Nuclear Warfare: A Conflict of Deterrence

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Nuclear warfare is often posited as essentially different from conventional warfare.  Certainly they are conceived of as so, since dominating the cultural imagination in the Second World War (Gamson, 1989, 2).  Dozens of films have been made depicting disasters caused by nuclear war in the past few decades, especially when the threat was most imminent during the cold war, and these films generally depict nuclear weapons as distinct from other violent weapons of war (Perrine viii, 1998). This differentiation is further mirrored in fiction which heavily suggests that psychologically, nuclear weapons are perceived as different and unique.  But does this psychological classification reflect real differences, or are nuclear weapons simply the most dangerous weapon of war on a continuum of deadly weapons?  Examining the history and the policy trends since the first use of the weapons, I argue that nuclear warfare is different not because the weapons themselves are deadlier, but because their damage is inflicted on all participants in the war; as a result, nuclear states pursue a policy of deterrence through mutually assured destruction (MAD). To evaluate nuclear war and weapons in comparison with conventional war and weapons and determine their difference, if any does exist, I will use two main criteria.  First, I will examine the violent capabilities of nuclear weapons compared to war fought with conventional weapons and second, I will examine how these weapons are interpreted and used in international relations.  I conclude that the difference between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare is not the weapons themselves, as the damage in terms of destruction of lives, infrastructure, and landscape can be matched by other forms of violence; however, the way in which nuclear weapons perform this violence causes them to be interrupted differently, and this different interpretation means that the way political entities view and use them is also different. Nuclear weapons are understood to be distinct from conventional weapons precisely because of their increased destructive capacity, a capacity which negates the goal of warfare.  Here, war is seen as a tactic used for the purpose of gaining power in a struggle between organised political groups. As such, it is a political instrument, “the resort to force to advance political purposes and to settle political conflicts between sovereign communities” (Cohen and Lee, 1986, 9).  In a rational political system, in order to go to war, the party waging it must believe that the end result will be conditions so preferable to the pre-war ones that they justify both the risk and the cost of war.  In short, “the object of war is to attain a better peace.  Victory in the true sense implies that the state of peace, for one’s people, is better after the war than before” (Hart 1974, 353).  If nothing can be gained by war, then it is illogical to wage. Because nuclear warfare has the distinct possibility of destroying whole continents, it can be said it is distinct from conventional war. Moreover, the threat of its use can be utilised as an effective diplomatic tool in a way that conventional war cannot really match.

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