Tag Archives: Nuclear Weapons

Why Biological Weapons Will Be A (MUCH) Bigger Threat In The Future

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It wasn’t too long ago that the biggest existential threat facing humanity was nuclear war. I’ve noted before how distressingly close we’ve come to a nuclear disaster and how the threat of a nuclear holocaust is still present. However, that threat has abated in recent decades, especially as nuclear weapons have gotten so destructive that their use is somewhat redundant.

More recently, people have become more concerned about the threat posed by advanced artificial intelligence. The idea is that at some point, an AI will become so intelligent and capable that we won’t be able to stop it in the event it decides that humanity must go extinct. It’s the basis of every Terminator movie, as well as an Avengers movie.

While I certainly have my concerns about the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, it’s not the threat that worries me most these days. We still have some measure of control over the development of AI and we’re in a good position to guide that technology down a path that won’t destroy the human race. The same cannot be said for biological weapons.

If there’s one true threat that worries me more with each passing day, it’s that. Biological weapons are one of those major threats that does not slip under the radar, as evidenced by plenty of movies, books, and TV shows. However, the extent of that threat has become more understated in recent years and has the potential to be something more powerful than nuclear weapons.

By powerful, I don’t necessarily mean deadlier. At the end of the day, nuclear weapons are still more capable of rendering the human race extinct and turning the whole planet into a radioactive wasteland. The true power of biological weapons less about how deadly they can be and more about how useful they could be to potential governments, tyrants, or extremists.

For most of human history, that power has been limited. There’s no question that disease has shaped the course of human history. Some plagues are so influential that they mark major turning points for entire continents. The same can be said for our ability to treat such diseases. However, all these diseases had one fatal flaw that kept them from wiping out the human race.

Thanks to the fundamental forces of evolution, a deadly pathogen can only be so deadly and still survive. After all, an organism’s ultimate goal isn’t to kill everything it encounters. It’s to survive and reproduce. It can’t do that if it kills a carrier too quickly. If it’s too benign, however, then the carrier’s immune system will wipe it out.

That’s why even diseases as deadly as Ebola and Influenza can only be so infectious. If they kill all their hosts, then they die with them. That’s why, much to the chagrin of creationists, evolution doesn’t favor the natural emergence of apocalyptic diseases. They can still devastate the human race, but they can’t necessarily wipe it out. It would only wipe itself out in the process and most lifeforms avoid that.

It’s also why the large-scale biological weapons programs of the 20th century could only be so effective. Even if a country manufactured enough doses of an existing disease to infect every person on the planet, it won’t necessarily be deadly enough to kill everyone. Even at its worst, smallpox and bubonic plague never killed more than two-thirds of those it infected.

That’s not even factoring in how difficult it is to distribute these pathogens to everyone without anyone noticing. It’s even harder today because powerful governments invest significant resources into preventing and containing an outbreak. If large numbers of people start getting sick and dropping dead at a rapid rate, then someone will notice and take action.

That’s why, for the most part, biological weapons are both ethically untenable and not very useful as weapons of mass destruction. They’re difficult to control, difficult to distribute, and have unpredictable effects. They also require immense resources, considerable technical know-how, and a keen understanding of science. Thankfully, these are all things that extreme religious zealots tend to lack.

For the most part, these powerful constraints have kept biological weapons from being too great a threat. However, recent advances in biotechnology could change that and it’s here where I really start to worry. With recent advances in gene-editing and the emergence of tools like CRISPR, those limitations that kept biological weapons in check may no longer be insurmountable.

While I’ve done plenty to highlight all the good that tools like CRISPR could do, I don’t deny that there are potential dangers. Like nuclear weapons, this technology is undeniably powerful and powerful technology always carries great risks. With CRISPR, the risks aren’t as overt as obvious as fiery mushroom clouds, but they can be every bit as deadly.

In theory, CRISPR makes it possible to cut and paste genetic material with the same ease as arranging scattered puzzle pieces. With right materials and tools, this technology could be used to create genetic combinations in organisms that could never occur naturally or even with artificial selection.

Imagine a strain of smallpox that was lethal 100 percent of the time and just as infectious.

Imagine a strain of the flu that was as easy to spread as the common cold, but as deadly as bubonic plague.

Imagine a strain of an entirely new pathogen that is extremely lethal and completely immune to all modern medicine.

These are all possible, albeit exceedingly difficult, with genetic editing. Unlike nuclear weapons, it doesn’t require the procurement of expensive and dangerous elements. It just needs DNA, RNA, and a lab with which to produce them. It’s a scary idea, but that’s actually not the worst of it, nor is it the one that worries me most.

A doomsday bioweapon like that might be appealing to generic super-villains, but like nuclear weapons, they’re not very strategic because they kill everyone and everything. For those with a more strategic form of blood-lust, advanced biological weapons offer advantages that sets them apart from any other weapon.

Instead of a pathogen infecting everyone it comes into contact with, what if it only infected a certain group of people that carry a specifics traits associated with a particular race or ethnic group? What if someone wanted to be even more strategic than that and craft a pathogen that attacked only one specific person?

In principle, this is possible if you can manipulate the genetics of a disease in just the right way. Granted, it’s extremely difficult, but the potential utility makes it more useful than a nuclear bomb will ever be.

Suddenly, a government or terrorist organization doesn’t need a skilled assassin on the level of James Bond to target a specific person or group. They just need the right genetic material and a working knowledge of how to program it into a synthetic pathogen. It could even be made to look like a completely different disease, which ensured it didn’t raise any red flags.

It’s not the ultimate weapon, but it’s pretty darn close. Biological weapons with this level of refinement could potentially target entire groups of people and never put the attackers at risk. As a strategy, it can effectively end an entire conflict without a shot being fired. Those infected wouldn’t even know it was fired if the pathogen were effectively distributed.

It’s one of those weapons that both terrorists and governments would be tempted to use. The most distressing part is they could use it in a way that’s difficult to detect, let alone counter. Even after all the death and destruction has been wrought, how do you even prove that it was a result of a bioweapon? Even if you could prove that, how would you know who made it?

These are the kinds of questions that only have disturbing answers. They’re also the reasons why I believe biological weapons are poised to become a far bigger issue in the coming years. Even if it’s unlikely they’ll wipe out the human race, they can still cause a special kind of destruction that’s almost impossible to counter.

Unlike any other weapon, though, the destruction could be targeted, undetectable, and unstoppable. Those who wield this technology would have the power to spread death with a level of precision and tact unprecedented in human history. While I believe that humanity will eventually be able to handle dangerous technology like artificial intelligence, I doubt it’ll ever be capable of handling a weapon like that.

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Killer Robots, Drone Warfare, And How Artificial Intelligence Might Impact Both

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On November 5, 2001, the history of warfare changed forever. On that date, an unmanned Predator drone armed with hellfire missiles killed Mohammed Atef, a known Al-Qaida military chief and the son-in-law to Osama Bin Laden. From a purely strategic standpoint, this was significant in that it proved the utility of a new kind of weapon system. In terms of the bigger picture, it marked the start of a new kind of warfare.

If the whole of human history has taught us anything, it’s that the course of that history changes when societies find new and devastating ways to wage war. In ancient times, to wage war, you needed to invest time and resources to train skilled warriors. That limited the scope and scale of war, although some did make the most of it.

Then, firearms came along and suddenly, you didn’t need a special warrior class. You just needed to give someone a gun, teach them how to use it, and organize them so that they could shoot in a unit. That raised both the killing power and the devastating scale of war. The rise of aircraft and bombers only compounded that.

In the 20th century, warfare became so advanced and so destructive that the large-scale wars of the past just aren’t feasible anymore. With the advent of nuclear weapons, the potential dangers of such a war are so great that no spoils are worth it anymore. In the past, I’ve even noted that the devastating power of nuclear weapons have had a positive impact on the world, albeit for distressing reasons.

Now, drone warfare has added a new complication. Today, drone strikes are such a common tactic that it barely makes the news. The only time they are noteworthy is when one of those strikes incurs heavy civilian casualties. It has also sparked serious legal questions when the targets of these strikes are American citizens. While these events are both tragic and distressing, there’s no going back.

Like gunpowder before it, the genie is out of the bottle. Warfare has evolved and will never be the same. If anything, the rise of combat drones will only accelerate the pace of change with respect to warfare. Like any weapon before it, some of that change will be negative, as civilian casualties often prove. However, there also potential benefits that could change more than just warfare.

Those benefits aren’t limited to keeping keep soldiers out of combat zones. From a cost standpoint, drones are significantly cheaper. A single manned F-22 Raptor costs approximately $150 million while a single combat drone costs about $16 million. That makes drones 15 times cheaper and you don’t need to be a combat ace to fly one.

However, those are just logistical benefits. It’s the potential that drones have in conjunction with advanced artificial intelligence that could make them every bit as influential as nuclear weapons. Make no mistake. There’s plenty of danger in that potential. There always is with advanced AI. I’ve even talked about some of those risks. Anyone who has seen a single “Terminator” movie understands those risks.

When it comes to warfare, though, risk tolerance tends to be more complicated than anything you see in the movies. The risks of AI and combat drones have already sparked concerns about killer robots in the military. As real as those risks are, there’s another side to that coin that rarely gets discussed.

Think back to any story involving a drone strike that killed civilians. There are plenty of incidents to reference. Those drones didn’t act on orders from Skynet. They were ordered by human military personnel, attempting to make tactical decision on whatever intelligence they had available at the time. The drones may have done the killing, but a human being gave the order.

To the credit of these highly trained men and women in the military, they’re still flawed humans at the end of the day. No matter how ethically they conduct themselves, they’re ability to assess, process, and judge a situation is limited. When those judgments have lives on the line, both the stakes and the burdens are immense.

Once more advanced artificial intelligence enters the picture, the dynamics for drone warfare changes considerably. This isn’t pure speculation. The United States Military has gone on record saying they’re looking for ways to integrate advanced AI into combat drones. While they stopped short of confirming they’re working on their own version of Skynet, the effort to merge AI and combat drones is underway.

In an overly-simplistic way, they basically confirmed they’re working on killer robots. They may not look like the Terminator or Ultron, but their function is similar. They’re programmed with a task and that task may or may not involve killing an enemy combatant. At some point, a combat drone is going to kill another human being purely based on AI.

That assumes it hasn’t already happened. It’s no secret that the United States Military maintains shadowy weapons programs that are often decades ahead of their time. Even if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s only a matter of time. Once an autonomous drone kills another human being, we’ll have officially entered another new era of warfare.

In this era, there are no human pilots directing combat drones from afar. There’s no human being pulling the trigger whenever a drone launches its lethal payload into a combat situation. The drones act on their own accord. They assess all the intel they have on hand, process it at speeds far beyond that of any human, and render decisions in an instant.

It sounds scary and it certainly is. Plenty of popular media, as well as respected public figures, paint a terrifying picture of killer robots killing without remorse or concern. However, those worst-case-scenarios overlook both the strategic and practical aspect of this technology.

In theory, a combat drone with sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence will be more effective than any human pilot could ever be in a military aircraft. It could fly better, carrying out maneuvers that would strain or outright kill even the most durable pilots. It could react better under stressful circumstances. It could even render better judgments that save more lives.

Imagine, for a moment, a combat drone with systems and abilities so refined that no human pilot or officer could hope to match it. This drone could fly into a war zone, analyze a situation, zero in on a target, and attack with such precision that there’s little to no collateral damage.

If it wanted to take a single person out, it could simply fire a high-powered laser that hits them right in the brain stem.

If it wants to take out someone hiding in a bunker, it could utilize a smart bullet or a rail gun that penetrates every level of shielding and impacts only a limited area.

If it wants to take out something bigger, it could coordinate with other drones to hit with traditional missiles in such a way that it had no hope of defending itself.

Granted, drones this advanced probably won’t be available on the outset. Every bit of new technology goes through a learning curve. Just look at the first firearms and combat planes for proof of that. It takes time, refinement, and incentive to make a weapons system work. Even before it’s perfected, it’ll still have an impact.

At the moment, the incentives are definitely there. Today, the general public has a very low tolerance for casualties on both sides of a conflict. The total casualties of the second Iraq War currently sit at 4,809 coalition forces and 150,000 Iraqis. While that’s only a fraction of the casualties suffered in the Vietnam War, most people still deem those losses unacceptable.

It’s no longer feasible, strategically or ethically, to just blow up an enemy and lay waste to the land around them. Neither politics nor logistics will allow it. In an era where terrorism and renegade militias pose the greatest threat, intelligence and precision matter. Human brains and muscle just won’t cut it in that environment. Combat drones, if properly refined, can do the job.

Please note that’s a big and critical if. Like nuclear weapons, this a technology that nobody in any country can afford to misuse. In the event that a combat drone AI develops into something akin to Skynet or Ultron, then the amount of death and destruction it could bring is incalculable. These systems are already designed to kill. Advanced AI will just make them better at killing than any human will ever be.

It’s a worst-case scenario, but one we’ve managed to avoid with nuclear weapons. With advanced combat drones, the benefits might be even greater than no large-scale wars on the level of Word War II. In a world where advanced combat drones keep terrorists and militias from ever becoming too big a threat, the potential benefits could be unprecedented.

Human beings have been waging bloody, brutal wars for their entire history. Nuclear weapons may have made the cost of large wars too high, but combat drones powered by AI may finally make it obsolete.

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Vasili Arkhipov: Another Man Who Saved The World

It’s amazing and sobering to think that there was a point in human history where one person held the fate of the entire world in their hands. We’re a species that can barely be trusted with fireworks. How can we possibly be trusted with weapons so deadly they can end all life on this planet?

Whether we can be trusted or not, these weapons cannot be uninvented. They’re here and they’re a part of the human condition. I’ve made the argument that in some ways, they have benefited the human race. That doesn’t make all the times we’ve come distressingly close to nuclear annihilation any less distressing.

Last month, I highlighted a man who, at one point, held the lives of every person on this planet in his hand. His name was Stanislav Petrov and this year, he passed away shortly before the 34th anniversary of the 1983 nuclear false alarm that almost triggered nuclear war.

That incident was horrifying in that it came so distressingly close to unleashing a nuclear war and due to a computer malfunction, no less. However, there was another incident two decades before that, one that was also disturbingly close in terms of unleashing a nuclear holocaust. Today, October 27th, happens to mark the anniversary of that terrifying, yet sobering event.

Unlike the 1983 incident, though, this is not one of those lesser-known incidents that got swept under the rug for several decades. This involved something called the Cuban Missile Crisis, a terrifying event that most kids learn about in school.

The official story is fairly well-documented. Cuba becomes a communist state, the Soviet Union tries to base mid-ranged ballistic missiles there, the United States is not okay with that, tensions escalate, and eventually, the situation diffuses when both sides realize that negotiating is a lot easier than nuclear war.

Most kids probably know names like Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro. They’re the main players who get the credit/blame for bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. However, there’s one name that few in America or Russia know about. Like Stanislav Petrov, his name is largely an afterthought in history, but at one point, he literally held the fate of humanity in his hand.

His name is Vasili Arkhipov. He was a high-ranking officer in the Soviet navy. What he did on October 27th, 1962, may very well have saved the world, as we know it. The fact that he did this at a time during one of the most tense standoffs in history makes his accomplishment all the more remarkable.

To appreciate what he did, it’s important to understand just how close the Cuban Missile Crisis came to going nuclear. At one point, a Soviet nuclear-armed submarine was stationed in international waters near Cuba. It was then detected by US destroyers and, in a message that seems pretty mixed in hindsight, began dropping depth charges to force it to surface.

Keep in mind, this sub is armed with nuclear weapons. They also had the authority from Moscow to launch those nuclear weapons if they suspected that war had already started. Once those depth charges started dropping, it’s easy to understand why the officers on board thought that the bombs were already dropping.

That’s where Vasili Arkhipov enters the picture. On that sub, every ranking officer believed that they had to launch. Their sub was running out of air and as far as they knew, if they surfaced, they would only be inhaling radioactive fallout. Everyone on that sub voted to launch. The only one who didn’t was Vasili Arkhipov and because of that, the launch never happened.

Why did Arkhipov’s vote carry so much weight? Well, before he had the fate of the world in his hands, he’d already distinguished himself in an incident involving an ill-fated Soviet submariner called K-19. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis, it resulted in a sub-par movie.

However, the movie did get one thing right. Vasili Arkhipov was a badass who knew how to make hard decisions. Why else would he have been played by Harrison Ford? That incident established Arkhipov as someone whose voice carried more weight than most in the Soviet navy. Even when he was outvoted and outranked, he could make decisions and other people would follow them.

That’s a big part of what sets someone like Vasili Arkhipov apart from Stanislav Petrov. You could argue that Petrov was just in the right place at the right time to make the right decision. That alone makes him a hero.

With Arkhipov, the decision wasn’t as clear-cut. He was an officer in the navy. He had a rank, a responsibility, and a role in one of the most tense geopolitical situations in the history of mankind. He was in a floating coffin surrounded by enemy ships with every other officer wanting to launch a nuclear strike.

He could’ve easily chosen to go along with his fellow officers. Given how badly humans respond to peer pressure, that would’ve been the easiest thing for Arkhipov to do. The fact he chose otherwise is a testament to his ability to do the right thing in a moment where the right thing is hard to grasp.

To appreciate just how hard that decision was, Arkhipov wasn’t even praised for his decision. In fact, he and his crew were disgraced for surfacing in the first place. Sure, he averted a nuclear holocaust, but he didn’t follow the proper protocol that he should’ve after being discovered by the Americans.

Granted, that protocol didn’t involve starting a nuclear war, but it showed weakness during a geopolitical shit storm. This wasn’t like the the 1983 incident in that it could be swept under the rug. This was the Cuban Missile Crisis. You don’t call something a crisis unless it’s that big a deal.

That’s what makes Vasili Arkhipov’s actions on that day all the more remarkable. He was not praised, commended, or even celebrated for his decision that day. He might not have even realized that he had the fate of the human race in his hands at that moment. Remember, he made that decision at a time when, for all he new, nuclear war had already started. Despite that, he did the right thing.

Unlike Stanislav PetrovVasili Arkhipov didn’t live long enough to see his accomplishments acknowledged. He died in 1988 in relative obscurity. He may not have a holiday or a monument named after him, but like Stanislav Petrov, he made a decision that saved the world.

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It’s still scary to think that any one person was in a position to make such a decision to begin with. However, the fact that both he and Petrov were able to do it says more about humanity than any weapon ever will.

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Just How Close Have We Come (And How Close ARE We) To Nuclear War?

For most of human history, we could take comfort in one simple fact. No matter how brutish, crude, or stupid we were, from burning witches to fighting wars over a stray dog, we could never screw up so badly that we would destroy our entire world. Sure, we could leave some pretty noticeable scars, but we could never outright destroy it.

That all changed on July 16, 1945 in Los Alamos, New Mexico when the first atomic bomb was detonated. It’s impossible to overstate how significant that moment was in the history of the human race and not just because it helped end World War II, thereby inspiring countless war movies for decades to come.

For the first time in the history of planet Earth, a species that had evolved to hunt, gather, and pick nuts out of elephant shit had the means to wipe itself out, along with most other life. At the height of the Cold War, there were approximately 64,500 active nuclear warheads. That’s enough destructive power to kill every person in the world, and their pets, many times over.

While the number of live nuclear warheads at the global level has decreased, they still have plenty of destructive power to both wipe out our species and render large chunks of the world uninhabitable to any species less hardy than a cockroach. These are, by and large, the most dangerous items mankind has ever created and that includes machine guns, nerve gas, and fidget spinners.

The very existence of these weapons says a lot about the state of our species and where it came from, more so than I can cover in a single blog post. However, in wake of the 35th anniversary of the day when the world, as we know it, almost ended, I think it’s worth emphasizing just how skilled/lucky/crazy we are to still live in an intact world.

Despite the undeniable danger of nuclear weapons, we don’t always treat them with the same care that we would treat the latest iPhone. Several years ago, John Oliver dedicated an entire show to highlighting the sorry state of America’s nuclear arsenal. Even if you only believe half of what a comedy news show tells you, it’s hard to take much comfort when weapons of mass destruction are involved.

What happened on September 26th, 1983 was terrifying in just how close we came to nuclear war. Many would make the argument that this incident was the closest we, as a species, came to destroying ourselves. I would tend to agree with that argument. Unfortunately, it’s one of those arguments that has an uncomfortable breadth of details.

It’s true. There have been more incidents that could’ve easily escalated to terrifying levels. Some were simple accidents that could’ve warranted far more than a demotion. Some where intense, geopolitical ordeals that went onto inspire major Hollywood movies starring Kevin Costner.

In any case, the stakes were painfully high. You literally can’t get much higher than a nuclear war that wipes out billions. We’ve managed to avoid it, but we’ve come so uncomfortably close that it’s a miracle the world is still spinning. A video from the YouTube channel AllTimeTop10s nicely documents some of these incidents. If you feel like you’re having a bad day, this should help provide some context.

I’ll give everyone a moment to catch their breath, vomit, or a combination of the two. I promise nobody would blame you. Knowing how close we came to nuclear war and how bad it could’ve been, we should all share in a collective sigh of relief every day.

However, as bad as these past cases have been, there’s no guarantee that we won’t face something similar in the future. There’s also no guarantee that there will be someone like Santislav Petrov to make the right decision when those situations come around.

That said, the situation today is very different than what it was during the Cold War. Say what you will about ongoing talking points about Russia. It’s not even in the same hemisphere at it was in the 50s and 60s when the United States and Russia seemed eager for an opportunity to go to war.

The world of geopolitics has evolved, in many ways, beyond the concept of two competing superpowers engaging in a nuclear dick-measuring contest. These days, increased globalism and a more interconnected economy makes that kind of geopolitical strategy untenable and counterproductive.

In a sense, globalization and the economic bounty that came with it made war of any kind, nuclear or otherwise, a losing endeavor. As I’ve noted before, even the most evil billionaires in the world prefer that the world remain intact so they can keep enjoying their billions. That’s just common sense and shameless self-interest.

That might offer some comfort, but there are those much smarter than I’ll ever be who still have concerns. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who have been gauging the likelihood of nuclear war for decades, we’re two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. This is their statement on the matter.

For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.

Since I’m an aspiring erotica/romance writer and not an atomic scientist, I am woefully unqualified to contest the conclusions of these individuals, let alone argue them. They cite a new wave of tensions between Russia and the United States, as well as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. These are not the same conflicts that fueled the Cold War and that uncertainty has many understandably spooked.

Me being the optimist I am, I tend to believe that world leaders, however deranged or misguided they may be, prefer that the world remain intact. Nobody wants to be the leader of a smoldering pile of ash. There’s no way to build a palace, a harem, or a giant golden statue of themselves on a foundation of ash. That’s as good an incentive as anyone can hope for in avoiding nuclear war.

Unfortunately, human beings don’t always act rationally and are prone to making stupid decisions that change the course of history. One mistake in a situation involving nuclear weapons might be all it takes. Only time will tell, but the extent to which we’ve survived thus far should give us all reasons to be hopeful and thankful.

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How Nuclear Weapons Have (Kind Of) Had A Positive Impact On Society

There are just some ideas in society that cannot and will never be justified. Concepts like sexual assault, spousal abuse, and the premature cancellation of “Firefly” usually come to mind. Some things are just so awful that the world would be objectively better if they didn’t exist.

Well, I’m going to put on some extra layers and change the locks on my doors this morning because I’m about to justify the existence of something that many rightfully dread and for entirely understandable reasons. I imagine my position will upset a certain crowd of people, especially the peace-loving hippie types that are fond of the sexier, more decadent stories I’ve written.

That’s because I’m going to spend this article justifying the existence of nuclear weapons. Given how I’ve covered just how close we came to nuclear annihilation about 35 years ago that may seem like a complete reversal. I promise there’s a logic to it, albeit a distressing kind.

First off, let me make clear that I find nuclear weapons abhorrent. The fact we have weapons that powerful and no killer aliens/superintelligent apes to justify them reflects the sad, chaotic state of affairs of our civilization. The idea that just one of the handful of nuclear armed countries can slaughter millions on the whim of an itchy trigger finger is nothing short of terrifying.

However, and this is where I’m sure I’ll lose the hippie crowd, they may also be responsible for our growing ability to avoid war and cooperate with one another. Please set the pitchforks down for a moment. Let me explain myself, at least as much as any aspiring erotica/romance writer can on such a sensitive topic.

Most of people alive today don’t remember a world without nuclear weapons. Sure, they’re terrifying in their destructive potential, but we’re kind of used to their presence. Most people today don’t give them a second, a third, or a tenth thought. The fact they’ve only ever been used twice in a conflict limits the impact of that terror.

Even if entire generations are numb to it, that doesn’t change the inherent horror or the destructive capabilities of these weapon. These weapons don’t just kill a few hundred or a few thousand people. They kill millions, and even billions, of people. At a time when any event that kills more than tens of thousand people is considered a global crisis, most people can’t even wrap their heads around such horror.

It’s because of that horror, though, that nuclear weapons incurred such a significant impact on the world. It’s not the kind of impact that we feel every day, but it’s one that has shaped the mindset of our society in the late 20th and 21st century. How it did that requires a little perspective that’s not easy for anyone under the age of 75 to understand.

Despite what cable news and conspiracy theories/performance artists may claim, the last 50 years have seen an unprecedented decline in war. That may evoke some heavy scoffs from those who hear terrible news out of Iraq and Afghanistan at least twice a day, but the data doesn’t lie.

Since 1945, there hasn’t been a major world war involving major world powers. Sure, there have been smaller proxy wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Korea. However, those wars never even came close to the staggering death toll of World War II. Fittingly enough, that was a war ended by nuclear weapons, but it’s really the events that played out in the decades after that war that showed the impact of those weapons.

Now, thanks to weapons that could wipe out entire continents, nations couldn’t wage war on the same level they had for centuries past. Before the 20th century, a nation going to war with another was seen as standard business practices. You couldn’t call yourself a powerful nation without going to war and sending thousands of young men off to die on a battlefield. Some even tried to paint that kind of thing as glorious.

With nuclear weapons, there’s nothing glorious about incinerating entire cities in the blink of an eye. There’s no room for heroism, gallantry, or warrior spirit. One second you’re a live, flesh-and-blood human. The next, you and everything around you is a pile of radioactive ash. That fundamentally changes the image of war.

Suddenly, nations have a very good reason to not go to war, especially with a country that has nuclear weapons. It’s not just their soldiers that will die. It’s every city, town, and village within their borders. Even the most brutal, sociopath-like ruler can’t overlook the high cost of such a war. Most rulers enjoy the perks that come with ruling. Going to war is the quickest way to lose it all.

That’s the biggest impact that nuclear weapons have had, as a whole. They’ve made large wars on the level of World War II impossible, if not downright suicidal for all those involved. Say what you will about the ineptitude of modern nation states, but in general, they want to survive.

Making war that untenable is an objective good, on some level. Granted, that good is only achieved through the sheer terror and destructive potential that nuclear weapons possess, but the result is still the same. Going to war is no longer a viable means for a nation to grow. Instead, nations grow through economics and instead of war stories, that gives us smartphones, cars, and exotic music like K-pop.

Regardless of how you feel about K-pop, it’s much less destructive than any war. It could be argued, and I would tend to agree, that the lack of a major war is a big reason why the 20th and 21st century has seen the hugest economic growth, as well as the greatest reduction in global poverty, in recorded history.

Beyond just making nations too reluctant/terrified of going to war, nuclear weapons have had another impact on how global powers function. In the past, major nations went to war for stupid, petty reasons all the time. Why be diplomatic about anything when war is so much sexier? That’s how the British Empire got to be one of the largest empires of all time.

Then, nuclear weapons come along and suddenly, nobody can afford to be that petty anymore. Now, fighting a stupid war that could escalate for stupid reasons runs the risk of seeing your glorious empire reduced to ash in the span of a day. Nuclear weapons are just that powerful.

Fear, being such a powerful motivator, makes nations more inclined to talk a problem out rather than sending in the army. It requires them to make more of an effort to talk to rival nations, make mutual deals with them, and not rely so much on bully tactics because one might have a larger army. When nuclear weapons are involved, the size of an army means less than the size of their shoes.

That’s why, despite a fair amount of bravado on the geopolitical stage, modern nations generally prefer diplomatic solutions over war. When the alternative is nuclear annihilation, even the most petty rulers will opt to negotiate. As chaotic as the world might be, the presence of nuclear weapons makes war untenable and diplomacy indispensable.

Whether out of sheer terror or begrudging pragmatics, the advent of nuclear weapons has changed the way that modern nations conduct themselves on the global stage. By nearly every measure, that method is an improvement over the bloody wars of the past.

Most people who aren’t kings, despots, or related to one can’t appreciate the benefits of a world where war is so untenable, due to the presence of real doomsday-level weapons. Perhaps that’s for the best. So much of our time as a civilization has been spent dreading when we’ll be conscripted to fight a bloody war for some ambitious king/tyrant/emperor. Not having to live our lives with that fear counts as an improvement.

Now, as beneficial as this on some levels, it doesn’t discount the true danger of nuclear weapons. Make no mistake. These things can and will destroy us all if we use them, even on accident. The stakes literally cannot be higher when such weapons are involved, but if they help us function better as a species and a society, then I think that gives at least some merit to their presence.

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In Memory Of Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who (Literally) Saved The World

Stanislav Petrov

Today is an important day, one that became even more important this past year. You probably didn’t realize it and for good reason. Until recently, the significance of this day had been lost to history, but it’s a day that deserves recognition, albeit for a very sobering reason.

This day became one of the most significant days not affiliated with a holiday sale at the mall on September 26, 1983. On that day, the world as we know it almost ended. That’s not a hyperbole. That’s not a conspiracy theory out of a an Alex Jones fever dream either. It’s painfully true. The world almost died in a nuclear fire on that day, but it didn’t because of a decision made by one man.

That man’s name is Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov and if you were alive on that day, or were born after it, then you owe your existence to this man. For a brief moment on that day, 35 years ago, he literally held the fate of the world in his hand and he made the decision that saved it. As someone who regularly lauds superheroes and the values espoused in comics, even I can’t overstate the significance of what that man did.

The incident that almost ended the world and made Stanislav Petrov a man for the ages widely known about until the mid-2000s. It involved an incident in the former Soviet Union that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. In terms of worst case scenarios, this ranked right up there with an invasion by aliens armed with atomic anal probes.

At the time, Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces and had been on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. In terms of Soviet defense strategy, his role in that bunker was pretty damn important. It was tasked with monitoring Soviet air space to detect an incoming nuclear attack.

It’s worth mentioning that this was a time of heightened tension. President Reagan, at the time, was going long and hard on anti-communist rhetoric. Being a former Hollywood actor who’d just been elected President, the Soviets had no idea if this guy was just going to shoot nuclear missiles at them because he thought it would make a great movie.

In a sense, this was the worst possible time for the systems at the Serpukhov-15 bunker to give a false alarm, but that’s exactly what happened. In the middle of Petrov’s shift, the systems began blaring every alarm it was possible to blare, telling them that America’s new Hollywood President had done just what they’d feared. He launched a full-scale nuclear attack to wipe out the Soviet Union.

I’d say it’s a nightmare scenario, but no amount of killer clowns armed with chainsaws can do justice to this kind of horror. As far as the men in that bunker knew, their country and everyone they loved was about to die in a nuclear inferno. It was the policy of the USSR and the Red Army to respond to any nuclear attack with a devastating retaliation, as specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.

It was Stanislav Petrov’s job/duty to inform the Soviet high command of the detection. Every bit of his military training demanded that he inform his superiors to retaliate, thereby destroying the United States and Western Europe in reign of nuclear fire. In a state of such heightened tensions, he might have been justified in doing so.

All it took was one call to his superiors. That would’ve been it. That would’ve ended the world, as we knew it. Try and think about that for a second. In that moment, the fate of the world and billions of lives lay on the shoulders of Stanislav Petrov. If he makes that call, then the world as we know it is over.

However, in that moment when he literally had the world on his shoulders, he didn’t make that call. In that moment, he made a decision that saved the world and its future. He did it by not following the protocol that he’d been trained to follow and by the Soviet Union, no less, who were not known for being understanding to disobedience.

Petrov, with his duty and the weight of the situation bearing down on him, believed it to be a false alarm. He had good reason for believing this. The systems were detecting only several missiles, which was pretty small, given the sheer size of America’s nuclear arsenal. If America’s Hollywood President really wanted to wipe out the Soviet Union, he definitely would’ve used more.

Even so, his training and his duty told him to inform his superiors. He only had 15 minutes to do so because that’s how long it took for a detectable missile to reach its target. That’s right. In the time it takes to watch an episode of “Robot Chicken,” Stanislav Petrov had to make a decision that would’ve determined the fate of this entire planet.

The fact that no nuclear bombs went off and billions of people didn’t die is proof that he made the right decision. It was later determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the erratic orbits of the Soviet’s satellites.

It seems so trivial now, but keep in mind that these were tense times during the Cold War. It really didn’t take much to spook either America or the USSR. It could’ve easily become a perfect storm, of sorts, for accidental nuclear annihilation and nobody would’ve been left on this planet to admit they screwed up.

It’s because of Petrov’s decision that day, to not follow protocol and trust his instinct, that we avoided Armageddon. For that decision, Petrov received no metal, commendation, or recognition for his decision. He just got a pat on the back, which was the most anyone could hope for in the Soviet Union at that time.

This man literally saved the world in the most painfully literal sense, but was quickly forgotten. There were no parades, movies, or free tickets to a Madonna concert. Petrov just went back to living his life until he retired from the military.

It really wasn’t until 2004 that Petrov began getting recognized for his actions, that day. By then, though, the weight of that moment had lost its place in the public consciousness. The fact I have to write about it on this blog shows just how little awareness this man and that fateful day have in the annuls of history.

Well, in this year, that day became a lot more important because back in May, Stanislav Petrov passed away at age 77. It wasn’t widely reported. It didn’t even get mentioned on any of the major news outlets in America or Russia. This man who saved billions of lives isn’t even alive anymore to appreciate.

He lived a quiet, unremarkable life towards the end. He never considered himself a hero. He never even tried to put that label on himself. He was just the right man in the right place to make the right decision. In doing so, he saved billions of lives and preserved the future of this planet.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the decision that this man made on that fateful day 35 years ago. Some may brag that they saved the world or are arrogant enough to think that they can. Stanislav Petrov didn’t need to brag because he did it. He saved this world and most people will never know what he did.

Now that he’s passed, let’s all take a moment to appreciate what this man did. By trusting his instinct and his humanity, not wanting to make the decision that would destroy this world, he proved just how heroic a person could be in the worst of circumstances.

From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of all those who are alive because of the decision made that day, thank you Mr. Petrov. Thank you for doing the right thing in the worst of circumstances. This world is still spinning because of you. Rest in peace knowing you saved it.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Jack Fisher's Insights