Like many people mostly confined to quarters these days, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading. Also like others, I suspect, some of this reading has consisted of renewing my acquaintance with the books in my collection. The books I pull off the shelves are sometimes at random. Some might be picked because I think I may have paid them insufficient attention, or because I have the idea that an old book contains something needed anew.
I frankly can’t remember why I reopened Freeman Dyson’s Weapons and Hope, written in 1984, but I’m glad I did. A Cambridge-trained mathematician, Dyson was recruited in World War II by the British Bomber Command to do Operational Research (OR) on the effectiveness of the British bombing campaign against Germany. As he recounts in Weapons and Hope, the young Dyson came to believe that the bombing was extremely inefficient militarily as well as murderous to both German civilians and British aircrews. He recalls carrying on with his work at Bomber Command in a state of sickened moral apathy. He was intensely relieved at the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, simply because it freed him of the possibility that he would be sent to the Pacific to plan the bombing of Japanese cities after two years of bombing the Germans.
After the war, Dyson taught physics at American universities, starting with Cornell and ending up at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. He also wrote extensively on the use of force in the modern world, with a focus on nuclear weapons. Dyson’s theme throughout much of Weapons and Hope is the way in which the bombing from the air with conventional or nuclear weapons can come to appear normal and even acceptable. His discussion of the development of “tactical” nuclear weapons is scary and informative. By Dyson’s account, J. Robert Oppenheimer exerted much effort on promoting tactical nukes. He defended this stand later by saying that he had been appalled at the apocalyptic doctrine of the U.S. Air Force concerning nuclear weapons, and he hoped that the smaller weapons (under the direction of the U.S. Army) would provide a pause or even a check in the march to Mutual Assured Destruction. The Army incorporated tactical nukes into its doctrine as if they were just another weapon of war, but Dyson points out that the simulation conflicts involving the use of tactical nukes invariably escalated to larger weapons, suggesting that the Army’s and Oppenheimer’s attempt to tame nuclear weapons was flawed, maybe hopeless.
In our time, nuclear weapons are perhaps taken for granted even more than when Dyson was writing, over thirty years ago. Other things have changed. China now occupies a large place in American strategic thinking. China may be the new USSR, the arch nemesis, the near-peer competitor we plan to fight, the assumed, even if unnamed object of war games and exercises. Even a conventional war between China and the US would be terribly destructive. If it crossed the nuclear threshold, it might be impossible to contain. Are the military planners on both sides are considering these risks realistically, not presuming to control that which might be uncontrollable, or to countenance that which no one wishes to endure?
The final chapter in Weapons and Hope is called “Tragedy is Not Our Business.” In his final words in the book, Dyson addresses the prevailing pessimism of his day, which might have relevance for our time as well. The language of the title of the chapter is taken from the writing of British soldier and explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, chronicler of the Scott and Amundsen Antarctic expeditions. The Norwegian Amundsen expedition was a success. Its goals were achieved, and no men were lost. The British Scott expedition ended with the deaths of nearly all the explorers, Scott included. Dyson points out that the Scott expedition became famous as an example of fortitude and self-sacrifice. Partly because of literary examples, we tend to enshrine tragedy, but, as Cherry-Garrard points out, the business of an explorer or of a soldier is not tragedy but survival (and, he might have added, victory). The fact is that sacrifice is sometimes required, but Cherry-Garrard is right to say that the sagacity of Amundsen is preferable to the bullheaded persistence of Scott, however heroic. Dyson ends his book with a contrast between themes of tragedy and those of homecoming, using the Iliad and the Odyssey as respective examples. In difficult times, hope and not tragic resignation are needed; intelligence and resourcefulness are required over fatalism and acceptance.
Some of Weapons and Hope is dated, but the nuclear weapons that worried Dyson are still there, waiting for the order to fire, although this is less thought of today than in the 80s. The current pandemic has perhaps put us in the mind of managing or averting global catastrophe. The dangers of war and global pandemic are still looming. Neither producing smaller weapons nor defeating one virus is really a solution. Global cooperation, even friendship among nations, as thinkers on the subject have recognized at least since the time of Thomas Aquinas, would be a new normal that we could all live with, and the best hope of all.