight in what used to be called the Nuclear Winter, for long enough to starve out the human race, among other species.

We avoided nuclear holocaust during the Cold War by the skin of our teeth--in some specific instances, by the decisions of single individuals.  The Cold War may be history but the nuclear weapons aren't.  Some analysts believe the threat of an accidental nuclear exchange is higher now than during the Cold War.

Nuclear weapons are restrained by leaders who understand, at least dimly, the consequences. The one leader who has talked the most loosely about them recently is Putin, though presumably he has some idea of what they are.

  And now, there's Donald Trump.

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