Our Suicidal Moment
Last week, as war raged in Ukraine, I was at a dinner party—the first one in a very long time. I got to spend time with an old friend and his girlfriend, and got to rejoice in the fact that my buddy has finally found someone with whom to share his life. We ate excellent food, drank even more excellent wine, and laughed until it hurt as we reminisced about the good old days. When I left he said, “Love you, man,” and I said it back.
That life, their future together, is not worth a NATO intervention in Ukraine—or what is the same thing, a “no-fly zone,” which would kick off World War III. Like billions of individual human souls in South America, Central America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who have less than nothing to do with “preserving Ukrainian democracy” and “standing up to Putin,” my friends do not deserve to die in a nuclear holocaust or a subsequent winter. President Barack Obama said as much during a 2016 interview in the Atlantic regarding U.S. versus Russian interests in Ukraine: “We have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.”
To take Obama’s geopolitical analysis a step further, there are greater and lesser moralities, and it is worth examining why so many commentators and average citizens seem to be taking the prospect of nuclear war so lightly, as we live through the greatest silent, sustained threat to humanity since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The stakes are apocalyptic but our political and military leadership and the blue-check geniuses on Twitter do not seem to care. Like blustering Western leaders of ages past, this group seems willing to risk it all for their “master of the universe” sense of superiority. As Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told MSNBC in a recent, essential piece on how we might have averted this crisis, “It was the desire of Western governments not to lose face by compromising with Russia.”
Or perhaps their behavior can be explained by the culture wars and the virtue signaling which has become the currency of the realm. A gesture towards moralism. Saviorism. Nancy Pelosi chanting, “Slava Ukraini!” as if that means something to her. Grandstanding from a deep need to pretend that they care about democracy and freedom, perhaps even to convince themselves that they do. We’ve been here before, but unlike Saddam Hussein, this enemy does have WMDs.
In a recent piece in the Spectator, Harry J. Kazianis, senior director at the Center for the National Interest, recalls a chilling response he was given in 2012 by a retired Russian diplomat regarding Russia’s considerations vis-à-vis nuclear war. “If anything threatens our ability to exist as a nation and prosper, it is my view that we would use nuclear weapons.” For those who are only capable of thinking from a Western point of view, in which the primary values are liberty and the acquisition of wealth and comfort, no “sane” person could have an actual atomic red line. But Putin is not a man of the West and his concerns are not liberty and comfort. His concerns are spiritual, and historical. Russia is not merely a nation-state to Putin, but an encompassing metaphysical empire.
And he hasn’t been shy about warning us that he is willing to go the last full measure of destruction. On February 8, during a press conference after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin paused, and sighed, with the expression of a powerful man who is frustrated and confused he hasn’t been heard:
I want to stress this one more time, I’ve been saying it but I very much want you to finally hear me and deliver it to your audience in print, TV, and online. Do you realize that if Ukraine joins NATO and decides to take Crimea back through military means, the European countries will automatically get drawn into a military conflict with Russia? Of course, NATO’s united potential and that of Russia are incomparable. We understand that. But we also understand that Russia is one of the world’s leading nuclear powers and is superior to many of those countries in terms of the number of modern nuclear force components. There will be no winners, and you will find yourself drawn into this conflict against your will. You will be fulfilling Article 5, and in a heartbeat, even before you know it.… President Macron of course doesn’t want this, and I don’t want it. I don’t want it.
Watch the clip. It’s profoundly unsettling in its banality. Putin doesn’t seem deranged in the slightest. He seems like someone who is trying to articulate his red lines very clearly.
On February 27, Putin placed his nuclear strategic forces on high alert, saying, “top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country.” And while tough language is no excuse for gassing up your ICBM’s, the rhetoric has been beyond aggressive.
A plethora of U.S. senators and representatives, as well as former Canadian and NATO military leaders, have been explicit in their calls for a “no-fly-zone” or declarations about the inevitability of conflict between NATO and Russia. Rep. Mike Quigley says that Putin’s attack on Ukraine is an attack on NATO and we should act accordingly. Senator Lindsey Graham has called for Putin’s assassination. And not insignificantly, on March 1 a resolution was passed 426-3 by the U.S. House of Representatives, stating, “NATO’s relationship with Ukraine is a matter only for Ukraine and the 30 NATO allies.”
Not to be outdone, Sir Richard Barrons, who served as chief of Britain’s Joint Forces Command from 2013 to 2016, went on the BBC February 28 and left the interviewer speechless. He claims that public opinion—after watching mass brutality against the Ukrainian people—will eventually force NATO governments into war with Russia. The interviewer then asks, “But this is a nuclear armed country, which has indeed threatened nuclear force, and put its nuclear forces on heightened alert just in the past 24 hours?” Sir Richard’s reply? “It is, and so, this is going to be a really tough test.”
As this detailed cartoon simulation illustrates, even a conventional NATO-Russia War is likely to go nuclear. More importantly, that is also the assessment of wargames conducted by American military thinktanks. And as previously stated, Putin has been clear he would go nuclear as soon as Article 5 is triggered.
A famous Russian, Anton Chekhov, once wrote of dramaturgy, “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” The nuclear rifle in our story has been onstage since August 1949. To assume logos will overrule pathos and keep the safety on eternally is to misunderstand human behavior. The end has almost happened by accident several times during the past 73 years. And even once after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1995. Louis Beres, who has devoted his life to the topic is concerned that “the worst does sometime happen.”
The leader of our American nuclear forces is taking the possibility very seriously. In an under-publicized congressional hearing that took place March 1, Admiral Charles Richard, opened his testimony by thanking the committee for allowing him to appear virtually as he had chosen to remain at his headquarters in Omaha. That’s STRATCOM at Offutt AFB where the execution of a nuclear war would take place. Congressman Salud Carbajal asked the Admiral what he is doing to manage Putin’s escalation of placing his nuclear forces on high alert. Admiral Richard replied:
Congressman, one, that’s part of why I’m in Omaha, it’s a part of our ability to assess and be satisfied in terms of our defensive posture. I am satisfied with the posture of my forces, I have made no recommendations to make any changes, and part of that is because right now, all I’ll say in open session is the nations’ nuclear command and control is in its most defended, most resilient lineup that its ever been in, in its history. And I’ll be happy to go into more detail as to why I say that as well as more discussion of what we see and what we’re doing about it in closed session, sir.
Our command and control aircraft also took an unusual flight recently.
If the worst did occur, here are some projections. Billions might die of starvation (predominantly in already starving nations); huge swaths of the Northern hemisphere would be reduced to Chernobyl like no-go zones; and 34.1 million people would die in the first two hours. Many more would die slow, agonizing deaths of radiation poisoning. Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry says it would be the “end of civilization.”
And yet citizens and journalists are able to say things like, “Nuclear winter would be very bad, but I read a bunch of papers on it a few years ago, and our massively reduced stockpiles, plus the fact that we use less wood in buildings now, plus global warming, mean global crop failure is no longer likely.” Or, “Are we going to let Putin dictate how we live our lives?” In one exchange on Twitter, someone asks, “You don’t believe he will use nukes?” The reply: “We have them too.” It’s no surprise civilians are in this headspace; that line of thought has been echoed by the French foreign minister.
It is precisely because the West is in decline that we are willing to entertain this sort of martyrdom. The anomie of modern life has caught up with us, the grotesque and unstoppable technological revolution has ripped out our human bearings and replaced them with dopamine hits from followers and likes, our pursuit of comfort and ease has made us weak and anxious. We know this; we can feel it in the air. And Covid-19 has exponentially increased our sense of detachment.
A recent piece in the Atlantic shared some readers’ comments about what we should do vis-à-vis Ukraine. There is one I cannot get out of my head:
I’m tired of watching news where everyone is afraid to do something because of some guy who can easily push that button to launch nuclear missiles. We just allowed this guy to be the bully that no one stops. We fear to help the weak, since the bully would ruin our day and make us suffer. That seems to me like we’re allowing the bully to keep bullying. I don’t want to die, I don’t want my kids to die or my friends and neighbors. But, I think it’s time to let the bullies know: no more––no more threats because you have nuclear warheads and we fear you will launch them. I would rather those bullies use their nuclear weapons now, than continue to live in fear for the rest of my life, or knowing my kids would do the same.
It’s chilling because, though utterly suicidal, it is relatable. After two years of daily induced terror, the fear of the unknown has become the most unbearable part of our lives. The new variant, the new case fatality rate, the potential for long term health effects, the ventilator, shot one, shot two, shot three, shot four. In this case, the reader would rather get the nuclear war over with, than spend his life wondering when it might happen. And I’ve seen many such comments. The sentiment that we “might as well get it over with” is rampant.
I do not think we understand what that means. Our imaginations are not sufficiently morbid. Or perhaps in the near absence of everything we once held dear: religion, family, national pride, consumerism, socialization, and pleasure, we just want to feel something. We want to feel a sense of purpose. It feels good and purposeful to wave a yellow and blue flag and scream at an evil KGB relic bent on world domination. It feels good and purposeful to tell your friends they need to get onboard with “saving lives!” But as ever, the lives we are choosing to focus on are the lives that the Matrix tells us matter. They are not Kurdish lives, Yemeni lives, Uyghur lives, Ethiopian lives, Afghani lives, South Side of Chicago lives, but Ukrainian ones. We only see the horror we are directed towards. This is understandable, as it is impossible to take on too much horror at once and all the time.
There are greater and lesser moralities. The greatest is the preservation of innocent life. The greatest amount of innocent life. We have to be very clear eyed about that in the years to come. All the science fiction novels are coming true, and the consequences could be dire, even if the risks seem small. It does not mean giving up on counterbalancing Russia or China to admit, like President Obama did in his interview in the Atlantic, that some things are just more important to them than they are to us. Justice comes in the most unlikely moments, to reach it, you have only to preserve hope, and to preserve that you have to preserve life.
Against a non-nuclear opponent, I believe that the strong have a duty to help the weak, when they can. But, Russia is no such opponent and the Ukrainian people are not weak. And we are helping them with outrageous amounts of war matériel and they are using it to great effect. They should be proud of themselves, a people trampled on throughout history, at the crossroads of empires, for holding their ground. We held ours against the king of England, twice. We earned our liberty in much blood. So have almost all modern nations.
The war in Ukraine is a horror, a surprising turning back of the clock among large states. The images are awful. The refugee crisis is awful. The suffering is awful. But it is not our war, no matter what the media tells you, no matter what the senators tell you. The thought of some catharsis, some little morsel of moral clarity after the years of racial, political, and even medical hate which have been fomented in our confused civilization, would feel good. It would feel good until the first unreal flash of light.
Clayton Fox is a former Tablet fellow who has been published in Tablet, Los Angeles Magazine, Brownstone Institute, and Real Clear Investigations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and read on Twitter as @clayfoxwriter.