AS AN ANABAPTIST/MENNONITE PACIFIST, I recognise that I cannot expect the nations of the world to operate according to my convictions. But that does not mean that those convictions have no relevance for world affairs.
For instance, I think one can critique US nuclear policies and practices with a perspective inspired by pacifism, but applicable in broad ways to the convictions of non-pacifists (and governmental leaders).
Debates continue, with some intensity, about why the United States used nuclear weapons on Japan in August 1945. Was it to force the intransigent Japanese finally to surrender and save the millions of lives that would be lost in an invasion? Was it to intimidate the Soviet Union, America’s looming big rival? Or was it ultimately simply the irreversible momentum of having created the ultimate weapon with such an enormous expense and effort – if you’re going to go that far, you almost have to use it once you’ve got it.
That third reason is the one that terrifies me the most. We do not know how close the US has come to visiting nuclear devastation on the world again in the past nearly eight decades – but we do know of a number of incidents. Surely there have been other incidents where one of the other nuclear powers came close. The thing is, when you have such a weapon at hand, doesn’t it seem likely you would use it if the circumstances were extreme enough?
When the US accelerated the development of these weapons immediately after they were used, and was unexpectedly countered by the Soviet Union in a shockingly short period of time, we entered an era where the use of nukes by either power would lead to the end of life on earth. The likelihood of such an outcome, ‘mutual assured destruction’ (MAD), it has been supposed, has made it certain that we won’t have an intentional nuclear war.
I actually believe that many of the American nuclear weapons overseers have not been willing to accept that stasis and have continually imagined – and sought to create – a situation where the US could actually fight a nuclear war and win.
Regardless, it does seem our biggest danger is having an unintentional nuclear war (think of the scenario in Doctor Strangelove). And this kind of war seems much more likely the closer warmakers’ hands might be to the nuclear trigger. The greater the tensions, the more aggressive the behaviour of the great powers, the more dependent on military action and less dependent on diplomacy, the more likely that an ‘accident’ might happen.
It strikes me as quite likely that the American Military-Industrial Complex only ever reluctantly backed away from the high alert scenario that seemed to end with the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. At that point, the main publicly acceptable rationale for the American arsenal ended. However, the powers-that-be avoided a significant reduction of this extraordinarily expensive and dangerous arsenal and, remarkably, avoided an open explanation for why the country should continue to devote so many resources to something that would have such a terrible impact would it ever be used.
Obviously, the tremendous financial rewards for the war profiteers gave them great incentives to work to avoid either a reduction or an explanation – and they wildly succeeded in that effort.
Now things are even better for the corporate beneficiaries of American militarism. The Russia/Ukraine conflict has already been enormously profitable and the flow of wealth from the American people to the war profiteers continues to increase.
The downside, though, is that we probably have never been closer to a nuclear conflagration. The trigger fingers are about as close as they can be to taking the irrevocable step toward disaster.
I find it stunning how little this development enters into the public discourse about the American involvement in the conflict. There is always the possibility that some American leader will order that fatal step. Probably more likely right now, US intervention will so threaten the sense of survival for the other side that they will take the fatal step. Much more likely, though, is the unleashing of an unintentional nuclear endgame due to the heightened tensions and heightened aggressions and heightened reliance on military action instead of diplomacy.
I do not know what can be done. At least negotiations are now being talked about more publicly. My prayer is that somehow the United States will back away. No matter how negatively one views Putin, it simply seems crazy to imagine that America’s current approach of exacerbating the conflict can do anything but make things worse – for the Ukrainian people, for all Eastern Europeans, and in reality, for all the people in the world.
More than ever, we need simply to say no to nuclear weapons, no to the American for-profit military system, and no to the idea that the way to fight evil is by the use of overwhelming evil.
See also this panel on nuclear weapons featuring Mennonite pastor Joanna Lawrence Shenk as well as a former director of the Lawrence Livermore laboratories, laying out the current US nuclear policy. (h/t to Tim Nafziger)
© Ted Grimsrud is Senior Professor of Peace Theology at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA. Among his books are To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation (2022) and The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why it Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II. He blogs at ThinkingPacifism.net