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?