There is a question that should both freak out and enrage any sensible American, at least when it comes to foreign policy:

“Why can’t we use nukes? Why do we keep them around if we don’t use them?”

When I think of a nice, easy, lighthearted topic that I can talk about, I go to nuclear warfare. We’ve been in the nuclear age for over 72 years, but we’ve only had one nuclear war. For those of you who need a bit of a refresher on our history with the atom bomb, here’s a brief documentary.

Anyways, as of now, there are nine nations that are confirmed to have nuclear weapons capabilities: The United States, the UK, France, China, Russia, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel. The United States has one of the biggest arsenals, numbering somewhere around 4,500 nuclear weapons spread across strategic bombers, missile submarines, and land silos. That trio is known formally as the Nuclear Triad – the manner in which the United States can deliver a nuclear payload to a sumbitch and turn their cities into glass parking lots. The power to use it rests solely in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief, a.k.a. the President of the United States, a.k.a. Donald Trump.

In December 2015, the remaining Republican candidates met on a stage somewhere and held their fifth debate of the season. At one point, moderator Hugh Hewitt asked Trump about nuclear weaponry, in particular the Triad, and he choked BIGLY. He jumped from around on some spiel about Iraq, ISIS, global warming and “the power and the devastation,” and couldn’t name a single arm of the Triad when pressed. Luckily, Marco Rubio educated him shortly thereafter, explaining its capabilities and its purpose. This wasn’t some esoteric Defense Department crap known only to top Generals and Senators, mind you. I knew what it was, and I was seventeen years old at the time. So yeah, there was a point when the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President knew less about the United States military than a kid in the twelfth grade with zero security clearance. That’s extremely scary, because while I like to think of myself as well-informed, I would really prefer the Republican Party’s pick for President of the United States would be able to correct me on some key foreign policy issues, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

If knowing less about the military than a goddamn teenager weren’t bad enough, he posed this question to a foreign policy expert: “If we have nukes, why can’t we use them?” And then he asked again, and then a third time. And now he’s the President of the United States of America. Usually, you’re not supposed to ask that sort of thing.

This isn’t even the first time we’ve had a potentially reckless hand sitting uncomfortably close to the big red button, by the way – we’ve had close calls with nukes before. When Richard Nixon’s administration was falling apart at the seams, he would often get piss-drunk and order preemptive tactical nuclear strikes. Nuclear war was only averted because Henry Kissinger stood between him and the bomb on multiple occasions. Ten years earlier, in the Presidential Election of 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater hinted at the idea of dropping tactical nukes on North Vietnam to clear out the jungle, and while he got his ass handed to him that November, it’s conceivable that President Goldwater could have fired nuclear weapons into Southeast Asia. It’s for this reason that I can get a little bit touchy when I hear a candidate-turned-President not know about our nuclear forces and subsequently ask if the indiscriminate application of nuclear fire might be a bad idea. At this point, I doubt that Trump would ever be able to hit the metaphorical button in a rage (in part because someone told him that nukes are a bad idea, and in part because he’s got a good man, General James Mattis, by his side), but I’m still worried because we’ve been down this road before and we can go down it again. This isn’t meant to be overly alarmist, either – the chance of Trump using the bomb is near-zero, but the mere possibility that he was willing to do it earlier should set off genuine alarm bells in your minds.

For all this talk about how Trump was being reckless and silly about nuclear weapons, one might think that I don’t want us to have them (you know, to guarantee that he doesn’t drop a bomb on San Diego or something). One might consider that I would want a Presidential candidate to denounce nuclear weapons as a thing of the past and have them all thrown away. This view would be reinforced by the fact that I have Japanese ancestry, and we have a bit of a complicated relationship with nuclear armaments.

That would be a bad idea.

“Large-scale strategic nuclear warfare” is a fancy phrase that can be better summed up as “a civilization-ending apocalypse” but that’s not all there is to it. Our nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union raised the cost of war to unimaginably high levels during the latter half of the 20th century, and it’s notable that we have never had a single “world war” to the scale seen in the 1940’s – Vietnam and the Gulf may have been quagmires, but they weren’t nearly as bloody as the Second World War.  The reality is that nuclear deterrence has likely saved the world from a third World War between the Soviet Union, communist China, and the Western Allies because it created an atmosphere of mutually assured destruction. By maintaining a large stockpile of incredibly dangerous weapons as a “just in case” measure, the powers of the world have been able to avoid a new, disastrous war. We didn’t create peace because we talked our differences out at the UN, we created peace by pointing loaded pistols at each other’s heads.

There are also certain cases, and these are VERY rare, where nuclear warfare is not the worst-case scenario.

This is the worst-case scenario. For those of you who don’t know much about Operation Downfall, let me say that the Wikipedia entry doesn’t do it justice. Here’s a brief summary:

  • Okinawa was the practice run for Downfall. On 1 April 1945, the United States Marine Corps and the U.S. Tenth Army landed on the island of Okinawa with the intent to destroy all IJA resistance and secure airstrips for a possible invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Twenty thousand Americans died, along with somewhere around 200,000 Okinawan civilians, killed in flamethrower attacks, desperate attempts at resistance, and the concentrated firepower of US Navy shelling. There were even reports of racist Imperial Army troops throwing grenades into the tents of Okinawan civilians for fear that they might defect. The United States lost close to 60,000 soldiers in Vietnam over eight years, but lost about a third of that number in two and a half months in Okinawa. Okinawa would have looked like a cakewalk compared to Downfall.
    • My family is Okinawan. My maternal family is noticeably smaller than my paternal family, and it’s not just because my paternal family is Catholic. It’s because I have great-aunts and great-uncles and cousins who found themselves on the wrong end of a 16-inch offshore naval battery.
  • The invasion would have taken around two years. Minimum. That figure excludes any sporadic resistance from sleeper cells and armed firebases in the mountains and such.
  • The 2nd Marine Division is mentioned as one of the units in the initial landings. It later disappears from the record in Downfall’s planned order of battle, because military planners assumed that the 2nd Marine Division would have been wiped out in the initial days of the invasion.
    • Some records indicate the same of large portions of the U.S. Sixth Army.
  • Just north of 400,000 Americans died in the Second World War. Had this invasion taken place, the figure would have been between 700,000 and 1,500,000, excluding the wounded (total casualties would number north of four million).
  • Between five and ten million Japanese civilians would have died in the fighting, and many more would have starved or been forced to flee as refugees of war. And that’s lowballing it.
  • We would be invading a hostile, mountainous nation desperate to maintain their independence by landing a million unarmored troops on their beaches under heavy fire in the single bloodiest campaign of the Pacific War.

This is why there’s no solution as simple as “well, let’s get rid of the nukes entirely and forget the whole endeavor.” This is why even though we’ve had more than our fair share of nuclear close calls, I still believe there is a case to be made for the retention of enough firepower to ensure nothing like this can ever, EVER happen. The caveat here is that our Commander-in-Chief has to know exactly when this “worst-case scenario” is approaching, and has to know that there are only a select few times when the usage of the bomb can be morally justifiable. It’s one of the responsibilities of being the leader of the Free World. It’s also why I find the idea of calling for 100% disarmament to be un-nuanced and irresponsible – the tool of the nuke should be available, in case it will be needed in the future. The invasion of Japan would have led to the destruction of an entire nation, and while the nuclear bombings of those two cities killed a horrific number of innocents, it preserved the lives of millions more.

In summation, I firmly believe that the United States must continue to take stewardship of a sizable nuclear stockpile with the understanding that they are only to be used when deemed absolutely necessary either for the survival of our nation or when it will save lives, such as in the case of averting the invasion of Japan. To permit this stewardship, it requires constant vigilance – there is no excuse for men of power like Donald Trump to act with such cavalier disregard for the nuke’s destructive power, because such immense capability has the power both to stop wars and to start new, unfathomably dangerous ones.

If you disagree with me somewhere, I totally get that – after all, you just witnessed a person of Japanese ancestry defend the use of nuclear weapons against his own people and justify one of the riskiest geopolitical situations in human history as a generally positive thing. I’ve just had this bouncing around in my head for the better part of a decade, and I figured now’s as good a time as any to vent about how reckless it is to call for the increased use of nuclear weapons where they are not needed, and about how nukes are actually pretty important to maintaining global stability.