The Pennyfarthing H-bomb
When idealists such as
This argument has won debates in
No technology is ever disinvented. That is not the way that technology goes out of existence. Don't get me wrong. Technology goes away all the time. If you don't believe me, just try to get tech support for any device that is more than five years old. But technology doesn't go out of existence by being disinvented. Ever. It goes out of existence in one of two ways: better technology comes along, or it turns out it wasn't very smart technology after all.
For example, think of the pennyfarthing. The pennyfarthing was that bicycle from the 19th century with one large wheel in front and one small wheel behind. Pennyfarthings were not very good technology. They were difficult to mount and dangerous if you fell off. But no one stood around sadly shaking their heads and saying, 'You'll never stuff the pennyfarthing genie back into the bottle, I'm afraid.' When better bicycles came along, with two wheels that were the same size, the pennyfarthing simply went out of existence. It didn't have to be disinvented. Better technology replaced it.
Or take the Hiller VZ-1, developed by the
The question we need to ask ourselves is not whether nuclear weapons can be disinvented. Of course they can't. The question we need to ask is whether nuclear weapons are very good military technology. There is a fairly strong case to be made -- you could make one based on nothing more than the fact that no one has found a single use for them in actual combat in the past 65 years -- that nuclear weapons are too big, too clumsy, too messy and too outmoded to be any use to anyone.
There is no question that nuclear weapons make the biggest explosions ever. But it is not clear that big explosions are really what we want. Wars are won by killing enemy soldiers. What nuclear weapons do best is kill enemy civilians en masse. While this is horrifying, and the reason why they still loom so large in public consciousness, it is not clear that this is really to the point. It may turn out that US precision-guided munitions are the weapons of the future -- that precision, not brute size, is what will matter in war in the 21st century. Increasingly, nuclear weapons look like dinosaurs: really large and frightening creatures that were destined to die out because they could not adapt.
The genie argument is nothing more than a clever debater's trick. But it is psychologically suggestive. Because when you say that you can't stuff the nuclear genie back into the bottle, what you are implying is that nuclear weapons are the genie. That they confer on their possessors certain amazing powers; that they are magic. Wave your nuclear weapon around and people will cower and do whatever you want.
Talk of genies, magic and disinvention aside, there are serious issues at stake here. Nuclear weapons are enormously expensive but their military value is largely unproved. There are defence experts and politicians who believe fervently -- perhaps a little too fervently -- in the extraordinary value of nuclear weapons. But this is not a question of faith. It is a practical question. Are nuclear weapons smart, useful technology? Or are they too big, too clumsy, too messy for any real application? And when we have had a serious debate on the military value of nuclear weapons, perhaps the idealists such as
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