The Treacherous Escalators of Sex and War
Over the last fifty years, relations between men and women, and relations between potentially warring states, have both been going through major changes. Sexual ones have come about mainly for cultural reasons, the strategic ones due to political and technological forces, but with a metaphorical parallelism. Both developments display widespread acceptance of a series of escalating steps, based on empirical observation and rational calculation, but also obscured by a fog of unrecognized possibilities, even the hint of ‘other escalators’.
Past ‘steps’ remain part of the psychological furniture of both the sexes and the strategists. Until the late years of the tumultuous 1960s, the central preoccupation of the majority of people in sexual relations was engaging in steps (even if a lot fewer than a hundred years earlier) in ‘courtship’ and its successful conclusion in marriage and parenthood. Full sexual intimacy often came first, but was largely ‘pre-marital’. Non-marital intercourse was acceptable for single young males, but only for unusually adventurous upper-class women who did not fear social stigma, or for prostitutes or near-prostitutes. Otherwise, a socially powerful code for ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’, while often violated, almost provided the very definition of middle-class life.
International relations of the same era were dominated by the experience of the two World Wars and the Cold War that followed, by the predominant power of the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and by the existence of nuclear bombs, soon joined by lightning-like missile delivery. The weapons kept evolving, but as competitive threats, not for practical employment. Their awful destructiveness meant that even the most hawkish political and military leaders had to regard the escalator as one that must never be climbed to its top, with as few states as possible being allowed to set foot on the steps. This was not fully realized at first. Both the Americans and the Soviets conceived for a few years of ‘tactical nuclear warfare’ using smaller atomic warheads, even coming up with battlefield-intended cannons in their European threat confrontations. But by the 1980s, the idea of nuclear weapon use of any size at all, like that of ‘biological’ weapons, had become a worldwide taboo. This did not, however, stop continuing technological development, which itself generates large implications for the post-Cold-War elevator. And despite the new ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ encapsulation, it did not lead to a comparable taboo on chemical weapons, like incendiaries and increasingly powerful conventional explosives, although poisonous gases continue to rouse the horrified public revulsion they have since their arrival in World War I.
Today, both the sexual relations elevator and the strategic one have become clouded with fog, hence with more uncertainty of footing. Many young men and women now at least half-believe that quickly undertaken non-marital intercourse can be as routine as the small steps of traditional courtships, without ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘ladylike’ restraints, while at the same time receiving constant grim warnings, not only about rape, or about any ambiguities in consent, but about entering into prohibited territory by the use of a few ‘offensive’ words. The exposure of genuinely appalling behaviour by men in positions of power over women has been in many ways admirable, even if requiring some defiance of biological instincts, but the current overall accusatory atmosphere, magnified by social media thought police, has nightmarish consequences for decent young men and women seeking individually and socially beneficial relations of love, joyful sexuality, and stable companionship. The elevator could rise to a thoroughly miserable society for nearly everyone, encountering each other in permanent distrust and hostility. Apprehension of this is now sinking in, but few brakes are as yet being applied.
Everyone also recognizes that the strategic elevator changed profoundly with the fall of the Soviet Union and international Communism as a worldwide political force contested by the U.S. and its allies. Changes brought by factors like the economic and military rise of China, and the more general possibilities of more computerized ‘cyberwar’ are also at least partly realized. But there are other changes brought by war technology that are much less widely understood. This can be observed in much of the current public discussion about what Donald Trump, or the U.S. in general, or its allies can/should/will do about a now nuclear-armed North Korea and a potentially Iran one, and about the savage internal war in Syria.
In the latter case, there is an intense popular aversion to the apparent use of poison gas, intensified by any evidence that a super-deadly gas like sarin has been employed. Trump’s two aerial attacks in response, while against international law and risky for U.S. and Russian relations, may have some justification in helping to move resistance to gas warfare beyond emotional public horror to worldwide taboo, even in the considerations of ruthless dictators, due to the threat of eventual reciprocal use and indeterminate spread. But ironically enough, one of the nastiest and deadliest gases for use against civilian populations without gas masks or other defences, is still the very first one used on a large scale in World War I, chlorine. And while the elaborate manufacturing facilities needed to make sarin, tabun, and other ‘nerve’ gases can be at least possibly identified, located, and destroyed by targeted ground or air attack, chlorine is a standard industrial chemical, found in vast quantities in every country, and capable of storage in a vast number of ways. So even an apparently successful taboo could probably be violated very rapidly, and with great difficulties in re-establishment.
A somewhat similar problem arises in the case of even supposedly successful ‘de-nuclearizations’, even with agreements for international inspections. The former Manhattan Project physicist Jeremy Bernstein has repeatedly pointed out that North Korea is probably using plutonium-based devices; that the critical mass of a plutonium bomb is about 24 pounds and about the size of a baseball, and that capable designers could reduce this size by about a half. These could be stored almost anywhere in the over 46,000 square miles of the Hermit Kingdom. There and everywhere else, including Iran, plutonium is produced in reactors from Uranium 238, which can be transformed in a couple of steps into Plutonium 239. North Korea and Iran both have reactors, as do other countries.. Can they be compelled to abandon these? And what about the world distribution of uranium ores and reactors, including the U.S. and Canada? The U.S., while the world’s largest consumer of uranium, uses less than 2% from domestic supplies in its own reactors serving electrical power plants. It has depended 40% on supplies from the Russian federation, and a comparable amount from Canada’s giant Cameco corporation, which provides 18% of the world’s production, based in Saskatchewan, but owning mines from Wyoming to Kazakhstan. But the Western commercial uranium market is now over-supplied for the short-term, yet in danger of eventual North American exhaustion, while Russia, seeking to expand to a dominant position in the world market, is now threatening to cut supplies to the Americans.
‘De-nuclearization’ thus looks less like a matter of bi-lateral negotiations, beloved by Trump, than a Rubik’s cube, or an invitation to step on two or three distinct elevators. The past concept of an ‘internationalist’ order, even if dominated, sometimes inconsistently and hypocritically by the U.S., has been more than an illusory construction of nefarious ‘globalists’. Stepping on a new elevator should require great care. What can go wrong in terms of present sexual relations is bad enough. Misunderstanding of supposed triumphs of nuclear disarmament could bring the final, fatal step into apocalypse.