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How to Not Die in a Nuclear War

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The die is cast: Putin has crossed the Rubicon and let slip the dogs of war.
The die is cast: Putin has crossed the Rubicon and let slip the dogs of war.


Parallel situations

Over the past several weeks the armed forces of Israel and Ukraine have carried out brutal assaults on heavily populated areas: respectively, the Gaza Strip and the principal cities of the Donbass region. In these onslaughts over 2,000 people have been killed and about 10,000 wounded in Gaza and the Donbass alike. In Gaza, as many as 400,000 people have been rendered homeless by the Israeli attack while on the order of 350,000 people have fled the Donbass for Russia or other parts of Ukraine, with many more having been prevented from leaving the combat zone by soldiers under Kiev's command.

Israeli and Ukrainian forces alike have deliberately destroyed vital civil infrastructure so as to deny water, power and basic sanitation to the general population. Not content with creating the conditions for a full-scale humanitarian disaster both Tel Aviv and Kiev have also actively worked to thwart outside efforts to provide aid: in Gaza, by firing on United Nations compounds; in Donbass, by obstructing a truck convoy from Russia carrying food and medical supplies.

Both Israel and Ukraine have used the most horrendous of conventional weapons: in the former case, Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIMEs); in the latter, white phosphorus rounds. DIMEs create horrific wounds that cannot be staunched even by medical professionals while white phosphorus burns its victims to death with a combustion process that is nearly impossible to halt. These weapons—which are banned internationally—are expressly designed to cause horrible, painful, lingering deaths so as to overburden medical facilities and to terrorize the target population.

Yet another feature common to both conflicts is the fascistic outlook of the aggressors. In Israel this can be seen at the top level, where the military high command refers to bombing Gaza as "mowing the lawn," as well as in the street, as when Jewish settlers randomly grabbed a Palestinian teenager, poured gasoline down his throat, and then proceeded to kill him by setting the fuel alight. In Ukraine, there has been even more sanguinary action by private individuals, such as the slaughter of dozens of anti-Kiev protesters in Odessa by a loyalist mob. Meanwhile, public figures have not been behindhand in making plain their mindset, be it former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko expressing her wish to see the incineration of the eight million Russian speakers in the Crimea, or contingents of the Ukrainian army, such as the Azov battalion, that have been actively recruiting neo-Nazis from other countries (including Canada).


Different reactions

Still, there is a key difference between the two situations, which the various similarities only make the more striking. Ordinary people around the world have, to their enormous credit, denounced Israel's aggression. By contrast, nowhere is there any popular mobilization against Kiev's brutal campaign in the Donbass.

What accounts for this disparity? It is true that Western governments have engaged in truly extraordinary efforts to deceive the public about what has transpired in Ukraine over the past year—an endeavour in which they have been backed to the hilt by mainstream media. Yet, much the same could be said with respect to Palestine, but nonetheless most people now reject the politicians' and pundits' attempts to portray Israel as the blameless victim of crazed and bloodthirsty terrorists. In any case, many of those who protested against Israel's attack on Gaza did so not as an expression of solidarity with the Palestinian cause but because of the lawlessness and brutality of the operation itself. In the same way, surely even people who accept Washington's depiction of the Donbass insurgents as hirelings in the service of Vladimir Putin, the new Prince of Darkness, ought still to be appalled by Kiev's barbarous assault on heavily populated residential districts in eastern Ukraine.

It is certainly true that, in contrast to the inhabitants of the Donbass, Palestinians have been oppressed for a very long period of time: the Israeli occupation began nearly five decades ago while it has been almost 70 years since the original expulsion of the Palestinians in the Nakba of 1948. All things being equal, it might be supposed that a conflict that has persisted over decades would attract more notoriety than one that has been in process for only a few months. As well, a growing and significant number of Western citizens are Muslims or of Arabic descent, or both, and thereby tend to be aware of as well as sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians (especially since the "War on Terror" has so transparently served as a pretext for open season on all persons and things Islamic). The global Ukrainian diaspora is tiny by comparison. What is more, thanks in large part to the legacy of Cold War politics, Ukrainian émigré populations in countries such as Canada and the United States are more likely to view the people of the Donbass as a Russian fifth column than as compatriots.


How the Left should respond

Perhaps such considerations can explain why global public opinion seems decidedly opposed to Israel's conduct while Kiev gets a free pass for acting similarly. However, they cannot account for—still less excuse—the abdication of left-wing activists on this issue. What makes the situation all the more deplorable is that while socialists in developing nations such as South Africa and India seem to have no difficulty detecting (United States) imperialism at work in Ukraine, leftists in North America and Europe are generally content either to ignore the whole mess or are actively promoting Washington's mendacious characterization of the situation.

Left-wing apologists for the New World Order do not deserve the comity of being subjected to rebuttal since they cannot but be aware of the falseness of their position. In contrast, socialists who have thus far remained silent on developments in Ukraine may only have been guilty of inattention. If so, however, it is high time that they sat up and took notice.

Zionists frequently accuse Israel's critics of being highly selective in their choice of protest targets. Other than anti-Semitism, they say, what reason could there be for concentrating on the mote in Tel Aviv's eye when beams abound in the ocular apparatus of so many other states?

In fact, it isn't easy to think of any present-day regime that is guilty of as many acts of oppression as is Israel's (with the obvious exception of the United States, which is far and away the world leader in this regard). A very selective list of only some of its more egregious crimes would include: an illegal occupation that began in 1967 and continues despite condemnation in numerous UN resolutions; construction of the apartheid wall on the West Bank; routine unprovoked attacks on neighbouring states; and collective punishment of the people of Gaza through economic strangulation, drone strikes and open warfare.

However, perhaps an even more salient reason for citizens of Canada and other Western countries to protest against Israel is that our own national governments go out of their way to excuse, support and laud Tel Aviv as they do no other regime (again, apart from the one in Washington, that is). We may not be able to influence government policy on this issue but at all events we have a duty to make clear that we firmly reject the actions taken by the state in our name on behalf of Israel. As should be clear from the information given at the beginning of this essay, we should take the same position with respect to Ukraine—and for the same reason. Kiev is waging a brutal campaign in the Donbass with complete disregard for the lives of civilians and Ottawa is fully on side. Instead of calling for an end to the violence and a resolution through peaceful negotiations the Canadian government is busying itself sending military equipment to the war zone.

Perhaps some may hesitate to take a stand for fear that this will be interpreted as backing a rebellion they regard as illegitimate, but denouncing Kiev for attacking the cities of eastern Ukraine no more entails taking the part of the Donbass insurgents than protesting the Israeli attack on Gaza implies support for Hamas. In any case, even if one believed either Kiev or Tel Aviv was justified in its aggression this would in no way excuse the criminal manner in which these campaigns have been conducted.

If our actions are to be consistent, leftists who oppose Israeli aggression in Gaza must likewise protest against Kiev's bloody operations in the Donbass while also repudiating Canada's role in Ukraine. That said, consistency is neither the only nor even the most important reason why the Left needs to wake up to what is happening in Ukraine. What should actuate us most strongly is the threat to our own survival.


The danger of escalation

As I have been warning for months in my blog posts, the crisis in Ukraine has a very real potential to ignite World War Three. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has already spilled across the border into Russia and Vladimir Putin is under great political pressure at home to intervene directly. Should open conflict arise between Russian and Ukrainian forces all indications are that NATO will come to the aid of Kiev.

Throughout all the tensions of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union took great care to keep their forces from coming into direct conflict because the leaders of both countries knew that such a clash would likely lead to atomic warfare—"mutually assured destruction," as the strategists termed it. Russia and the US have greatly reduced their nuclear arsenals since those days but both can still dispose of many thousands of such weapons.

It is impossible to estimate the degree of our present danger but it is necessarily very high; and when one is considering the possible extirpation of life on Earth, the risk need not be especially great to be a matter of the gravest concern. India and Pakistan taken together possess considerably less than 1% of the atomic firepower that the US and Russia command but climatologists Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon have shown that the use of these weapons alone would suffice to cripple world agriculture through the resulting "nuclear winter"; Robock and Toon estimate that not less than a billion people would die as a result. Were the US and Russia to fire off even a fraction of their total stock of atomic warheads the ensuing nuclear winter, along with radioactive fallout, would unquestionably wipe out humanity altogether.

During the Cold War, US strategists more than once suggested carrying out a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union—not because of any immediate threat but purely to destroy Washington's only rival. Fortunately, not even Ronald Reagan was willing to authorize such an indescribably monstrous act. In contrast, Soviet planners never proposed anything of the kind but, being well aware of what their US counterparts were discussing, they did have occasion to consider launching a pre-emptive strike in order to forestall an imminent attack by the United States. In 1983, NATO forces in Europe conducted a mass training exercise, codenamed Able Archer, that simulated deployment under conditions of nuclear combat. The operation was conducted so realistically that the Kremlin became convinced that a US first strike was imminent and in desperation Soviet strategists prepared to carry out a pre-emptive attack. Only at the last moment did new information reach the Kremlin reassuring the Soviet leadership that Able Archer was only a drill.


Nuclear first strikes and second guesses

As is well known, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was amongst the most dangerous episodes of the Cold War. At issue was the stationing by the Soviet Union of nuclear missiles on an island just off the coast of the United States. The reason Washington reacted with such vehemence was that this deployment enormously shortened the time that the missiles would need to reach their targets, which in turn placed great constraints on the ability of the US to respond. A similar motive was at work when the US stationed Pershing cruise missiles in West Germany in the 1980s. Although Moscow did not react as dramatically as the US government had in 1962 the deployment nonetheless greatly increased tensions.

Coming back to the present, Washington has mooted siting missiles in Ukraine. Recall that a similar move was enough to bring the world to the brink of nuclear conflict in 1962. Indeed, under current circumstances any such action would be even more provocative since the Cuban government of 1962 never evinced any hostile intentions against the United States while the Kiev regime and its operatives have repeatedly proclaimed their undying hatred of Russia.

Likewise, until the US imposed its blockade against Cuba in 1962 there was no reason to fear clashes between conventional Soviet and US forces, and once the embargo was in place its terms were clear enough that the adversaries knew what was required to avoid hostilities (though even this was not enough to stop a US destroyer from attacking a Soviet submarine at one point). By contrast, as events are developing in Ukraine there is an imminent prospect that the Russian military could find itself in a direct confrontation with NATO forces.

We are probably at or reaching the stage of greatest peril. As Kiev continues its all-out assault on the Donbass there will be intense domestic pressure on Putin to come to the aid of the insurgents. Even if Putin forebears there is every reason to believe that Russia will still be accused of interference anyway.

For months now Washington has sponsored one lie after another about what is happening in Ukraine, and each time the mainstream media and the leaders of other Western countries have eagerly parroted these falsehoods and distortions. The fate of MH-17 is a case in point. Thanks to statements from US officials, it has become conventional wisdom that the airliner was shot down by a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile (SAM). In fact, the US has never produced any serious evidence whatsoever for this claim. Over a month ago a group of US veterans, who have a cumulative total of 260 years in various branches of US intelligence, stated that the Obama administration's assertions about MH-17 do not bear close scrutiny and challenged the US government to provide the factual basis for its charges. Not only has no such revelation been forthcoming but evidence is mounting that MH-17 was in fact shot down—doubtless with full intent—by forces loyal to Kiev.

Already in July the Russian military released satellite photos showing a Ukrainian jet fighter trailing MH-17 shortly before the airliner was shot down. Now reports have appeared in the Malaysian press quoting flight investigators who examined the wreckage of MH-17 as stating that the airliner was strafed by small calibre shells, which would be consistent with the theory that it was attacked by the Ukrainian jet fighter but totally incompatible with the claim that it was downed by a SAM. The Malaysian press has also reported that the recording of voice transmissions between MH-17 and Ukrainian air traffic control has been seized by Ukraine's secret police and that Kiev has refused to disclose the contents of the recording to the Malaysian government. Similarly, it has been weeks since the black box from MH-17 was handed over without incident to Western investigators by the Donbass insurgents—in itself an indication that they had nothing to hide—but no findings have been released to date.

The accusations of Russian culpability in the destruction of MH-17 led to frenzied calls for war preparations by politicians and editorialists throughout the North Atlantic alliance. US officials lost no time in publcizing the theory that it was the Donbass insurgents who, with Putin's blessing, had destroyed the airliner. To make such claims on the basis of pure speculation would in itself be extraordinarily rash, but to allow the story to stand as its falsity becomes ever clearer cannot be an innocent act. Beyond any doubt, Washington has used these trumped-up charges to build up war fever against Russia. While the US may not be intending to attack Russia, Washington is certainly doing its utmost to provoke a confrontation with Moscow. Either way the result is likely to be the same: a nuclear apocalypse.


Big brother or Armageddon—take your pick

As noted above, we are likely in the most immediate danger of atomic warfare at the present moment. However, even if Kiev finishes off the Donbass rebels without drawing a military response from Putin, and even if the murderous neo-Nazi militias rampaging on (and sometimes across) the border with Russia do not manage to elicit a reaction from the Russian military, our peril will remain very great. Such quiescence on Moscow's part will only embolden Washington to make further inroads—e.g., by carrying through on the threat to install nuclear missiles in Ukraine.

At some point, it is more or less certain that the unrelenting pressure will trigger a direct clash between NATO and Russia. What makes an affray almost inevitable is that Russia's real crime, in the eyes of US strategists, is that it exists at all as a power capable of independent action, which is an unforgivable affront to the amour-propre of the global hegemon. The only way Russia might be able to appease Washington is by unilaterally divesting itself of nuclear weapons. Needless to say, such a process is unthinkable since it would mean, in effect, unconditional surrender before war has even been declared.

Equally, it is clear that the US government will stop at nothing in its drive for total global domination. In the international sphere one sees this in Washington's casual assumption that it is unaccountable to anyone, at home or abroad, for its foreign military interventions, be they drone strikes, air strikes, missile strikes or outright invasion, as well as in its incredibly provocative conduct towards Russia and China, the world's second and third strongest nuclear powers. Domestically, one can look at recent events in Ferguson, Missouri: an unarmed teenager, kneeling on the ground with his arms in the air, is executed gangland-style by a police officer and the reaction of the state is to deploy armoured personnel carriers against those protesting the slaying. This is in keeping with the US Army doctrine expounded in its newly published document Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a complex and uncertain future, which anticipates future military operations in US cities as "inequality between rich and poor increases." It is also seen in the CIA's spying on and attempting to disrupt the activities of the very committee of Congress tasked with overseeing the agency—and this when the work the committee was engaged in was investigation of a report submitted to Congress by the CIA in which the agency systematically lied about its use of torture.

If Washington is allowed to continue with business as usual it seems highly likely that the world will experience nuclear war in the not very distant future. Under this scenario, the only reasonably probable alternative to apocalypse would be if advances in signals intelligence and other military technologies gave the US a superiority so decisive as to render any resistance impossible. Welcome to 1984, folks.

As for reforming the system from within, this is either a bad joke or a fool's game. Back in the 1970s Daniel Ellsberg's leaking of the Pentagon papers, along with the Congressional hearings conducted by Senator Frank Church, led to unprecedented scrutiny of the covert activity of the US government. Coming at the close of the Vietnam War, this occurred at a moment when public support for such operations was at its historical nadir. What happened? Some of these activities were proscribed while the rest were formalized through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. What happened when Edward Snowden revealed that government agents were routinely violating FISA? New legislation was passed that moved the goal posts. Consider, too, that while the US government decided it could not proceed with legal action against Ellsberg due to public support for his whistle-blowing, Edward Snowden has been made a fugitive despite being regarded as a hero by most of his fellow citizens.

We have seen much the same in Canada. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) was created after revelations that the RCMP, which had formerly been responsible for counter-espionage in Canada, had engaged in various "dirty tricks" (otherwise known as crimes). The principal result is that the illegal domestic spying once carried out by the RCMP is now conducted by CSIS.


Bringing the "same old filthy business" to an end

All the same, perhaps it doesn't have to be business as usual. Trying to alter government policy is a hopeless strategy—not least because the most dangerous activities of the state are by their very nature kept secret from the public and often, even from elected officials (see the aforementioned Congressional investigation of the CIA's lies about its torture program). Yet this very fact indicates what needs to be done. Since the present system ensures that the real machinery of governance is forever outwith the control of the common people, our only chance is to bring an end to the system itself.

What does this mean? Well, whatever else one might think of armed revolution, sabotage and similar methods, I believe they would be futile in our current situation. The imbalance of forces at the disposal of the state and of potential insurgents makes this a complete non-starter.

The right ideas, I believe, can be drawn from the history of labour struggles. The principal weapons of workers have always been obstruction, withdrawal of labour, and the generation of counter-hegemonic discourses. Today's socialists need to lead the way in all these areas but with due consideration for the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. What is more, our objective must be not the capture of the state apparatus but—as Marx recognized in the light of the Paris Commune—its eradication. In an era of global surveillance, death by drone and the prospect of atomic warfare, the concentration of power in the state is a standing threat to human survival.

Not long ago I made the sardonic suggestion that Barack Obama's preferred method of dealing with global warming seems to be nuclear winter. While I doubt that Obama himself actually thinks that way, I am becoming increasingly convinced that there are US strategists who would consider it an option worth exploring. Indeed, I imagine the only reason the idea hasn't received more attention is that strategic planners in the US don't generally bother themselves about climate change.

Global warming and nuclear war are two faces of capitalism's absolute indifference to human life. Capital has always depended on the state but never so much as at the present day. Whether it is quantitative easing, relaxed regulatory environments or securing access to Middle Eastern oil by dint of armed force, capitalism simply could not exist without constant support from government (above all, of course, the US government).

The post-war compromise of the welfare state lulled the Left into the false belief that the state is something other than the "executive committee of the whole bourgeoisie." If Marx's characterization now needs to be modified it is not because the state can be effectively made to serve the working class but because power has become so incredibly concentrated that decisions affecting the very survival of humanity can now be made by a handful of individuals.

The Left must resolutely set its face against the state every bit as much as against capital. A step in the right direction would be to identify the crisis in Ukraine for what it really is: a deliberately manufactured product of US imperialism. Additionally, Canadian socialists need to draw attention to how the capitalist system ensures that any Canadian government, regardless of its partisan affiliation, must unavoidably serve the ends of US imperialism in an adjuvant role.

It absolutely staggers me that some still maintain that socialists should involve themselves in electoral politics with a view, say, to extracting an increase of a couple of dollars in the minimum wage, when in doing so we sign off on a system that holds the sword of Damocles over the entire world. That some would cling to the New Democratic Party under these circumstances leaves me uncertain whether to laugh or cry.

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