Ward Wilson’s thesis that nuclear weapons lack salience is cogently presented and supported by good sources. For the most part, however, his analysis is unconvincing and flawed.

Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons

Ward Wilson. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. $22.00. 188 pp.

Nuclear deterrence is the ultimate abstract construct. Because there has never been a nuclear war per se, strategising about nuclear weapons is by nature a hypothetical exercise. Because it is logically impossible to prove a negative, demonstrating the effectiveness of nuclear weapons as war-prevention instruments is a difficult enterprise. Nuclear deterrence is also associated with absolutes. Conceived as weapons of resistance against totalitarianism, nuclear arms quickly became associated with nothing less than the survival of the human race. For these reasons, nuclear strategy is fertile ground for analogies grounded in spirituality. The first nuclear test was called Trinity; its success elicited a recitation of the Bhagavad Gita by its creator, and quotes from the Book of Revelation by observers. As early as the 1950s, the idea of a nuclear war was associated with Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil according to The Bible. The first nuclear detonations were called an original sin. Time and again, certain Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and Shia Muslims have found echoes of their own beliefs in such images.

Emotionally and culturally supercharged as it is, then, does nuclear deterrence still connect with reality? Might it just be based on a set of fallacies or myths?

In the absence of any obvious avenue for progress in disarmament, many of those who seek the abolition of nuclear arms have sought to reorient the international debate. They now argue in favour of such weapons’ devaluation or delegitimisation. This process is supported by a number of NGOs and Western governments, such as those of Switzerland and Norway, which focus in particular on the devastating humanitarian consequences that many scenarios of nuclear-weapons use would involve.

Ward Wilson, an analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, has been at the forefront of this debate, and his arguments are presented in a short book entitled Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons.

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Bruno Tertrais is a Senior Research Fellow, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Paris, France, and a Contributing Editor to Survival.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2013–January 2014

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