We are living in the most extraordinary and dangerous of times, while trying to navigate through waters we have yet to begin charting with any accuracy or confidence. The entire story of the human race can be divided into two periods, a true before and after, and that dividing line can be precisely delineated down to the second: 16 July, 1945, 5:29:45 am. That was the moment the first controlled nuclear detonation took place in the New Mexico desert, culminating years of work and the two billion dollars that went into the Manhattan Project. When the atomic bomb lit up the pre-dawn sky, in a flash “brighter than a thousand suns,” a new age of commoditized mass destruction, indeed extinction-level power, had dawned, and the world has never been the same.
Physicist Kenneth Bainbridge immediately grasped the significance of the sinister raw power they’d just set loose into an unsuspecting world, declaring, “Now we are all sons-of-bitches.”
We live far enough along the human timeline to look back and clearly see the demarcation points of history, and we have enough of the story, both of the before and the after, to make intelligent assessments of the far-reaching impacts of those seminal events – whether it be the birth of a prophet, a great discovery, a natural disaster, or the final resolution of a war. However, we are barely on the other side of the divide of the dawn of the Nuclear Age…the greatest moral challenge humankind has ever had to confront. What do I mean by this? I am not convinced that humanity has developed the moral grounding to be the wise stewards of such an awesome power. There are currently over 13,000 nuclear warheads dotting the planet, and I am disconcerted by the notion that no weapons system has ever been developed that was left unused.
The great promise governing these weapons of mass destruction is that MAD (mutually assured destruction) will keep any conflicts hemmed in and local, for the risks of nuclear war in which both parties are annihilated is seen by all sides as unacceptable. As such, since 1950, the United States and its primary adversarial nuclear powers – China and Russia – have engaged in limited proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and other flashpoints. However, during that short window of the global after, we have seen the Damoclean sword of nuclear holocaust come dangerously close to dropping on more than a few occasions, October 1962 being the most well-documented.
I reflect on this because what we are seeing in Ukraine is a true test of the post-Nuclear Age. For the first time since 1945, we find ourselves facing the prospect of a first-rate nuclear power engaging in outright warfare against a non-nuclear opponent…but one that has the sympathies and tacit support of the nuclear-armed West. There is, however, a terrible downside to MAD. While it has arguably kept a fragile Pax Nuclear in the world, preventing us from reliving the horrors of the Somme or Stalingrad, it has also hemmed us in regard to our real options, should we be confronted by a nuclear state gone rogue. Today, we face just such a scenario in the form of an unapologetic despot, whose goals are conquest and re-establishment of what he sees as a great empire of the Tsars and Soviets.
Put simply, Putin has made the calculation that he could attack Ukraine without fear of an armed alliance directly challenging his armed forces. He need not fear the kind of Allied military intervention that stopped Hitler from realizing his megalomaniacal ambitions. Consider this thought experiment: would Great Britain and France still have declared outright war on Germany in 1939, when the Wehrmacht entered Poland, had we been in a nuclear age with Nazi Germany armed to the teeth with such weapons? What could the West have really done? Would Churchill have even risked vaporizing his beloved British Isles just to protect far away Poland, in what was in essence a border war between ancient enemies in a region that has never known peace or stability since the fall of Rome? What could the Allies have done? I can’t game that out. MAD works, really works, only when each side fears the others’ responses to the point where they act responsibly. This military strategy requires leaders to behave in rational ways, but what if someone with 4,000 nuclear weapons at their disposal calls MAD’s bluff?
We are seeing just such a scenario as the vexing limitations of MAD unfold before us. A calculating man like Putin surely knows that, in a war against NATO, his 40-mile convoy of trucks heading for staging areas around Kyiv would not have lasted a day under the guns of marauding US A-10s with clouds of superlative F-22s flying top cover. Such a response, however, could very well lead to World War III, and that would be an existential threat to our species. For this reason, NATO, in all its superior military might, is impotent, for it cannot even enforce a no-fly-zone – despite Zelensky’s pleadings.
Putin certainly underestimated the ferocity of Ukrainian resistance – reminiscent of the Greeks’ spirited defense of their nation against Mussolini’s legions in 1940. As such, Putin’s timetable for subduing his neighbor has been upended. He likely did not expect the unity of response and punitive actions taken against Russia by the world at large. Still, he has correctly taken the measure of a Nuclear Age still in its infancy by gambling the West, for all its economic sanctions and peripheral attacks on his nation’s business infrastructure will not directly intervene with boots on the ground or fighters in the sky. A perverse application of MAD is in play. Therefore, despite much of the world’s justified outrage, we can only do so much as we watch Ukraine be overrun.
Since 2008, Putin has made three encroachments against his neighbors: in Georgia, the Crimea, and now Ukraine proper. Three times he has been allowed to proceed. The West had no choice. If history has taught us one thing, it is that once wars start, no one can really tell in which direction events beyond our control will move the world. Just a century ago, it took barely two years for Europe to lurch from a single gunshot in Sarajevo to the agony of Verdun. Few in power in 1914 saw it coming.
The question is: if Putin does get away with this, if his nuclear umbrella does protect him from direct Western response, what next? The Baltic states, too, were part of the USSR, and there is no doubt that he has his eye on them. However, unlike Ukraine, they are a part of NATO, whose core mission statement is “an attack on one is an attack on all.” Let us hope Putin doesn’t push his luck. It will be harder for the West to allow such an incursion the next time around, and NATO membership will be meaningless.
As we navigate our way through this terrible minefield of the Ukraine invasion, we must, as always, make calculations based on what Churchill called the diabolical mathematics of war. Do we risk incinerating billions and ending all that we have built as a species since time immemorial – our progress in science, the arts, history, culture, indeed all we are – to protect one nation in a border war, however just the cause or tragic the imagery? I do not envy anyone in power having to run the numbers and make just such a calculation.
This is the world of the “after” in which we live. Let us hope Putin is an anomaly, rather than a harbinger of things to come. Though, one need only to glance at Taiwan to see that this new age of MAD turned on its head may have only just begun, courtesy of the self-described “sons-of-bitches” in a remote desert 77 years ago…a mere blip in the historical timeline. Let us hope humanity is in the beginning of a second lasting age, rather than our collective denouement. Only time will tell. Those who are reflexively calling for a hawkish response may want to take a step back and consider the reflections of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant and mercurial leader of the atomic bomb’s development. While watching the great man-made fireball curling over 30,000 feet into the air, he recalled the ominous words of the Bhagavad Gita running through his head: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.