Gaslighting the Nuclear Fuse

This article, “Fear Mounts that Ukraine War Will Spill Beyond Ukraine Borders,” appeared in The New York Times a few days ago. I single it out as an instance of the collective gaslighting that now seems to prevail in “the West” regarding the war in Ukraine. The article starts out like this:

For nine weeks, President Biden and the Western allies have emphasized the need to keep the war for Ukraine inside Ukraine.

A better way of putting this might be to say that for nine weeks, President Biden and his allies have pretended to hope that the war for Ukraine stays within Ukraine, while hinting simultaneously at regime change for Russia, while dragging all of Europe into a proxy war with Russia, and while demanding that the rest of the world, Europe and beyond, join in an embargo of Russia. Having done this, the President and his advisers now express surprise and alarm that the war might be spreading beyond Ukraine.

Truth to be told, the surprise and alarm don’t sound all that convincing:

“Nobody wants to see this war escalate any more than it already has,” John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman said on Wednesday when asked about Russia’s nuclear threats. “Certainly nobody wants to see, or nobody should want to see, it escalate into the nuclear realm.”

Right. This is the same Pentagon that has, in the same breath, decided to escalate the war from the defense of Ukraine to a defense-in-depth of the whole world from any further Russian aggression (ever), a “defense” that essentially requires the wholesale destruction of the Russian military, the removal from power of Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s prosecution for war crimes at the ICC. In other words, no escalation is involved in treating the outcomes of World War I and II–Versailles plus Nuremberg–as the fundamental goal of a war that began a few weeks ago.

As for the nuclear “realm,” I’m afraid that’s a “realm” we already inhabit by virtue of having nuclear weapons and promising to use them. But if you want to drive the risks of nuclear war sky-high, you couldn’t have thought of a better strategy than the US Government evidently has: demand unconditional surrender by Russia, impose indefinite sanctions, promise to destroy Russia’s military capacities altogether, flourish the specter of regime change before a nuclear-equipped nation, describe Putin as a war criminal, and then propose to put him on trial in a court whose jurisdiction the United States itself rejects. In short, up the ante all the way, then express surprise that it’s high as you’ve made it.

I know, I know. That sounds really “anti-American.” I actually am pretty anti-American, but just to be clear, I’m not blaming the US Government for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Let’s just get this out of the way so that no one confuses me with John Mearsheimer or Tucker Carlson: It’s Russia that’s to blame for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Russia that’s guilty of the primary escalation involved in that invasion. So yes, let’s hold the Russians as responsible for this invasion as we were, for say, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not even the irrationality of our NATO policy can justify what the Russians have done.

That said, it is a question worth asking how eager the United States is for peace in Ukraine. I think its actions declare loudly and clearly that it is not interested in peace at all. It wants, even welcomes, a prolonged, miserable war that it gets to watch from afar as the combatants turn one another into a bloody mess. Start, for instance, with the efforts made by other countries, including close allies of the United States, to end the war.

Talk of a diplomatic resolution or even a cease fire—attempted at various points by the leaders of France, Israel and Turkey, among others—has died out.

How much political capital did the United States spend on any of these efforts, or any of its own? Essentially none. We don’t have to hold the U.S. responsible for the Russian invasion to see that what attempts at peace talks the US has made were made in transparently bad faith, focused on peripheral issues (e.g., weapons control) that were irrelevant when the talks were underway and are obviously a dead letter now. As for the diplomatic efforts of other countries, the U.S. has simply not been interested. What we have here is a re-play of the prelude to the 2003 Iraq War: sensible countries are making efforts to put an end to the war, with France yet again repeating its futile efforts to restrain the bloodthirsty zeal of its Atlantic partner, as it did in 2002-3; meanwhile, the United States remains deaf to their entreaties, ready in Nancy Pelosi’s words, to fight “to victory,” at least as long as someone else does the fighting for them.

So the blunt, cynical way of putting things seems like the right one: the United States does not want peace in Ukraine. Its perceived interest–partly strategic, partly ideological, partly economic–lies in a prolonged war with Russia that revives the Cold War in order to win it for good, finishing the job we began in Afghanistan in 1979-80, even if we finish the whole world in the effort.

Strategically, it’s not enough to bring a quick end to the fighting in Ukraine; we need to defeat Russia so that we can focus single-mindedly on defeating China, and eventually restore our hegemony in a unipolar Atlantic-centered world. Ideologically, a quick end to the war doesn’t serve our interests, either; our brand of liberalism has taken some hits in the last decade, and so, a big win against an illiberal regime would be a big tonic. And financially, expensive as the war may be, our defense industries need a pick-me-up after the downturn in business they’ve suffered since the pandemic, and also from the demoralizing scenes in Afghanistan and elsewhere, which almost seem to suggest that the fancy gadgets they make and sell us have little bearing on whether we win or lose the wars we manage to get into. Attention must be paid when there’s money to be made.

That these interests are to be advanced at little perceived cost to us, at colossal cost to the Ukrainians, and at the risk of all-out nuclear war, can all easily be discounted by victory-oriented rhetoric that oscillates between the ominous and the optimistic, sometimes within the same news cycle. One day, the Russians are ready to take over the world. The next day, they’re having trouble taking over a given Ukrainian neighborhood. Once war begins, logic ceases to matter. Once that happens, contradictions cease to be noticed.

The only “argument” given for our involvement in this war is the repeated assertion that the invasion of Ukraine is a replay of the Nazi invasion of Poland. This unargued dogma gets defenders of the war everything they want without having to make any arguments for anything else. If we equate the two things, then everything beyond Ukraine is a domino ready to fall to the invincible forces of the Russian blitzkrieg. Give them the Donbas, and they’ll take Kyiv and Lviv. Give them Lviv, and they’ll take Warsaw and Prague (though not, I guess, Budapest). Give them those places, and next they’ll be in Berlin and Paris. After that, London. After that, the Hamptons, followed by Russian tanks barreling down the Long Island Expressway. (Honestly, if they can get down the Long Island Expressway in rush hour, more power to them.)

Then there are the (undeniable) atrocities the Russians are committing. Satellites detect burial sites, also known as “cemeteries.” The cemeteries become “mass graves.” The “mass graves” become evidence of “genocide.” Genocide implies a second Holocaust. The shameful memory of our appeasement and passivity during the last Holocaust–yes, we launched the Normandy invasion, but we didn’t bomb the railways to Auschwitz!–reminds us of our totemic moral mantra: “Never again!” This, I guess, is where someone’s supposed to cue Churchill’s speech. “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in Donetsk. We shall shall fight in Mariupol. We shall fight on East Montauk…” Or at at any rate, we shall arm the Ukrainians to do so.

Does any of this really make sense? In general, the adoption of an explanatory hypothesis is thought premature until it’s weighed for plausibility against competing hypotheses. You can’t, in other words, simply equate the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the Nazi invasion of Poland until you’ve considered other possibilities, including other invasions that either fit the case better or fit it equally well.

It turns out that there is no shortage of possibilities out there to consider. In 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria. In 1935, the Italians invaded Ethiopia. In 1936, the Germans, Italians, Moroccans, and Spanish fascists invaded Spain. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Round about 1954, the North Vietnamese government initiated an insurgency against the South, invading it in 1968. In 1961, the United States invaded, or tried to invade, Cuba. In 1967, the Israelis invaded Gaza, Golan, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, occupying them to this day. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. In 1989, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. This is just a small list, but it raises a big question: of all the invasions that have taken place since the 1930s, why is it obvious that the Russian invasion is like the Nazi invasion of Poland, and only like that?

In none of these other cases was it obvious that a “domino-type” hypothesis was the right one for the US to adopt. Nor was it obvious in these cases that the right strategic response was to fight either a hot war or a proxy war against the aggressor, resolving to fight them to unconditional victory, with ever-expanding objectives along the way, bracketing all considerations of risk or cost. Whatever you think of the Spanish Civil War, or the Japanese invasion of China, or Vietnam, or Afghanistan, it isn’t obvious that what we should have done was to arm the Spanish Republicans, or arm the nationalist Chinese, or arm the South Vietnamese, or arm the Afghan mujahidin, get completely embroiled in whatever war they decided to fight, throw our lot in with them, and risk the possibility of all-out war with the Nazis in 1936, or with Imperial Japan in 1937, or in Communist Vietnam in the 1950s, or with the Soviets in the 1980s. Actually, in hindsight, some of these decisions look like mistakes, to put it mildly.

But turn Putin into Hitler, and the Russian Army into the Wehrmacht, and Ukraine into Poland, and 2022 into 1939, and you don’t need to think about any of these complications. You can simply fast-forward to the conclusion that what we need is unconditional surrender from the Russians, regardless of the cost. And then you’re free to embark on a military adventure with terminus unknown.

The costs are now starting to mount, and our leaders are now starting, in their disingenuous way, to explain them away—as witness Biden’s most recent speech on the subject.

The cost of this fight is not cheap. But caving to aggression is going to be more costly if we allow it to happen. We either back the Ukrainian people as they defend their country or we stand by as the Russians continue their atrocities and aggression in Ukraine.

Set aside the tendentious, question-begging, well-poisoning language here and focus on the main point. “Caving in to aggression is going to be more costly” than not intervening. Really? How? And how does Joe Biden, Consequentialist-in-Chief, claim to know?

Suppose we don’t intervene in the Ukraine war. What will happen next, and how does Joe Biden know it will happen? What will the costs be, and how does Joe Biden know what they’ll be? What are the costs of not intervening, and how does Joe Biden know that they will exceed the costs of intervening? The answer to all six of these questions is patently obvious. He has no fucking idea. Given his status as “leader of the Free World,” he has to pretend that he does. He is no doubt surrounded by people who have to do the same. But if we resurrected Socrates from the grave, and set him loose on the 21st century equivalents of Meno or Nicias in the Pentagon, I’m willing to bet that the “dialogues” they’d have would be a lot shorter than any of the dialogues in the works of Plato or Xenophon. What these dialogues would reveal is gaslighting and bullshit artistry on a scale that either equals or exceeds anything that took place among the Sophists of Athens. But don’t expect it to happen, because there is no modern-day Socrates, and he’s not getting anywhere near the Pentagon. “Let no one without a security clearance enter here.”

The arguments in favor of proxy war in Ukraine are all exercises or apparent exercises in deterrence theory. Deterrence theory involves some of the most complicated methodological questions in all of social science–missing data, counterfactuals, multivariable causation, unknown unknowns. The questions involved are hard enough to answer when the issues concern garden-variety topics like traffic enforcement, crime, and public health. When it comes to warfare, you might as well be burning entrails or reading tea leaves. Most of the “knowledge” anyone claims to have on these subjects is more likely to be a bluff than anything that tracks the truth. Nine weeks in, as many predictions about this war have been falsified as have been confirmed. The idea that Joe Biden et al know that the costs of non-intervention exceed those of intervention is blatant nonsense—the epitome of gaslighting a nuclear fuse.

So let me change the subject to one where knowledge is eminently possible. I walk two-and-a-half miles each morning to the local train station, past large suburban homes flying Ukrainian flags. Every time I do, I’m reminded of the thought expressed at the heart of this recent article in the Times, “How Americans Can Sponsor Ukrainian Refugees,” which describes a program designed to facilitate the sponsorship of 100,000 Ukrainian refugees into the United States.

So here’s what I would say: if you “support Ukraine,” and live in a home with a spare room or two, feel free to sponsor a Ukrainian or two. As someone who, for lack of the wherewithal to afford a Jersey rent, has spent the last eighteen months living in the spare rooms of kind friends, I can well appreciate the generosity of the would-be benefactors involved and the benefits enjoyed by the would-be beneficiaries. If people can be found to house me, then surely they can be found to house a couple of hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees.

And here’s the World War II analogy I would emphasize. Of the several million Ukrainians who’ve been displaced by the war, we’ve so far accepted a whopping 75,000. This chintziness comes from the same American public that regards Putin as Hitler, regards the Russian army as the Wehrmacht, regards the Russian invasion as equivalent to the Nazi invasion of Poland, and has cautiously taken to calling the atrocities being committed by the Russians a ”genocide.” This is the same America that, in remembrance of the Holocaust, has adopted “Never Again” as its ubiquitous slogan.

But what were we supposed to remember, again? It was the Red Army, not the Western allies, that liberated the Nazi death camps. We fought the Third Reich, to be sure, and in defeating it, put an end to the Holocaust. That certainly liberated the Jews from the Nazi yoke. But if you really want to “remember” what happened, one way of putting what we did was to liberate people from the Nazi yoke that we wouldn’t let into our country when they were under it. Then, after letting some of them in, we decided that it would be more expedient to send them to Mandate Palestine, where they could expropriate the indigenous Palestinian population, and eventually conquer and occupy them. Why did this happen? Because the idea of letting all those Jews into the United States was unthinkable, whereas the idea of stuffing them into a Middle Eastern territory the size of New Jersey was the most obvious thing in the world.

If “Never Again” really meant something, we wouldn’t be repeating that maneuver. We would be prioritizing the amelioration of Ukrainian suffering over the Machiavellian aim of driving the Russians into the ground. And yet. I guess our dogma is that funding and arming a proxy war in Ukraine is a cheap way of defending ourselves, but letting a couple of million Ukrainians into the United States is an overly expensive way of defending them. The math here makes as little sense as the morality. But when it comes to warfare, that, I suppose, is par for the course.

5 thoughts on “Gaslighting the Nuclear Fuse

  1. It always struck me that nuclear deterrence worked. The danger of its failure was and is real, and that was part of how it worked. Moreover, it was the correct correct moral option (contra libertarians Poole or Hummel in the context of bilateral possession of nuclear arsenals with delivery capabilities). Joint nuclear deterrence prevented WWIII (and thanks in part to deterrence strategists). I mean between the US/West and USSR (and continuing now between US/West and Putin’s Russian nuclear state). The proxy war in Vietnam did nothing for defense of the US or for noncommunist government in the world. The alleged dominoes from Vietnam to Australia proved false. The expected murder of Catholics in the South in a Communist overrun (called out by Pres. Johnson in his urging to war) proved true (correct me if I’m wrong). The US (GW Bush) as the aggressor in Iraq and Russia (Putin) as aggressor in Ukraine is certainly true. Assistance in US Intelligence to Ukraine appears to have yielded real war effectiveness to Ukraine, but I’d expect it also gives Putin some pause over the situation of his strategic nuclear capabilities and the hearing-context at the Pentagon of his loud nuclear sabor rattling. If US Defense knew of a vulnerability in his tanks and could track his Generals, what other military vulnerabilities against the US does he have and is yet to learn of? (But enough of this. Back to Kant [studies], and if I must be distracted by politics, let it be rather by my rage at my Republican-in-libertarian-garment associates through the decades prior to the Republican Court who would not join me in priority of defending Roe by voting against Republicans, and who even said “oh, it will never be overturned.” Nor my marriage overturned in this late day by the bigots.)


    • I don’t think that nuclear deterrence has “worked,” except in the very narrow sense that it hasn’t (yet) led to outright, catastrophic failure. But by any broader definition of “working,” it’s failed.

      For one thing, there is always the chance of accident. And there have been near-misses through accident.

      Second, when accidents have occurred, nuclear deterrence has been saved by departures from the script, not adherence to doctrine and protocol. This is probably the most famous case:

      We were saved by the fact that Petrov violated protocol. If he followed it, we’d all be dead. That implies that the protocols, as written, are failures.

      The doctrine does “work” in the sense that it instills sufficient terror as to make leaders reluctant to use nuclear weapons. But conceived impartially, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction makes no sense. If I am a duty officer at the US Air Defense Command, and I see Russian ICBMs headed toward the US, the game is already over. The missiles will be here in 20-30 minutes. At that point, we’ll all be dead. What is gained by firing back at the Russians at that point? Launching our missiles won’t stop their missiles from coming in and annihilating us. What exactly will it do? Teach them a lesson they’ll never forget? Yet MAD doctrine demands that we launch a second strike anyway. This makes Kant’s ethics look like a model of flexibility.

      On top of all of this, a nuclear exchange holds the rest of the uninvolved world hostage to our quarrels. So if we have an exchange with, say, Russia, non-Russians and non-Americans die en masse. This is the explicit doctrine of the same “civilized nations” that make such a big deal of “terrorism.” They’re outraged by Leonard Peltier and Hamas, but feel no qualms whatsoever when they look in the mirror.

      I agree that US intelligence has probably yielded real military gains for the Ukrainians. But I regard that as an objection to involvement, not a point in its favor. The more the Ukrainians rely on us, the more they will keep relying on us, and the more involved we will get. The more we involved we get, the greater the danger of escalation–nuclear or otherwise. It’s bad enough that we’re as involved as we are. But if the Pentagon wants to wage war until the Russians are, in Lloyd Austin’s words, “weakened to the degree that they can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” our “war planners” have a blank check. No one even knows what the quoted phrase means (if it means anything), much less what its strategic requirements would be. That’s the way these people like it. Blank checks, mass death, perpetual warfare. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

      Twenty years ago, I was a naif about these matters. I actually believed that if the US government said that our national security depended on our going to war somewhere, then, alas, it must be true. The task at hand should be to define some minimal strategic aim, secure it, and get out. I was absolutely sure that everyone in the Pentagon and White House agreed with me. What idiot, in this post-Vietnam age, would go to war abroad simply to uphold some abstract ideological idee fixe? That didn’t seem possible. The threats, I thought, must be real. We had no choice but to face them. We could trust our leaders at least to that extent, couldn’t we? They would have the sense to define a minimal, narrow, self-interested strategic aim and then withdraw?

      Well, the last 20 years have been an education in disillusionment. Teaching as I did for 13 years at a “military friendly school,” I had ample opportunity to spend time with the casualties of those illusions–lives mangled and destroyed beyond recognition for reasons beyond earthly comprehension.

      I was wrong about a lot of things. I made an effort to learn from my mistakes. The main thing I learned was that most of the stuff these “military experts” told us was bullshit. Half the threats were threats they themselves had created. Half of the rest were things they did nothing to protect us from. Time spent in the refugee camps and occupied territories of Palestine, and among the human casualties in Pine Ridge and Rosebud, convinced me never to be so complacent about the “expertise” of these “experts” again. Likewise the time I spent at Walter Reed Military Hospital. If ever I’m tempted to believe our leaders, the so-called leaders of the Western civilized world, I remember what I’ve seen, and the temptation evaporates like breath off a blade.

      The Ukraine war is, in my opinion, the most insane venture of any that I’ve seen so far. When I observe it, I feel a sense of defilement from which I simply want to wash my hands. If there were a place on Earth to which I could flee to escape the insanity, I’d go. My personal circumstances make it possible. But I can’t think of where or how. The desire is there even if the means are not.


  2. In 1957 I was nine years old. That year was the 50th anniversary of statehood for my state Oklahoma. There was a terrific exposition at the State Fairgrounds in Oklahoma City to celebrate the occasion. The exhibition was called “Arrows to Atoms.”

    My folks had bought our 2-acre lot just outside the city for $600. We were building our house ourselves. It was a ranch style of 2700 sq. ft. The lot had some outstanding large oaks. But the soil was sand, and it would grow only sandburrs until years of cultivation had passed. There was a good thing about that sand. As my brother and I would work in the soil, especially after a rain, we would find flint and arrowheads. My brother found one spear head. Apparently our lot had once been an Indian encampment.

    Those were inhabitants earlier than our own Indian ancestors, who were Choctaw and who had been marched to Indian Territory from the South by the US government on the Trail of Tears. My father and my brother were dark. My father’s hair was black and straight. At the US Air Force base where he worked as a civilian in War Plans, they affectionately called him Chief.

    At the base were all kinds of aircraft, including the B52’s loaded with really big nuclear bombs, ready to fly to Russia and annihilate it. The name of our state’s semi-centennial celebration was fitting.

    On a day in October 1962, the alert reached my father at home. His face turned white. That evening they waited in the War Room as the President announced his decision to the world.

    The Soviets withdrew their missles from Cuba, we returned from the brink without crossing, and a few years later I went with my father to his office. I remember a flag, pictures of the President and the base commander, and an inscription: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Prov. 29:18)


    This book is tremendous: THE EVOLUTION OF NUCLEAR STRATEGY –

    By saying it worked, Irfan, I was thinking as always that had not (in Churchill’s phrase) “peace become the sturdy child of terror” we’d have had a third world war – back when I was child most likely.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Increasing loss of control by lifting of safeties as a nuclear crisis intensifies is part of why nuclear deterrence has worked and possession of nuclear weapons by the superpowers has not been idle. My old study in nuclear capabilities and strategy are now online here: and

    Liked by 1 person

    • In that first link, the text below the double line on the page that includes the heading “The Usefulness of Barking” should not have been included in the scan; I goofed. That text was not part of my study; It was a bit of some remarks by Eric Mack.


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