Mutually Assured Destruction in Practice

If it’s not known by now, the United is armed to the tee with nuclear weapons. We feel safe knowing that other countries and enemies know that we have them — why? Because they will be destroyed if they were to ever use them against us. DESTROYED!

That seems to be the logic holding together this very fragile framework of nuclear-capable states, i.e., the concept of mutually assured destruction. To be fair, it does have a 100% success rate, and it appears to work between states that actually fear the prospect of death. But in what circumstances would we ever want, or be able, to respond to a nuclear attack with another nuclear attack?

To take the most topical scenario, say that North Korea successfully attacks Guam with a nuclear weapon, and now Guam is virtually gone. Thousands of people die and those who have not are dealing with the gruesome aftermath of a nuclear fallout. How does the United States government respond? Will lobbing another nuclear missile back towards Pyongyang solve our problems? Do the people of the hermit kingdom deserve to die for the caprice of their dictator? We know that our military could overwhelm North Korea in a very short amount of time, and I presume that a sufficiently large scale attack on North Korea would be enough to distract them from firing another nuclear weapon towards us or our allies. Why then would we ever respond with another nuclear attack? Such a response would virtually guarantee the annihilation of North Korea and all of the civilians within, and would very likely impact the neighboring countries of South Korea, China, and Japan. Why would such a blunt instrument be used when a single skillfully guided bullet would do the trick? Why do we continue to act as though the only response to a nuclear attack is another nuclear attack of equal or greater measure?

The ethics of mutually assured destruction are very murky at best. Even if we were to consider the case of Russia, a country with arguably an equal level of military might, attacking the United States, what would be an appropriate response? Destroy Russia? Kill them all? Does that not sound barbaric? Russian people are not our enemies — the Russian state is our enemy; the people who attacked us and wish to do us more harm. Is a nuclear bomb the only way to ensure that we are not attacked again, and if Russia’s goal was to incapacitate the U.S., why wouldn’t it simply perform all of the nuclear attacks planned at once? What would be the point in waiting for the United States to respond?

The question then is when would we ever employ the concept of mutually assured destruction. In the case where the attacker is much weaker, would it not be more ethical and effective to respond with a more precise attack, targeting the heads of governments and military bases rather than civilians? And in the case where the attacker is just as well-armed and equipped as the United States, when would they ever decide to perform a limited attack, giving the U.S. a chance to respond in kind? Assuming that most major countries are aware of the foreign weaponry stationed near their waters and borders, and that it would not be difficult to surmise the location of nuclear bases or critical infrastructure in the country they planned to attack, an attack of such scale it seems would not be out of reach for any semi-major world power.

Is mutually assured destruction doing its job then, or making any nuclear attack without the intention of thoroughly decimating its target obsolete?