Patriots Eat Nuclear War for Breakfast

19 May 2022, 1803 EDT

I am not supposed to be worried about nuclear war with Russia. With North Korea maybe. I am told Kim Jong Un isn’t rational and can’t be trusted, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Or perhaps China. It’s ten feet tall, after all. Never mind that our nuclear arsenal vastly exceeds theirs.

But Russia? Nah. Mutually assured destruction, baby. We both have enough nuclear warheads to destroy each other (and the world) several times over. Nuclear war would be MAD. Plus, I have it on good authority that the core insight of the nuclear revolution still holds—nuclear wars are unwinnable—so what would be the point? 

And it’s not just the vulgar science of deterrence theory telling me to be unafraid. Big-league opinionmakers are saying that if I sweat nuclear war, I’ll be playing right into Putin’s hands! They say I need to man up. Be a patriot. 

So what’s a patriotic man? Someone who invites risk of nuclear war, I suppose. Let’s run through some very mainstream, non-partisan examples of such counsel. 

Former NATO Commander Philip Breedlove complained bitterly that the United States has “ceded the initiative to the enemy” and is “fully deterred” by fear of World War III, despite America being fully involved in the war at this point.  

MSNBC pundits are warning that we can’t let fear of Russian escalation affect what we do, other than make bigger and bolder threats ourselves. Some scholars are arguing that “The United States cannot continue to allow its nuclear arsenal to deter itself from fighting.” Again, America has been and remains militarily involved. 

Others insist that if Russia were to detonate a small nuclear warhead for any reason, the United States should “fire one of the new submarine-launched warheads into the wilds of Siberia or at a military base inside Russia.” That’s vertical and horizontal escalation! 

Not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal has been running an endless stream of real headlines like “How Putin Exploits America’s Fear of Nuclear War” and “The U.S. Should Show It Can Win a Nuclear War.” So much for the nuclear revolution. 

Am I mad? Am I somehow not tough or patriotic enough because I’m worried that this manic insistence on masculine responses only is maybe thrusting us toward nuclear war half-wittingly?  

Just after the United States joined World War One, Max Eastman, longtime editor of The Masses, wrote an essay called “The Religion of Patriotism.” In it, he called patriotism “a distraction of men’s minds from the pursuit of truth and from realistic progress. It is the temporary indulgence of a facile emotion.”

What’s notable about the public discourse on Ukraine is that it’s totally within the mainstream of punditry to advise not just ignoring but leaning into risks of nuclear escalation. Is that not jingoism? I fear nuclear patriotism of this sort is substituting emotion for the pursuit of truth in the form of a realistic strategy of least-harm.

The opinions documented above share at least two things in common. First, they want us to make strategically fateful decisions individually, apart from how they fit into a larger context that affects the chances of nuclear war. They’re literally asking us to discount the risk of nuclear war. As such, the arguments are heavier on morality and national role-fulfillment than they are on a strategy of stability.

Second, they share an underlying logic, which is really little more than the Munich analogy. Putin is Hitler (seriously, very credentialed people have made the comparison). He has been emboldened by our “restraint.” And appeasement—which has incorrectly come to mean anything that’s not violence or arms transfers or muscle-flexing—makes the aggressor more aggressive. It therefore follows that only by striking fear into Putin’s heart can we prevent him from escalating the war. Ok, Batman.

Look, you don’t deal with nuclear powers as if the only thing they understand is force. That’s the surest path to deterrence failure. And I’m not convinced that the United States has a theory of nuclear stability at the moment anyway.

In research I published earlier this year, I noted that the Biden administration is composed of a mix of nuclear traditionalists, future-of-war strategists, and arms controllers. Each has a view of nuclear weapons that invites different levels of risk, and god only knows whose views will prevail in a crisis.  

It’s also unclear what the Biden administration’s strategy is for Ukraine apart from nukes, which is especially discomfiting because the United States simultaneously appears to be shifting to more ambitious goals. So no theory of nuclear stability, no obvious strategy, but a more expansive set of goals, and a jingo-filled commentariat espousing masculine virtues. Awesome. (looks for the nausea emoji…)

Let’s remind ourselves of the situation we’re facing. Putin has issued thinly veiled nuclear threats. He’s proven himself to be a bad gambler who cares little for human life. And he’s losing the battlefield war…because he’s a bad gambler who cares little for human life. NATO, it seems, is expanding, again. The United States is providing immense amounts of weapons, ammunition, logistics, and intelligence targeting support to Ukraine. And the United States is squeezing Putin’s oligarchs worldwide, and Russia’s economy is in the tank. 

Even if Putin is Hitler, it seems to me the last thing we want is for him to do the nuclear equivalent of offing himself in a bunker because he can’t face losing so big.

So yeah, I’m worried. Partly because Biden’s team seems emboldened by Ukraine overperforming expectations. Partly because “patriots” are dominating the nuclear conversation. And partly because I have no idea what Biden’s strategy is or how sensitive to nuclear risk his team is.  

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Laughter or crying is what a human being does when there’s nothing else he can do.” If I write with sarcasm or a mocking tone, it’s directly proportional to my worry about the situation. When it comes to nuclear war with Russia, there’s nothing else I can do.