Monday, September 9, 2013

Seas of glass and the wolves of the world

And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God.--Revelation 15:2, KJV
This verse has always been a favorite of those given to biblical prophecy, for in foretelling the End Times, it provides one of those descriptions that seems to represent something more modern, a kind of event unknown at the time of its writing (generally agreed to be in the first century of the Common Era). To whit: "a sea of glass mingled with fire." What exactly that refers to, in the context of the world of two millennia past, is hard to imagine apart from wild-eyed imagination.

But in the modern world, it sounds very much like the aftermath of a nuclear strike, especially if such a strike took place in a region with a lot of sand. Thus, those given to biblical prophecy see the nuclear devastation--in some part of the world--as an element of The End of Days. Even if the reading is a little stretched, it's not an unreasonable basic assumption, that nuclear war is tantamount to the coming of the end, whether in a religious or non-religious context.

Of course, this was the fear across the globe for many decades after the conclusion of World War II and the advent of the Atomic Age, for the entirety of the Cold War, that any type of major conflict could lead to a global holocaust because of these new weapons, thus the many attempts to avoid such things through treaty, disarmament talks, and the like. Still, the threat of a nuclear response from the United States, the Soviets (and then the Russians), or the other nations who acquired these weapons served as a kind of deterrent. Indeed, this continues to be the case even today and explains why still other nations have been trying to become members of this particular kind of "nuclear family."

But it is an unquestioned fact that of every nation on earth, in all of history, only the United States has actually used these kinds of weapons in war, at the end of World War II when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decision to do so is now second-guessed almost as a matter of course by armchair historians throughout the world.

One of the most common (phony) arguments in this regard is that the United States dropped the bombs for no valid military reason, as Japan had already surrendered or was in the process of surrendering prior to the first bombing run on August 6, 1945. It's wholly untrue; Japan refused to accept the Potsdam Declaration--which called for an unconditional surrender by the Empire of Japan--and was even preparing for a Russian invasion in the time immediately prior to the bombings. Japan's leaders still believed they could negotiate a peace that would allow them to retain some of their mainland conquests--on the Manchurian Peninsula--and not be forced to disband their armed forces.

Another common argument is that the bombing was still ultimately unnecessary, since Japan was beaten and would soon surrender, just to avoid a Russian invasion, if nothing else. But passing such a judgment from the outside, decades later, is a very different thing than assuming it to be the case in the middle of a very bloody and global war. As above, Japan had the opportunity to surrender and it passed. After Hiroshima was bombed, Soviet forces invaded Japanese Manchuria (Manchukuo), putting even more pressure on the leadership of Japan. But even then, even after Nagasaki was bombed on the same day the invasion began, some in the Japanese military argued against surrender. In the end, the Emperor stepped in and forced a surrender on August 14th (which was predicated, by the way, on his assumption that he would retain his position).

One thing that must be remembered when considering all of this is that at the time, no one really knew what dropping these bombs meant, in either the short or long run. There was some fear that they might not even detonate. And simply threatening Japan with an unknown new weapon was a pointless exercise, regardless. The question was whether or not dropping the bombs would be "worth it," strictly from the standpoint of the United States and its military. There was no need to fear a reprisal, there were only the calculations to make with regard to ending the war without a land-based invasion of Japan or ending it with one. And military leaders in the United States largely agreed that such an invasion would lead to casualties in excess of one million (with half that number being deaths), just for Allied forces. Total casualties were anticipated to greatly exceed five million.

Thus the decision to proceed is easily understood in the moment. Given the options, it was judged to be the best available one, in order to end the war as quickly as possible and minimize U.S. casualties. And of course, that is exactly what happened. This is no small point, as it serves as a fundamental basis for how United States foreign policy would be largely perceived from that moment forward, even after the Soviet Union became a nuclear power: the United States--to the rest of the world--was very much a cowboy, willing now to take offense quickly and revisit in spades such an offense, militarily speaking.

I discussed the Cuban Missile Crisis previously; note that it was a crisis exactly because of this perception. Kennedy "won" the confrontation exactly because of this perception. As much as we--in the United States--worry about rogue states possessing WMDs and the like, the rest of the world worries (or at least it used to worry) about the fact that the United States is willing to use them, even if only in retaliation. This perception softened for a while under the leadership of President Carter, but it returned the moment Reagan took office. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak: the Soviets were thrilled with Carter and his SALT treaties, as it took the pressure off of them to keep the status quo with the United States, militarily speaking.

It's a tough point to understand, much less accept, these days because it flies in the face of the basic propaganda offered up by both "sides" during and after the Cold War. But the basic Soviet inaction of the period speaks volumes. The Soviets, after all, were the ones interested in world domination, in spreading communism throughout the world. The United States, in general, was content to coexist with all other governments, provided its citizens were free to explore economic opportunities with the same, or at least were not in danger of having their international activities curtailed by those foreign powers.

But despite all of the posturing, all of the threats, the Soviets never really engaged the United Sates or any of its primary allies directly with military action. Not because it lacked the capability to do so, not because its leaders feared war, but because they assumed the United States was willing to employ its nuclear arsenal. The Soviet build-up in nuclear arms was not about mutually assured destruction, at all. It was about achieving a level of superiority over the United States such that the United States would not use its arsenal for fear of a Soviet reprisal, even if the Soviets invaded Japan, Australia, or even Western Europe.

And again, the message sent by Kennedy, Reagan, and other U.S. Presidents--via interaction with the Soviets and other international conflagrations--never deviated from the one delivered in 1945: the United States would take any action it deemed necessary to protect its interests and citizenry. Any action.

That is deterrence, real deterrence. Again, as I noted previously, it no longer exists with regard to U.S. policy or the perception of the United States in the world at large. Some might argue that this is a positive development, that the United States is fundamentally better off--along with the rest of the world--without the "cowboy" image, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But I think such a view is overly optimistic and fails to account for one fundamental issue: many other governments--and other factions--are and can be led by madmen, with goals greater than simply leading a nation and advancing its basic interests. For such men (or women, to be fair), their own people are tools to be used. This is nothing new, of course. History is replete with examples of such fanaticism.

That said, I can still understand the counter argument, insofar as the United States--with a democratically elected supreme leader--is not beyond the same sorts of conditions. And yet historically, that hasn't really happened (unless one happens to be a frothing-at-the-mouth-George-Bush-is-the-antichrist kind of liberal). And going back to a previous point, I would argue that this is because the U.S. government is predicated on the existence of a free market economy, above all else, and the consequential capitalism of the system will overshadow ideological goals at the end of the day for the country as a whole. In other words, conditions are such in the United States that no truly fanatical and dangerous leader will ever come to power (the same can be said about many other nations as well, but none are as large or as powerful militarily as the United States).

The upshot of all this is that the United States was positioned to play the part it has played; it's "cowboy" role, however distasteful to some, kept the world at relative peace after the World Wars (the Pax American I have also spoken of). It's willingness to act, to use even its most horrible weapons, in service to this role (which again is a reactionary one) is what kept--for some sixty years--the wolves at bay.

But as should now be clear to all, in the United States and throughout the world, it has surrendered that role and there is no one else to fill it.

Cheers, all.

1 comment:

  1. Mmm. Thought-provoking. Who's going to be next super-hero, I wonder? China? (It's sure making inroads into Africa.)