By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College
Throughout recorded history humans have used war as the ultimate arbiter for acquiring, defending and expanding—some 14,000 major and minor wars; over one billion people killed.
“War is one of the constants of history and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,411 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.”
—Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)
But 65 years ago a quantum jump in warfare took place—the atomic bomb. Soon the nuclear genie was out of the bottle. More and more countries were eventually able to build or acquire nuclear weapons. North Korea and Pakistan. Soon Iran? There is even a nuclear black market that attracts terrorist groups. Yet, a full-scale nuclear war would destroy civilization and threaten life itself. Even a “limited” nuclear war could escalate into a full-scale one, as could a conventional war among the superpowers. At some point, if civilization is to flourish, loyalty to 200 individual nation-states must be enlarged to include a new over-riding loyalty to humanity as a whole. But, can we do this? Does our brain carry within it the potential to peacefully resolve fundamental conflicts? According to historian Will Durant, history isn’t encouraging:
“Some conflicts are too fundamental to be resolved by negotiation; and during the prolonged negotiations (if history may be our guide) subversion would go on. . . Such interludes of widespread peace are unnatural and exceptional; they will soon be ended by changes in the distribution of military power.”
—Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)
The world’s political and military leaders, we would hope, know that a nuclear war would be catastrophic. But our brain—a brain that evolved from an ape brain—is prone to nationalistic pride, distrusting those who are different, and obeying charismatic authority figures (even monomaniacal insane ones). It’s prone to conforming to the behavior of the masses like good sheep, even displaying ideological fervor.
Now mix in grotesque global economic disparities. Add overpopulation pressures, resource shortages, local ecological collapses and global climate destabilization. Stir in willful ignorance, stupidity, relentless greed, fear, selfishness, indifference, lust for power, primal religious conflicts, entrenched racism, and virulent xenophobia. Sprinkle on more fear, plus our brain’s tendency for simplistic solutions and paranoid emotional responses. Whip it all together and shove it into history’s oven of nightmares. Yes, our political and military leaders must know that a nuclear war would be catastrophic, but. . . .
Nobel Prize-winning philosopher Arthur Koestler observes in the book, Brain, Mind and Behavior:
“The trouble with our species is not an overdose of self-asserting aggression but an excess of self-transcending devotion, which manifests itself in blind obedience and loyalty to the king, country, or cause…One of the central features of the human predicament is this overwhelming capacity and need for identification with a social group and/or system of beliefs, which is indifferent to reason, indifferent to self-interest, and even to the claim of self-preservation.”
Emeritus physics professor Mark Perakh, author of the book, Unintelligent Design, adds his resigned rage:
“Most probably the 21st century will see devastating wars and enormous explosions of barbarism. Humans as a species are the most stupid of all animals. There is hardly anything more stupid than a war, but humans seem to be unable to live without it. The struggle between reason and obscurantism… is just a footnote to the idiocy of wars that humanity sinks into with an inevitable regularity.”
Our existential dilemma
The detonation of even a small fraction of our nuclear weapons could likely result in the greatest catastrophe in human history, one that could unravel much of civilization as we know it and even push us to the brink of extinction. Thus, our policies of nuclear deterrence must never fail. Never! Never! No failure. Ever! Yet, year after year the roulette wheel of human conflicts continues to spin and the minute hand on the doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight.
Is a nuclear war inevitable? Well, one formidable obstacle to lasting peace is the military-industrial complex, itself. All military organizations are trained to fight, to kill. Also, they must have actual or potential enemies in order to justify their budgets. Hence they are designed to be very ineffective at negotiation and compromise, critically important skills we need on this planet today. Somehow we must catch onto this and recognize that one of the greatest conflicts in the world today is between the militaries of the world and the human species.
“U.S. weapons manufacturers actively promote the sale of their products to foreign nations irrespective of human rights abuses, type of government, or aggressive actions against neighboring states.” “…Members of Congress see military spending as a big public works job program—and a source of juicy pork for their states and districts.”
—The Defense Monitor & Center for Defense Information bulletins
For the first time in human history the fate of our entire species is in the hands of a very few decision makers. Do their evolved brains really have what it takes to survive at so dangerous a juncture, to not, sooner or later, make the fatal decision?
“The mind resists involvement with horror as, in a normal person, it resists preoccupation with death. And in consequence we leave the issue of nuclear arms, their control and their consequences to the men who make horror their everyday occupation. It is a reckless, even fatal, delegation of power.”
—John Kenneth Galbraith
End Times Theology
And then there are the tens of millions of Americans who believe in biblical apocalyptic fatalism or Armageddon theology—that Christ can’t return until after World War III. They believe that this “final” war will start in the Middle East and spread and that the eventual destruction of Earth is inevitable. . .except for them, the Saved. Such End Times biblical beliefs have the potential for being deadly in the hands of true believers in the Pentagon, in the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, in Congress, and in the Executive Branch. After all, why negotiate for peace in good faith if God’s apocalypse is at hand? Effective disarmament talks might even interfere with God’s timetable for the world. So, tens of millions of Christian Americans who might otherwise be working and praying for peace are now hoping that nuclear Armageddon and the Second Coming will happen in their lifetime.[i]
According to Dr. Gerald Larue, Professor Emeritus of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies, University of Southern California, Armageddon theology portrays an angry, destructive God who requires absolute blind obedience from those who would be among his chosen ones. In that very demand are the elements of irresponsibility and destruction for the human species. Finally, to quote Blaise Pascal,
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Some closing thoughts
We can no longer sit back and risk blind patriotism, ultra-nationalism, or religious fanaticism erupting in violence. All over the world are trouble spots that could some day escalate into a nuclear catastrophe. Never before has the United States been less secure. The absurdity and tragedy of the human species worldwide wasting over a trillion dollars a year on militarization, to say nothing of the human talent diverted from the real problems of survival on our ecologically endangered planet, is deeply and profoundly depressing to me. But it will be us, the “naked ape”, who are responsible for the demise of our species, if it comes, not the divine fulfillment of some apocalyptic plan prophesied in an ancient book.
“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
—Albert Einstein, 1946
[i]In 2004 at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, Bill Moyers gave his much reproduced speech on Armageddon Theology, easily found on the web. For the entire text, go to CommonDreams.org.