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War Scare by Peter Pry


What is a book on nuclear war doing in introductory ethics? Plug several hundred million, if not a billion, casualties into an expected value equation and multiply that number by a low probability and you still end up with a horrible expected value. No controlled studies available or necessary. When it comes to nuclear war, all it takes is a horrible sample of one. Prior to the 1980s, Soviet leaders strictly controlled Russian nuclear forces. That situation is gone.


Maybe it is time for civil defense.


Delivering a detailed historical argument, Peter Pry notes most Americans know about the Cuban missile crises, but in the past two decades, Russian alarmism caused other close calls. A Norwegian weather rocket launched in 1995 sent Yeltsin scrambling for the nuclear button. Russians perceive ordinary training exercises by NATO forces as threats. Soviets considered flight KAL 007 a spy plane, and that its destruction in 1983 would send the U.S. into a remember Pearl Harbor response.


Meanwhile, the image of security delivered by a politician at a podium seems to matter more than actual security.


War buffs look at World War Two and wonder why we were so fecklessly unprepared. They should look at the present and future. Americans are unprepared for events that have a far worse expected value than Pearl harbor. Westerners spend money on wrong things while ignoring major problems. From 1986 to 1990, the U.S. badly needed another reconnaissance satellite, but did not have one because of the Challenger shuttle explosion. The military prepares to fight conventional wars, not noticing that almost no one wants to fight a conventional war. Yet Americans are pre-occupied with a top gun mentality.


Pry’s title refers to the faulty belief held by the Russian military that a U.S. surprise attack was imminent. One Russian official bragged that Russia could win a nuclear war with fewer casualties than Russia suffered in World War II.


Pry argues that the Russians have about 1500 dispersed bunkers for its leaders, and Russia continues to build bunkers while Westerners remain oblivious. Russia also has a larger and better protected nuclear arsenal. Russian war plans, claims Pry, continue to emphasize preparations to assassinate American leaders with suitcase bombs prior to launching a nuclear attack. The National Intelligence Estimate maintains that the missile threat is remote. Analysts closest to the problem, however, were not allowed to contribute to the report. Weak conventional forces mean that Russia will rely on nuclear deterrence.


Leaders, from Hitler to Hussein, have shown great willingness to sacrifice fellow citizens while hiding in bunkers. Leaders in bunkers, facing facing domestic turmoil and filled with contempt for their citizens, might see a nuclear war as winnable, especially if they get much of the world to submit to power grabs afterward.


Pry argues that the relationship between nuclear safety and number of nuclear weapons is a U-shaped curve. If there were no such thing as nuclear weapons, we are safe from nuclear war. If the United States has enough weapons to survive an attack and launch counterattacks, we are comparatively safer than if we have only a small number of nukes. Once the size of the U.S. arsenal goes below 3,500 warheads, we start heading toward the bottom of the U. Pry claims the U.S. should not agree to any treaty that reduces the number of warheads below 3,500.


Reasons why having a small number of weapons is dangerous: First, most U.S. weapons may be destroyed in a first strike by an opponent and the ones remaining would be too few to inflict sufficient damage. Nuclear wars become “winnable,” at least in the fantasies of generals holed up in secret bunkers. Second, opponents may have hidden, unverified weapons. The Soviet Union broke numerous treaties, including the treaty on biological weapons. Too much is at stake for blind trust. Third, opponents cannot defeat, neutralize, or accomplish much against conventional U.S. forces. In situations where greed, paranoia, nationalism, ideology, or inadvertence spirals into an abyss, an opponent may be tempted to think pushing a nuclear button will accomplish at least one goal.


In a few years the U.S population will double that of Russia. The American population is much more concentrated in cities. Imagine if Brazil were a nuclear threat. Would we agree to an equal number of warheads with Brazil? If Mongolia were a nuclear power, would we agree to parity with them? In the event of nuclear war U.S. citizens would be the biggest losers among losers. The Soviets, Pry argues, may cut their nuclear forces because they cannot afford upkeep costs. The United States, he claims, should not reciprocate below 3,500 weapons.


Pry writes that it is amazing how much anti-Western rhetoric emanates from top Russian officials even today. Some claim it is just talk, but just talk often ends up in mass murder and has an atrocious expected value. More ominous is the specter of inadvertent war or war caused by Muslims in the Russian military. Russia may be a majority Muslim country by the end of the century.


The U.S. government refuses to tell citizens they should move to rural areas and build fallout shelters because doing so would antagonize Russians and increase paranoia.


Individuals should protect themselves and those they care about. American strategy in a nuclear war consists of punishing enemies, ignoring the protection of U.S. citizens.


Thoughts about life after a nuclear war mostly consist of slogans about life not being worth living, but, strangely, we do not say that after over one hundred million individuals died during the 20th century in other wars. Given the current attitudes, U.S. survivors might resort to civil war or self-loathing or both.


A major weakness of Pry's work is a near absence of counterarguments. Often Pry’s mind reading of Russian motives seems way off. Pry makes the hasty assumption that Russia will spiral into anarchy.


Book review by JT Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009.


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