A gun to the head

I’ve never had the experience of having a gun pointed at me but I’m guessing that it would make me wish mightily for a gun of my own to help even the odds. I do know that whenever my submarine ventured near the Soviet Union we knew that their ships were armed and we took the precaution of keeping at least a few torpedo tubes loaded just to be safe.

So let’s think about this a bit – put yourself in the position of a person walking down the street and realizing that the person in front of you is armed and seems to be watching you. What do you do? The military answer is that capability implies intent – to assume that anyone with a weapon intends to use it, and to prepare for a fight if necessary. The civilian world is somewhat different, but I tend to be a bit pessimistic in that I assume that anyone who went to the trouble of arming themselves on their way out the door is probably willing to use their weapons under the right circumstances. So in the case of encountering an armed stranger on the street I suspect most of us would start looking around for a weapon of our own or, if we were armed, we’d draw our own weapon. And now – possibly through nobody’s fault – we’ve got two armed people pointing weapons at each other…and now what?

So can you assume it’s all a mistake, laugh, and put your weapons away? Probably not – not unless you are willing to bet your life on the trustworthiness of an armed stranger who is pointing a gun at you. And the other person has no more reason to trust you – it’s hard to picture a circumstance in which someone holding a weapon on me could persuade me to put my own gun down and just go about my business without some way to assure my safety. It could be that the best option (short of the police showing up and disarming both of us) would be to just slowly back away from each other until we’re out of range and then go back to our day.

Obviously we can push this story further – we can introduce third parties who are also armed, we can look at the quality of weapons (your AK-47, for example, probably beats my pistol), and we can even include socio-economic issues; all of which are relevant to urban or suburban warfare. But let’s think of this in terms of nuclear weapons because a lot of the issues are the same. What do you do when someone’s pointing a (metaphorical) gun to your head, and how do you get to the point of putting your guns away?

The whole thing started in the caveman days (non-nuclear, of course). Caveman Og had a club, which was great when confronted by caveman Erg and his club. But once Erg invented an axe he had an advantage so Og needed an axe of his own. Then maybe Og and Erg moved on to spears and arrows, knives and swords, guns and cannons, and then onto nuclear and thermonuclear weapons – the latest incarnation of the problem. If you are armed and if I’m within range of your weapons then I had better be armed as well, unless I really, really trust you and your intentions. So when the United States developed nuclear weapons, of course the Soviet Union had to do the same. And when the United States developed thermonuclear weapons the Soviet Union had to follow as well – just as we had to follow suit when Soviet missile technology seemed to overtake ours. Britain and France got into the game because the Soviets had a nuclear gun pointed at their heads, and China joined the club because they had no reason to trust the Soviets either. So for a half-century we lived in a society in which a small group of nations were pointing guns at each other – nobody really happy with the situation, but neither was anyone really willing to be the first to drop their weapon. And who can blame them?

The Non-Proliferation Treaty is a good step, but boy does it call for some delicate work! Let’s say you and I each have a gun in each hand. It might be easy enough to agree to simultaneously lower to the ground the gun in our left hands so now we’re only holding one gun each. But we’ve seen this one in the movies – both gunfighters start to lower their weapons and then one suddenly whips his gun up and blows away the other one. If it was the sheriff we applaud his speed (and we never trusted the bad guy anyhow); if it was the bad guy then we condemn his perfidy and hope he is properly shot later in the movie. But with nuclear weapons the stakes are different – what happens if we lower our guard and the other side goes for the quick draw? When the gun’s pointed at an entire nation and hundreds of millions of people I would suggest the stakes are somewhat higher than in a movie shootout. I might decide to risk my life on a quick draw (or on my trust that you’ll be honorable) – but I’m not likely to bet the lives of my wife, children, parents, extended family, friends, and so forth. How could anyone make a bet like that – to disarm completely and unilaterally – knowing that a mistake could lead to the end of your nation?

I don’t think that anybody today expects a nuclear war between the US, Russia, China, Britain, and/or France. But each of these nations continues to maintain its nuclear stockpiles – and the means to deliver their weapons – and there is no sign that this is going to end anytime soon. So we’ve reduced our nuclear stockpiles by an amazing amount – but we still have more than enough weapons to destroy the others many times over. As long as I am holding a single gun with a single bullet you’d be foolish to holster your weapon, turn, and walk away, no matter how much you might trust me.

Over the decades the US and USSR (and later China) might not have fully trusted each other enough to disarm, but they at least grew to understand that the others were really unlikely to pull the trigger. So we developed a sort of uneasy equilibrium based on our mutual experience and on the certainty that nobody really wanted to face an annihilating retaliatory response.

Maybe we can liken the Cold War situation to a couple of soldiers facing each other, neither wanting to pull the trigger and neither willing to turn and walk away – tense but professional, and with the sort of uneasy equilibrium discussed above. Now, what happens when we add an assortment of meth-addled gangsters and neighborhood watch captains? Well…at the least the equilibrium is going to be upset, and it’s probably safe to assume that tensions – and the number of weapons – will stop going down.

So will we ever get to zero nuclear weapons? In all honesty I have absolutely no idea. Given the enormous national prestige that comes from having them, as well as the terrible risk from NOT having them when faced with nuclear-armed opponents I’ve got to say that I’m not expecting to see a nuclear-free world in my lifetime. After all, I’m not going to eject the last bullet from my gun, leaving you with no reason not to shoot me. But maybe we can at least hope for a world in which there are too few weapons to destroy civilization – where only individual nations (and not all of society) are at risk. That would at least be a step in the right direction.

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7 Responses to “A gun to the head”

  1. armando June 29, 2012 at 10:54 AM #

    yes possibly someone might draw and then claim insanity..
    but you could have another argument here ..u draw 2 pistols for your safety , why must you draw 5022 pistols..

  2. Mark A. Gubrud July 1, 2012 at 10:14 PM #

    It is a shame to see such drivel associated with FAS.

    There are many proposals for how you get to global zero, none of which are addressed here. It does require a program, but imagining a program that could work is not so difficult.

    One nuclear weapon is not a gun to the world’s head, nor to that of any great nation. For example, suppose that, after the US and all other nations announce that the last nuclear weapon has been dismantled, one nation suddenly calls out “Fooled ‘ya!” and reveals a small arsenal it had hidden in a cave somewhere. What happens next? Either that nation has to be prepared to occupy every other industrialized nation, or someone, somewhere, will produce more nuclear weapons to confront the outlaw. Even if a global occupation would be possible, it would face determined resistance. Use of some nuclear weapons to make an example would only stiffen the resistance.

    The idea that the world would surrender to such blackmail is sophomoric; by extension, so is the idea that anyone would attempt it. To ensure that no one even need worry about it, there are many possible hedging strategies, starting with de-alerting, disassembly and stockpiling of components, virtual deterrence and a verification regime.

    A full accounting of stockpiles of weapons and fissile materials is needed, and a phased program for decommissioning. But with US and Russian warhead counts still in the thousands, and other nations’ in the hundreds, there is a lot of room left for unilateral or informal bilateral and multilateral reductions, and a long way to go before one needs to worry about stuff that is hidden somewhere.

    Achieving nuclear abolition involves creating conditions that permit the final steps to be taken. For now, we can be confident that it is possible to create such conditions, even if we don’t know what form they will ultimately take.

    What is primarily lacking is the will of governments to move toward nuclear weapons abolition. Articles like this one help to perpetuate the myth that the nuclear stalemate is a natural condition which there is no way out of, rather than a particular stage of human history which we can already see passing.

  3. Dr Y July 2, 2012 at 1:58 PM #

    I appreciate your comments, although I think that “drivel” and “sophomoric” might be over-stating your objections a bit.

    I agree with you that eliminating ALL nuclear weapons will take a huge amount of political willpower – for exactly the reasons I outlined. In fact, we can see the pushback today and in the recent past with the political objections to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the further objections to arms limitations talks (in the Regan era) and to arms reduction talks today. I also agree with you – and stated as much – that there is room for plenty of disarmament before we get to zero. I think our point of disagreement is on whether or not it is possible to reach zero.

    You are correct that a single nuclear weapon is not an threat to the existance of the US. But the fact is that we have found ourselves making monumental policy decisions based on far smaller threats, such as terrorist attacks that are also not a threat to the existance of our nation. Our reaction to the September 11 attacks – as well as our nation’s reaction to the remote possibility of radiological and nuclear terrorism – belies your suggestion that this scenario (and our response) is “sophomoric.” Rather, I would suggest that our nation – and many others – reacts strongly to perceived threats, and the more potentially devastating the threat the more strongly we respond.

    We thought that chemical and biological weapons treaties had given us a framework to eliminate these weapons from the world, but that has not proven to be the case. The world has made tremendous strides towards this goal, but even these are proving more difficult to erradicate than expected. The bottom line is that getting to lower numbers of weapons – chem, bio, or nuclear – can be done in today’s world (although even this exacts a political cost). But the transition from “not many” to “none” is a LOT more difficult. As you say, we can create conditions that would be conducive to taking such a step, but I think that assuming that this step will be taken simply because the conditions exist is not a roadmap towards abolition so much as wishful thinking. Unless we are willing to acknowledge the psychological and political factors that also have to be addressed we are unlikely to achieve the goal that you and I both agree on – deactivating the last nuke.

  4. Mark A. Gubrud July 2, 2012 at 3:08 PM #

    I found your article very irritating, and though it may be impolite, I don’t think either “drivel” or “sophomoric” are overstatements. Basically, you make an crude, over-dramatic analogy, which may be fitting in one aspect but is completely off-base in others. Yet you draw from it sweeping judgments about a complex and extremely important issue. This kind of thinking is familiar. It is how we all thought about these issues when we were kids thinking about them for the first time. It’s not what I expect to see in an FAS blog.

    Of course you are right that the US overreacted to 9/11, but that hardly lends credence to the scenario of someone popping up with a few nukes in a bid for world conquest the day after nuclear abolition. We would not overreact by surrendering. It takes little knowledge of history or human nature to recognize this.

    And of course, part of the reason complete elimination of chemical and biological weapons is elusive is that for some nations these are a relatively cheap and accessible answer to the nuclear weapons they are confronted with.

    I am not saying nuclear abolition is easy. What I am saying is that it will require creating conditions in which your “gun to the head” analogy is irrelevant. It is likely that in such conditions CBW abolition can be completed as well. But that is less critical, since CBW can be defended against, especially for military forces,
    so they are less destabilizing.

    The only way in which the “gun to the head” analogy is appropriate is the we do still have overkill levels of nuclear missiles with extremely short flight times. Even here, the analogy is weak. As we all know, the situation pictured in your photograph is unstable because if one man pulls the trigger the other one will probably not have a chance to respond. But the nuclear standoff has never presented such a clean “first strike” opportunity. One must expect that enough nuclear weapons will survive to exact an apocalyptic revenge. Even in the picture, each man may fear that the first twitch will reveal the intent to shoot and the other guy will manage to get off a shot. Also, each looking into the other’s eyes may hope that killing can be avoided. As you say, we may hope that the two back away from each other until out of range. But this is not a good analogy for the process of nuclear disarmament, because the survivability of retaliatory capabilities is much better assured, and can be further ensured as disarmament proceeds.

    I am amazed that you still seem to miss the point that in going from many to few nuclear weapons we already make the “gun to the head” analogy irrelevant. You continue to insist that “the transition from “not many” to “none” is a LOT more difficult.” No, it isn’t, because a few hidden nuclear weapons does not constitute a “gun to the head” and any attempt to make use of them will only guarantee a new nuclear arms race and probable world war.

    I think it is possible that going from few to none will turn out to be the easiest thing, and will be finished very quickly and with great joy once we have accomplished the hard work of going from many to few.

  5. Mark A. Gubrud July 2, 2012 at 4:27 PM #

    Of course it only occurred to me what your probable identity is after posting my comments. So I shouldn’t accuse you of thinking about these issues naively or for the first time, and being rude doesn’t help either.

    Maybe it is just the case that you have not thought so much about how nuclear weapons abolition might be possible. Maybe it never occurred to you that in going from the Cold War standoff to a future minimal deterrence posture, particularly under the assumption that it is only a waypoint to abolition, a revolution in consciousness (about this) takes place, making the “gun to the head” analogy seem unfamiliar and distant, something strange, from another era — and that this change in consciousness (or if you prefer, perceptions, relationships and facts) is one of the key things that will make abolition possible, and war between the cooperating powers unthinkable. Maybe it never occurred to you that nuclear blackmail in the later stages of disarmament (or following official abolition) will become implausible, that no national leadership would be crazy enough to consider it and if any were, it would only lead to reversal and rearmament.

    Maybe all this needs to be better articulated and more frequently. Maybe there should be visionaries and advocates for nuclear abolition and radical arms control, making persuasive arguments and taking on deniers without getting mad about it. Maybe this kind of work, and support for it, is even more needed than I thought.

  6. Dr. Y July 2, 2012 at 8:42 PM #

    I would suspect that we agree about much more than we disagree on in this area and that our disagreements lie mostly in the nature and level of difficulties – political and psychological – that might be faced. I would tell the men in my division in the Navy (and my kids too, for that matter) that problem-solving involves more than just identifying a problem – unless there are solutions proposed then it’s just complaining. And, as you pointed out, I was identifying the problem, but not really proposing a solution – not enough room for all that in a relatively short posting!

    I also agree that our discussions should include not only the obvious (arms reductions and ways to get to zero) but also the less obvious (obstacles and how to overcome them). If ever there was a time and place for out-of-the-box thinking, this is it – the biggest difficulty might lie in getting the decision-makers out of the box as well!

  7. Jon July 9, 2012 at 8:42 PM #

    Arms negotiations have been effective at reducing US and Russian stockpiles but there has been no success with preventing proliferation. Arms negotiations won’t totally eliminate nuclear weapons. Global Zero is a Utopian dream. Nuclear weapons will not go away until some new technology renders them obsolete. This has always been the case with military weapons.

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