When social media controls the nuclear codes
An internal dialogue
Of course, the whole thing’s absurd. One must start with that. The very idea of a nuclear war is so overblown, it’s a cliche, it’s even a cliche to talk about how it’s cliched. Physics, as usual, doesn’t care. But the socio-military strategy, and its associated funny-sounding argot—MAD, ICBM, The Nuclear Triad—does involve a level of absurdity that makes it hard to take seriously.
Of course, there’s also the overwhelming pop culture of it all, all those movies and TV shows. David Foster Wallace once said that:
The language of images. . . maybe not threatens, but completely changes actual lived life. When you consider that my grandparents, by the time they got married and kissed, I think they had probably seen maybe a hundred kisses. They'd seen people kiss a hundred times. My parents, who grew up with mainstream Hollywood cinema, had seen thousands of kisses by the time they ever kissed. Before I kissed anyone I had seen tens of thousands of kisses. I know that the first time I kissed much of my thought was, “Am I doing it right? Am I doing it according to how I've seen it?”
Of course, this might explain why whenever I think about the current nuclear threat posed by the conflict in Ukraine that episode of Mad Men comes to mind, the one with the Cuban Missile Crisis, where everyone is still going to work. A lot of the 80s and 90s critiques of postmodernity did have a point—our experience really is colored by media. Having seen a hundred movies about nuclear apocalypse, the entire time we’ll be looking over our shoulder for the camera, thinking: “Am I doing it right?”
Of course, the idea of a pandemic once felt equivalently remote. Too cinematic to be real. I seem to remember that the movie Contagion was the center of a bidding war between streaming services, which fit in well with the level of semi-ironic preparedness at the beginning, those debates over toilet paper. So perhaps it’s indeed worth noting that, objectively, this is the closest we have ever been to nuclear war in my lifetime. Closest by a mile.
Of course, it’s a good thing that Russia is losing the war in Ukraine. Well, good for the Ukrainians. And the various other nations that were threatened by Putin’s desire to reunite the Soviet bloc.
Of course, it’s bad for everyone else, since it means that it’s looking more likely the only way Russia walks away with territory, and therefore gets to declare a “success,” involves the use of a tactical nuclear weapon. Indeed, Russian government officials are coming out and saying it directly:
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said on Thursday that any weapons in Moscow's arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used to defend territories incorporated in Russia from Ukraine.
Of course, this is only necessary since they’re losing the war, which leaves Russia’s strategy to “escalate to deescalate” (literally what they call it) as a way out for them, unless they can hold on to some of the territory they’ve claimed with normal military might. As of now, the United States and the EU have refused to outline any realistic conditions for a peace process, in fact, they seem to be leaving diplomacy in the hands of the Ukrainians, who have demanded conditions like the return of Crimea (annexed by Russia in 2014, so very unlikely to be given back). Which means there’s no end in sight to the conflict as the Western aid continues, like sending advanced weapons, providing battlefield intelligence, and even training Ukrainian soldiers outside the country. Barring the outcome of Russia maintaining a grasp on its regions via normal military might, if this appears to be an existential threat to Russia in that the war is pushed back to Russia’s doorstep (imagine Russian civilians being hit by drone strikes here, drones the US gave to Ukraine) Putin will consider pushing the automatic win button: using a tactical nuke inside Ukraine to defend a contested region or Russia’s border.
Of course, such escalation might seem unimaginable to us. But Putin shows no signs of deescalation, even when it comes to sanctions, in fact, Russia appears to be upping the ante, like how they might have just bombed the Nordstream 1 and 2 pipelines. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in his breakdown of Russia’s disastrous cutoff of their natural gas trade with Europe:
everything Russia has been doing has been incredibly counterproductive from the standpoint of Russian interests.
Of course, that further economic warfare or even outright sabotage of Western assets is “counterproductive” assumes that Putin doesn’t want to end up using nukes, or at least, doesn’t see it as a viable way out.
Of course, Russians wouldn’t do it, right? They wouldn’t start World War III and make the Earth a hell of firestorms just because they wanted the Donbas region. Surely there would be countering forces within Russia.
Of course, I also heard an interview where the reporter said a Russian taxi driver said something like “Wait until we show ‘em our nukes.” It’s kind of hard to imagine a taxi driver in America saying this—it’s just so ingrained in our society and media that nuclear weapons are very bad, and whoever uses them offensively is automatically the bad guy.