Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Nuclear Weapons

What is the purpose of the atomic bomb (or any other weapon)? Can a weapon be regarded as successful if it is never used? Some people might think that a weapon can ONLY be regarded as successful if it is never used.

Umberto Eco argued that the bomb was an act of communication.
“Until the middle of the century the force, the power, still resided in guns and in weapons. After the middle of the century the real power is in information. Even the atomic bomb is used today not as a weapon but as a message. The fact, the happy fact, that it is not used means that it is not the bomb in itself which works: it is the continuous exchange of messages between powers.” [Umberto Eco, interviewed by Christopher Frayling, The Listener, 11th Oct 1984]

More recently, in a post entitled Weapons and Weapons Technology as Rhetorical Devices, Michael Goldhaber identifies Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative as one of the most powerful weapons of modern times. It never really worked properly (in the engineering sense), but it brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Goldhaber also quotes Anton Chekhov:
“If a gun is on the table in the first act, it will go off by the third act.”

Chekhov understood that a weapon possessed a tragic aura of inevitability, its destiny. A weapon is also an attractor - it draws (however reluctant) our attention. It is this combination of forced attraction and apparent inevitability that makes it all the more likely that any weapon will be used sooner or later. If it works.

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1 comment:

Scribe said...

To quote the Russian Ambassador in Dr Stangelove, "It was terrifying, convincing, automatic, and extremely simple to understand."

I also have strong (but rather unconfirmed) suspicions that nuclear weapons are more than weaponry, but also intrinsically tied to to economic and national superiority. Nuclear weapons are the flip side of nuclear power, which Langdon Winner associates with systems of control. Meanwhile, nuclear power is also a token of economic sustainability and independence, hence the fight for control over who gets access to the technological know-how, the technology itself, and the fuel needed for it. Nuclear leaders are learning the harsh lessons gained from dependence on foreign oil, and are, I think, quite keen to reverse the situation with a new source of power.