Monday, August 6, 2007

"I am become Death, destroyer of worlds"

Sixty-two years ago today - yesterday, for most of you reading this, since I live near the tail-end of time zones - the Enola Gay dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.

Very roughly 100,000 people died: from the blast, then from the firestorm, and later from radiation. No one knows just how many, and while the death toll is still argued, "horrific" is sufficiently precise for most discussion. Amid the greater horror of World War II it was hardly a squib. The fire raid on Tokyo the previous March killed more than that; the bombing of Dresden a few weeks earlier nearly as many. The war as a whole provided several hundred Hiroshimas worth of senseless human destruction.

Still the atom bomb (to use an old-fashioned phrase) stands out. There was and is something that catches the attention about an entire city reduced to rubble as far as the eye can see. So do a host of details. As a geek kid the images that chilled me most were the victims of whom nothing remained but their shadows, burned like photographic negatives onto surfaces behind them at the moment of the flash. I assumed they'd been vaporized, which they probably weren't (they'd have been luckier if they had been), but it is not an image you forget.

In practical terms, though, what stood out about the atom bombs wasn't the sheer scale of destruction, but that it was wrought by a single bomb from a single plane. That is what turned all conventional military thinking on its head. Poor Alfred Nobel thought that high explosives would make war impossible, but dynamite, TNT, and the like only contain about ten times the destructive energy of plain old black powder, which which people had been cheerfully slaughtering each other for centuries. The primitive Hiroshima bomb released rather more than 1000 times its own mass in TNT equivalent energy, and by the 1950s the H-bomb improved on that by another factor of a thousand.

(If you want to know more or less everything non-classified about nuclear weapons, I recommend the Nuclear Weapons FAQ. Numerous mirror sites carry it as well.)

The Bomb did not make war impossible, but in some real and meaningful sense it has rendered war obsolescent. The wretched people of Darfur might fairly beg to differ. It is no accident, however, that since 1945 the horrors of war have been visited almost entirely upon people who were already on the margins of an industrializing world. Put most bluntly, it has been visited upon people who don't have nukes, nor the near-term prospect of getting them.*

Bismarck once said that the one thing you can't do with bayonets is sit on them. After Hiroshima, the major powers swiftly - and fortunately - realized that this is the only thing you can do with nuclear bombs. So long as you have one, any would-be attacker is restrained by the prospect of getting nuked. If you use it, you face the prospect of getting nuked in return. Nuclear defense is a non-starter, not because of all the technical problems of defending against ICBMs ("hitting a bullet with a bullet"), but because there's almost no dividing line between perfect and irrelevant. If I launch 1000 nukes at you and you stop 99 percent of them, you just kissed off ten cities. Hence the best acronym of the nuclear age: MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction.

I bring this up on this blog because there is a whole subgenre of SF, military SF, which is broadly predicated on ignoring this fairly basic reality. If I may overgeneralize a bit - not for the first time, not for the last - military SF is essentially all about World War II in SPAAACE. It may be tarted up with an extra-retro flavor, like Weber's Honor Harrington books (Napoleonic Wars in SPAAACE!) But let's not kid ourselves. Space dreadnoughts, carriers, drop-ships for planetary landings, all that cool stuff we talk about over at SFConsim-l, all is written by and for people who haunted the World War II section of their local library when they were kids. (In US public libraries, using the Dewey decimal classification system, I knew to head straight for 940.54.)

The World War II of military SF differs from the real one in one basic respect: It almost always seems to end on August 5, 1945. Even when SF geeks talk about weapons of annihilation, the favored techs are oddly roundabout - for example, the ever-popular changing of an asteroid's orbit so it smashes into a planet with dinosaur-killer force. Come on, guys 'n' gals, no need to get that complicated. If you want to slag a planet, just nuke the hell out of it. It isn't like people who know how to build starships are going to forget how to build nukes.

In typical SF settings, where interplanetary/interstellar travel takes weeks or months, the thirty-minutes-till-Doomsday element of the Cold War may be absent, but the prospect of credible nuclear defense remains nearly as illusory. Yes, your defending space fleet can engage the attackers far off in space, but it won't be like a spacegoing Midway or Salamis, because the attacker can lose 99 percent of their strike force and still annihilate your homeworld with the remaining one percent.

This makes traditional great-power warfare a pretty dubious proposition - which does not (alas) render it impossible, but does mean that such time-honored motivations as ambition and greed, or even folie de grandeur, don't quite stand up. Even foolish statesmen rarely make war without some semi-demi-plausible illusion of success. "We will cross through Belgium and reach Paris in weeks." "They'll greet us with flowers." Nuclear weapons make these illusions far harder to sustain. That leaves paranoia and outright dementia. Neither can be ruled out, sad to say, but they are not "politics by other means." They're merely beyond stupid.

Nor is there even much story material in the scenario I outlined above - the heroic space admiral nearly wipes out the enemy fleet, but the remnants still wipe out her planet. It rarely makes for a great read, and the prospect for sequels is pretty much nil.

I am not so optimistic as to suppose that the obsolescence of war means that everyone will join hands and sing "Kumbiya," or even pursue mutual understanding through dialogue as a solution to their differences. The last 62 years have provided substantial evidence to the contrary. However, the political use of force and violence may take different forms.

We already see evidence of this. Since 1945 many more governments have been overthrown by their own army than by anyone else's, making armed forces a somewhat uncertain means of ensuring national security. Most recently we have learned that deterrence doesn't work against people who think that being incinerated is the crown of martyrdom. The Osamas of the world, however, are of limited utility to rational (or even semi-rational) power players. They are not particularly reliable tools - and if you give one a nuke and they use it, can you really count on conventional "plausible deniability" to protect you from nuclear retaliation? How lucky are you feeling?

There might be something to be said for wars of assassins, a la Dune. Power players might be more disposed, if not to Kumbiya at least to mutual understanding through dialogue, if their own necks were on the line instead of just a lot of 19-year-olds and even more "collateral" victims. Really, mutual understanding through dialogue has a lot going for it. As Churchill said, jaw jaw jaw is better than war war war.

If that still falls short, even a future era of coups, assassinations, and sporadic terrorist acts is an improvement on cities blasted to rubble, and populations that leave no mark of their passing but shadows burned into the streets.

* I try not to be political here, but let's get real. As things are now, if you were the Iranians, wouldn't you want a few nukes?


Kedamono said...

I've been to Trinity out in the desert and picked up some green glass that was missed in the big cleanup. (I sent a bunch to friend of mine who immediately washed his hands an found a lead box for the stuff.)

But more importantly, I have a personal investment in the events that happened at Hiroshima. My father served in the Pacific theater during WWII. He was one of the folks that helped liberate the Philippines, and if it wasn't for the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he'd of been in the first wave to invade the homeland of Japan, along with at least three of my older uncles.

And he probably would not have survived the landing. If the US had invaded Japan, millions would have died. So it puts me in a quandary: I see nuclear war as being about as stupid as anything man has done to himself, but I thank the folks at Los Alamos for saving my dad's life.

A little side story to all of this. My dad was part of the occupation forces, and he had been assigned to Hiroshima. According to him, every safe in the city had been opened by someone, he thought some special ops troops might have been there first. Me, I think it was probably the locals taking advantage of the disaster.

In any case, at ground zero, in the basement of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, he found two bottles of saké.

Did he think about it and save them for their historical significance? Did he think about how much they would be worth today? Or did he look at two bottles of saké and think, "I bet that's mighty tasty."

Yes, he and a buddy of his, drank the two bottles of Ground Zero saké and then threw the bottles away.

Sometimes you wonder about people...

Anonymous said...

Well, speaking hypothetically, if I'd just been trough what he'd been through and then had to walk around a city that looked the way Hiroshima looked post-Bomb, I'd be in a hurry to get pissed too.

Rick said...

I don't have the personal connection, but I've never doubted that in Truman's shoes I would have ordered their use.

Also, I have to wonder: Suppose the bomb had only been "demonstrated" (as some suggested) by dropping one over Tokyo Bay. Perhaps Japan would still have surrendered, but would the full destructive power have been fully appreciated in the postwar era?

The general experience of "superweapons" and the like is that their effects on the battlefield fall way short of expectations. ("The German trenches will be shattered by the drumfire barrage; our lads won't meet any resistance.") If Hiroshima and Nagasaki hadn't seared the full horror of nuclear weapons into our consciousness - so to speak - the outcome of Cold War episodes like the Cuba missile crisis might have been terribly different.

On a relatively lighter matter, I agree with Anon - in your dad's shoes, I'd have drunk that sake too.

But talk about a hot toddy ...

Anonymous said...

a little extra on nuclear weapons and strategies... and on the problems a country has when it decides to build nuclear weapons



Rick said...

Marcus - alas, the Blogger message box cuts off long URLs. I'm reposting them with line breaks inserted - to visit the sites, copy into a text editor, eliminate the line breaks, then copy into your browser:

I think I recognize the poster of these items, Stuart Slade, as someone who used to post at the Warships1 message boards.

If it's the same person, I think he's a British naval ship designer.

Winchell said...

In SF, there was also a war of assassins and saboteurs in Samuel R. Delany's Triton.

No spacecraft dropping nuclear weapons on Titan colony, just an enemy agent causing the artificial gravity of a couple of city blocks to shut down, incidentally creating a breech in the colony dome.

Kedamono said...

Yeah, I'd bet it was one hot toddy. He did say it tasted great, but that could be a case of circumstances and state of mind.

He said he didn't see any of the victims, they were all in various hospitals by the time he was deployed.

As for nuclear war, I guess we were blessed with leaders who always erred on the side of caution when it came to the bomb. I mean if Goldwater had won the election, we might have used tac nukes in Vietnam.

Winchell, I've always favored dumping the leaders of the opposing sides into an arena with nothing more than clubs. Let the better fighter win!

Doug said...

To be fair to the SF writers who try to write about future war the properties of space as a tactical and strategic environment do makie the use of nukes problematic. The amount of damage caused by a near miss drops off very rapidly without any shockwaves, Even a hit on the hull will not function in the way that detonating a nuclear weapon in an atmosphere would. Info available on the Atomic Rocket site:

Missile defense also takes on very different character in a confrontation across inter-planetary distances. Rather than having minutes to react to a launch and use counter-measures weeks or months are available. And without an atmosphere to cloud your targeting abilities thos nukes, and their sensitive guidance and systems and warheads, are going to be very visible as they chart a predictable course towards their target.

Now granted, if you can get a nuke inside a presssurized space, without depressurizing it in the process, the ship or habitat is going to be annihlated. Then again if you can sneak a nuke onboard you could more easily sneak assasins and saboteurs on board. How you do either of those is a horse of a different colour.

Rick said...

Doug - I agree that on a tactical space combat level, nuclear weapons are not all that awesome. Though the radius for radiation crew kill is far larger than for physical damage to the ship, unless the crew compartment is like a bank vault.

Where MAD still applies is against planets. True that you'll have a lot more time to intercept the strike - the problem is that if your defense is anything less than perfect it's probably ineffectual.

Think of it this way. In a traditional space battle scenario, if one fleet destroyed 90 percent of the other at no loss to itself it would be a crushingly one-sided victory. Wipe out 90 percent of a decent-sized incoming nuclear strike and the remaining 10 percent will still make a glowing charnel house of your homeworld.

Doug said...

Fair enough. Though a lethal dose of radiation is far lower than an immediately crippling dose, Leaving an enemy crew with only days or weeks to live may not have the desired effect. For starters a crew under those conditions doesn't have to conserve reaction mass to get home. It could be possible to sucessfully "kill" most of an enemy force only to get wiped out by the resulting Kamikaze run from men who know they'll never see home again, and will never have to face court-martial for targeting enemies who try to surrender.

The real trick though is that you can't guarantee that you'll get 90% of an attack. You could get only half, or you could get them all. But give a range of possible outcomes between, let's say, 70-100% it's possible that someone will risk it, particularly if some experts claim that the 95-100% interception rate is far more likely than the 70-75% 5 percent of a nuclear exchange is nasty stuff, but there were plans based around limited exchanges of nuclear weapons dreamed up during the Cold War. There is a precedent for that kind of thinking. When people believe that their civilization is at stake even the risk of millions of death seems acceptable. It still sucks to be in the way of the 10% that gets through though.

For the author the most obvious way around this is to set up rules of conduct among the various states and/or species operating in the setting. In David Weber's books there is the Eridani Edict restricting the used of ship based weaponry on planetary targets. In Babylon 5 even the use of kinetic weapons such as mass drivers on planetary targets is forbidden by treaties.

A war of assasins, saboteurs, and insurgents has potential; but many will try to avoid this in favour of more traditional models of warfare for a simple reason: we like traditional warfare. James Bond, Jason Bourne, and other super-spies of fiction aside covert warfare doesn't have right flash and fanfare.

Rick said...

Doug - yeah, "dead men flying" have nothing to lose, which could make them very unpleasant to deal with while radiation sickness does its gradual work.

On another level, though, this undermines the flash and fanfare you allude to. There's always been a revulsion toward poisoning that doesn't apply to plain old butchery by sword or explosives. Entirely apart from the "strategic" use of nuclear weapons, space battles sort of lose their coolness if the usual outcome is "everyone dies a few weeks after their hair falls out."

Regarding strategic defense, a belief in invulnerability is possible, but it's harder to sustain against nuclear weapons, which is more or less why the Cold War stayed cold. The threshold level of recklessness needed is higher.

"Eridani Edict" style rules are possible, but they bug me in much the same way as the trope of needing human intuition to use FTL (in order to avoid robotic starcraft) does - it has a whiff of artifice or special pleading. I would more readily accept tacit Cold War style rules, where the two sides skirmish in remote parts of space, but are exceedingly cautious about upping the ante.

"Flash and fanfare" - that's a really interesting issue. But I'll take a shot at it (so to speak!) this way: Whatever happened to dueling? It seems to me that it died out as a social custom roughly when personal weapons became reliably destructive enough that the probable outcome was to leave both duelists dead. War may go the same way, for the same reason.

Doug said...

Judicial combat, which is what I presume you mean by dueling in this case, requires a greater authority to enforce the decision. While a dispute between individuals might be resolved throuhg one of the participants being dead or seriously injured at the end of the bout in a squabble between states a simple duel of champions cannot force the loser to accept the arbitration. Why should they? If all the threat available is mutual annihlation for all combatants then refusing to accept the arbitration doesn't really put them in any worse position then they were in to begin with. Once upon a time reputation was a big enough deal to be worth dying over, but now? Having some backwater colonists or asteroidécomet miners, but why would governments consent to such activity?

Personally I love the idea of having spacefaring populations handle disputes through Judicial combat. I've nver been a fan of pistol duels, and rapiers just don't feel right; somehow my mind always keeps going back to late-medieval and early renaissance poleaxe techniques. I think there was a suggestion of a staff-and-hook tool to aid in maneuvering in freefall on the Atomic Rocket page, though I can`t seem to find it right now. Possibly some variant of a tool like that could make a nice weapon for resolving disputes the old fashioned way.

But as fun as it might be to envision that sort of stuff (Yay! melee weapons back in the story without needing the Force!)official judicial combat runs into the same problem any idea of the Eridani edict or any other form of code of conduct does: what if people care too much to accept the rules? Expecting politicians or military commanders to sit by while their people are dying when they have more destructive weapons available, or expecting a government to make concessions just because they couldn't find as good a fighter, seems to be wishful thinking.

The issue of radiation will come up with or without nukes due to the conditions of space, and most authors will include or assume more advanced anti-radiation meds and treatment in their settings. The real problem with nukes is with planetary settings rathetr than ships, finding good reasons to send down the ground troops instead of just slagging the place can require a little bit of work. The book Starship Troopers does contain some arguments in that regard.

As far as nukes in space go a nuke has the dubious privilege of being easier to disrupt than either laser or kinetic kill weapon (all that the defenses need to is destroy some electronics rather than knock the entire object of course). It is questionable how much of the destructive power will be applied to the enemy vessel in a tactically useful way. They may still be mean weapons, but how effective would they be in actually winning engagements?

Now, none of this prevents a model of little skirmishes as opposed to the big war; people not wanting to put all of their eggs in one basket could do that anyway. Losing a fight over some little comet cluster to the militia that your enemies have been arming just isn`t as fatal as the enemy fleet geting a salvo past your home defenses, regardless of the weapons being used. Nukes just up the ante a little.

Rick said...

Doug - I haven't forgotten about your reply, but I only finally finished a post I've been struggling with for about three weeks.

I'll just briefly say that by duels I wasn't thinking formal judicial combat, but like The Three Musketeers, where as I recall it was in violation of the edicts, but they did it anyway.

Your overall points may call for a front-pager!

Winchell said...

Doug said: I think there was a suggestion of a staff-and-hook tool to aid in maneuvering in freefall on the Atomic Rocket page, though I can`t seem to find it right now.

Go to sidearms, and scroll down to Mark Fergerson has an interesting idea, the good old "Doc" Smith style Space Ax.

Winchell said...

Another interesting example of "judicial combat" was in the short story "Masterplay" by William F. Wu.

In the future, the court system was so clogged with cases that an alternative was offered. Instead of court, the two involved parties could opt for "trial by combat". Instead of lawyers, both parties would hire warriors to fight a duel, winner would win the case for their client.

The amusing part is that the "duel" is a wargamming duel, with the warriors competing in a computer moderated war game drawn at random from some historical period.

Doug said...

Sorry I haven't posted in reply but about a week ago I damaged a tendon in my left hand and as a result am trying to get used to typing one-handed. I am working on a reply but between this and a bunch of other stuff my ability to write has been affected.

Rick said...

Winch - hardly a formal weapon, but how about a good old fire ax? I believe that aircraft have them, and spacecraft might as well. Utility knives surely also have a place in some kinds of fighting.

And speaking of Doug's "staff and hook" reference, in a stillborn story I had someone use a "cargo handler's wand," a staff with a spring-loaded net. I couldn't figure out a way, alas, to give his opponent a trident.

Doug - ouch! Hope you get to feeling better soon!

Doug said...

Winchell-The space axe wasn't actually what I was thinking of, though it isn't a bad idea. Proportions are a bit off, try a more modest axehead and cut down on the mass a little, there may not be weight in freefall but you still need to swing that mass.

There was a Freefall comic strip on your site that showed the use of a staff as a maneuvering aid, and the obvious addition to that it a hook on the end to let you latch on to things. Modifying that design you can get designs similar to a halberd (hook, axe, and spear point), bill hook (hook sharpened on concave surface, the guisarme (blade-hook sharpened on the convex surface) and a number of others. Haft length will vary based on a number of factors, but between four and seven feet might be a good ballpark. But if the overall proportions of the weaponized forms remained similar to those of the tool forms practice with the one could carry over to the other. Very useful for worker's revolts in places where guns are restricted for ship or station security. Realistically, if you've got the resources and wherewithal to act openly you'll get a gun, but knives, axes, and modified tools are sometimes weapons of necessity; and as such may have more cultural resonance for would-be futuristic duelists than a sword of an old-Earth design.

This page had the Freefall strip:

I'll probably repost some or all of this, along with other thoughts, under the newer heading. I just wanted to finish off some thoughts here.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Two things; why would anyone want to nuke a perfectly good life-bering planet? Because, unless there are gobbs of them out there, the whole point is to conquer it, not destroy it. Second, why are you going on about axes and the like? If you can build a spaceship, then you should have power-tools; modify them for combat! A chainsaw in a melee... Anyway, that's all I had.
Ferrell Rosser

Lalartu said...

Well, in space age there is a defence against nukes. That is living deeply underground. On Moon, with its lower gravity and no inner heat you can build cities tens of kilometers deep, and it will be hard to destroy it with nukes.

Canageek said...

Hey Rick: There is an easy solution to that: Revert to non-ideological warfare. If you think about it, wars of annihilation are actually pretty recent (If you exclude barbarian tribes that took their entire population into battle). If you have a situation where warfare is being fought for material gains, as was warfare in say, the 11th century, then you wouldn't use nukes; those would destroy what you are trying to take over. All you have to do to set this up is make terreforming a world to be fit for human habitation a long, very delicate process that a single nuke will destroy. This is far from unbelievable, given how complex ecology is.

Then separate the populace from the rulers. It is tempting to use recent politics as a basis for this, but a better idea would be to tie the work of Karl Wittfogel into it, with greater reliance on technology requiring increased specialization, which requires increased authority over the people. You even talk about this in your Hard Guide.

Then you can have the people taken over without any worry about them fighting back; One overlord telling them how to expand the colony is pretty much the same as another. Then there is no incentive to use nukes; Then incentive is to land your transport ships filled with soldiers to depose the goverment.

Now the real question is why you want to take over a colony in the first place, but if you have a good reason for a colony existing then you can make this up pretty easily.

Rick said...

Welcome to a new commenter!

Deep underground cities are hard to directly destroy, but pretty easy to cut off, which ultimately pretty much amounts to entombment.

War for gain is an interesting approach - I've read that the War of 1870 was the last war in which the winner made a direct financial profit, war reparations exceeding war costs.

In broader perspective the outlined scenario reminds me somewhat of *Dune*.

And mentally flagged as an interesting point for future discussion!

Canageek said...

The thing that bugs me about nukes is that you destroy whatever you use them on. Why would you travel through the interstellar void to wage war? Well, the same reasons people have always go to war. Historically there have been three reasons you go to war (That I can think of): To gain wealth (Loot, slaves, etc: Think Roman wars, viking raiders, etc.), to gain land (A lot of medieval wars, empire building ah la the Islamic Empire or Roman Empire) or to wipe out an opposing population (World War II on the Eastern front, where Hitler attempted to murder the Slavic population of Russia would be the most obvious example, or the Cold War as it spiralled out of control with neither side willing to submit to the other in the event they lost)

Space warfare actually lends itself to preventing wars of annihilation, since mutually assured destruction isn't a problem. If you can win the first strike then you don't have to worry about them launching a space fleet to strike back at you. You can invade and rule your opponent without worrying about them launching ICBMs back at you as you land your troops. It suddenly is possible to stage an invasion without nukes flying back at your capital.

Canageek said...

Sorry, I got distracted and didn't finish my first point: We normally think of wars of annihilation because that is what we've been faced with for the last few years. However, if you take away strong ideological motives, and prevent mutually assured destruction you could go back to the older type of warfare.

I can't see a colony having anything worth the expense of raiding, but taking the entire colony could be, and if the new goverment isn't any worse then the old one, it could be quite profitable, given a long enough period to pay back. That isn't even to cover the political possibilities of controlling a colony; just look up the colonial period and upgrade the technology.