Comforting words from Martin van Creveld about nuclear war

Summary: Martin van Creveld discusses one of my big fears — nuclear war. He paints a comforting picture. Let’s hope his logic proves correct, and that the forces of irrationality do not take the stage. As they have so often in history.

Buster Jangle atomic explosion
Buster Jangle explosion, 30 October 1951.

 

My Meeting with Mr. X.

By Martin van Creveld.

From his website, 24 August 2017.

Re-posted with his generous permission.

 

Here is a story that took place many years ago — about twenty-five, if memory serves me right. I was conversing with a high-up defense official in the Pentagon; since he is still alive, though retired, I shall not call him by name. He and I had known each other for some years, and I knew that normally he was the most tight-lipped of men. As, indeed, his position required him to be.

That day, however, he was feeling unusually expansive. We were discussing something, I can’t remember what. “Martin,” he suddenly said, “Out of about 30,000 persons who work in this building today, I am probably the only one who has actually seen a nuclear weapon exploding.” And, he added, “It is not at all like what you see on TV.”

From this point the story went as follows. In 1955 — if memory serves me right — Mr. X, who at that time was a young economist cum mathematician, and a friend of his were invited to witness a one of a series of nuclear tests being conducted by the U.S Army in Nevada. Along with many others, they were told to sit down in the desert, about three miles from ground zero. Wearing goggles, they were ordered to turn their backs to the planned site, close their eyes, and put their faces on their arms and knees. Also, for heaven’s sake not to turn around and look before counting ten from the moment of the explosion—or else, if they did so, they would go blind.

If these arrangements sound primitive, that is because they were. This, after all, was the period when U.S combat aircraft, carrying nukes, were standing at the end of runways in West Germany, ready to take off. With little if anything to prevent them from doing so if, for example, one of the pilots went mad. In Nevada, though, there was no time for ifs and buts. Both men were understandably worried about the possibility that they might turn around too early. But they did as they were told, waiting for the explosion to take place.

Mr. X

It turned out that they need not have worried. Not because the detonation was not powerful, but because it was much more powerful than they had thought. Miles away from ground zero, with their backs turned to it, with their faces on their arms and knees, wearing goggles and with their eyes closed, Mr. X and his friend actually saw it taking place. How was this possible? Because the light, reflected from the rocky soil, was so strong as to go right through all the obstacles that had been put in its way.

“Since then,” he concluded, “I have been walking around with an idea in my head. Let there be assembled, every few years, a gathering of all the world’s heads of government. Bring them to Nevada or to some other suitable site, and make them watch a real-life nuclear test. It might drive the fear of God into their heads.” And, by doing so, contribute to world peace.

“It might indeed,” I countered. “But consider the following. There could be, among all these people, a few who do not see your point. Instead of concluding that nukes are too awful to use, they might just say: ‘How wonderful! I too want a couple of these things. Just in case!’” Whereupon we both laughed.

Nuclear Kraken
Release the Kraken! Art by lchappell.

The rest of the story.

Why am I telling you this story? Because we now have, in the White House, the wildest, least restrained, president in the whole of American history. One who even many of his supporters think may be more than slightly mad. One who, by some reports, asked why his country should have nuclear weapons if it did not intend to use them. One who has openly threatened to launch an offensive war against another nuclear power. One whose verbal bellicosity seems matched only by his ignorance of the consequences that could follow if he carried out his threats. Not just for North Korea. Not just for South Korea, not just for the whole of East Asia, not just for the U.S. But for the entire world. Both present and future.

As Clausewitz wrote, many barriers only exist in man’s ignorance of what is possible. With the result that, once they are torn down, they are not easily set up again {On War, Book VIII, chapter 3b}. In plain English: if one nuclear weapon is used in anger, then it is very likely that all will be. And sooner rather than later.

There is, however, a silver lining. A few days after the crisis in Korea started, it seems to be more or less over already. The threats, instead of being translated into action, are beginning to fade into history. As, given that no nuclear weapons has been used in anger since 1945, so many other nuclear crises have in the past.

So perhaps Mr. X was right after all. If the prospect of a nuclear war can deter a Trump, then presumably it can deter anyone. Even a Hitler, if you ask me: see on this my recent book, Hitler in Hell. Meaning that proliferation, rather than nonproliferation, is the right route. If not to peace on earth and the brotherhood of men, at any rate to preventing major war between major powers.

———————————-

Editor’s afterword about a grimmer look at our future.

I am less confident than Martin van Creveld that the world will not see the a nation use atomic weapons, with the risk that once that line is crossed — others will do so. If using nukes becomes normalized, the world is on the fast track to Hell. For a grimmer look at our future, see Fix “the button” so that a president can’t wreck the world.

Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW — preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war in the fascinating Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (see the chapters about modern gaming, wargames for the people).

Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

He has written three books about Israel: Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan Toward Peace, The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force, and a biography of Moshe Dayan.

Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than ours!). Even more so are his books about western culture: Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?, The Privileged Sex, and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West.

And perhaps most important for us, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State— describes the political order unfolding before our eyes. Also see this remarkable book: More on War (2016).

His latest book is Hitler in Hell, a mind-blowing memoir by one of the most remarkable men of 20th century.

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2 thoughts on “Comforting words from Martin van Creveld about nuclear war

  1. Oh god Trump is going to kill us all. I like Van Creveld but this “least constrained” President is nonsense. Also, stop with the mad man crap too. This is getting so freaking boring,

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