Nuclear abstraction

By Ryan McCarl

One Wednesday afternoon last quarter, I was sitting in John Mearsheimer’s “Seminar on Great Power Politics,” discussing nuclear deterrence and strategy. In technical, jargon-laden language, students discussed issues like “counterforce” and “countervalue” nuclear weapons (counterforce weapons are targeted at other countries’ nuclear stockpiles, while countervalue weapons are targeted at their cities), nuclear “first strikes,” and the concept of “mutually assured destruction.”

These questions were brought to my attention again as I was putting the finishing touches on my M.A. thesis, which argues that nuclear deterrence will prevent the U.S. and China from ever going to war. The main criticism of my argument, I was told, comes from an article in International Security that argues that the U.S. has achieved “nuclear primary”—that is, that the U.S. could conceivably “disarm” its great power rivals (Russia and China) by using its own nuclear weapons to destroy those countries.

Although my own thesis is a foray into the land of nuclear-weapons theory, I’ve never been very comfortable with such talk. Students of international relations learn to glibly argue about issues of supreme importance, and the discipline’s vocabulary is far removed from the human consequences of war.

Writing in 1987, Carol Cohn had a similar sensation: “What hit me first was the elaborate use of abstraction and euphemism, of words so bland that they never forced the speaker or enabled the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust that lay behind the words.”

None of this means that the withdrawn, bird’s-eye-view perspective of international relations taught in the political science department is wrong. But it does mean that it should be tempered with healthy doses of theory-free reality. Students should learn about war through two lenses: the distant view of the international-relations theorist and the close-up view of the journalist. In the case of nuclear weapons, every statistic-heavy article on nuclear deterrence would be better off with a footnote reminding the reader that they are temporarily entering fantasyland, and that the real story about nuclear weapons can be found in the survivors’ tales and photographs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The broader point, however, is the question about how we should educate ourselves, and others, about war and other social issues. Theory plays several key roles: It can put particular historical events in perspective by pointing out their relationship to other occurrences that have come before and will come after; it can make us more conscious of the assumptions that underlie the way we think about the world; and it can help us simplify and make sense of unmanageable amounts of data. But its major advantage—that it simplifies what is complex—is also its disadvantage.

By abstracting from “particulars” such as human actors (from the executive who makes the decision for war, to the bomber pilots who carry out an order to destroy a city, to the citizens who support a war or protest against it), theory can sometimes obscure the most important facts of a given event: namely, its effect on actual individuals and communities. In the same way, it can brush aside questions of moral responsibility. It is too easy to accept war as a necessary fact of human existence, a condition of group survival, or a “disaster” similar to a hurricane or an earthquake. Doing so causes us to lose sight of the fact that war ultimately consists of individual human actors making specific decisions that can be held up to the light and judged for their own ethical soundness.

One of the aims of education is understanding. Students of history and international relations seek to understand how and why such-and-such an event took place, who is responsible, and what the consequences are. But another, equally important aim should be empathy.

Educators have a key role to play in building a more peaceful and equitable society. By taking the obscured consequences of our foreign policy decisions—as well as our economic and environmental decisions—and bringing them to the fore, educators can help students develop a habit of empathy that is less damaged by long distances, linguistic barriers, and cultural differences.

Ryan McCarl is an M.A. student of international relations.