Mutually assured destruction
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Mutually assured destruction, often referred to by the apt acronym MAD, refers to the military defense principle whereby the possession of enough weapons of mass destruction (such as nuclear missiles) serves as protection from attack, due to the threat of an overwhelming retaliation. In theory, military conflict would become impossible once all sides are armed with credible deterrents, preventing anyone other than an insane leader from launching an attack. How comforting!
In all seriousness, though, MAD depends on all those with nuclear weapons to act out of rational self-interest. Unfortunately, some of them may act out of frothing hatred or insanity. They may believe that the retaliatory strike will send them to Paradise, or they may be rogue agents with no clear homeland to retaliate against. And MAD poses another question: If one of our cities has been reduced to rubble and millions of innocent people killed, are we willing to kill more innocent people for revenge?
MAD has some interesting corollaries. In order to work, both sides' nuclear arsenals must be safe (enough) from an initial attack to launch an effective retaliatory strike. At the same time, the people must be vulnerable enough to attack that such a retaliation would be too devastating to cope with. This leads to a situation where it is better to protect the weapons than the people.
MAD used to dominate the strategic thinking in both camps during the Cold War. Its influence lasted from the beginning of wide-spread deployment of nuclear ICBMs during the 1960s up until the end of the Soviet Union. Both sides engaged in a massive arms race, in the process acquiring nuclear capabilities that would have sufficed to destroy the world several times over. The reason given for this was fear of an enemy first strike that would leave them unable to retaliate, requiring both sides to constantly expand and upgrade their arsenals in turn. Much thinking went into how conflicts would play out with the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over both sides, resulting in plans for staggered responses and controlled escalation. While the existence of nuclear weapons doubtlessly instilled both sides with caution and encouraged restraint, the fundamental problem of potential miscommunications and unwarranted responses could never be resolved - under the strains of MAD, things can go horribly awry even among rational and purely defensive actors.
Other nuclear powers, like the United Kingdom, France and China, contented with smaller arsenals and practiced a doctrine described as "minimal deterrence". This strategy rests on the assumption that even a very small number of nukes can threaten unacceptable damage to a would-be attacker, assuming that they're secure from enemy first strikes. Both the USA and Russia have reduced their arsenals since the end of the Cold War and arguably no longer threaten each other directly, but maintain active forces in excess of a thousand warheads and a multitude of delivery systems.
 Modern use
Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush attempted to undermine the security MAD provided by investing billions of dollars in researching and developing space-based weapons that could shoot down the Soviet nuclear missiles before they could reach their targets. Reagan's program was nicknamed "Star Wars". Bush was interrupted in his quest to continue the project by the events of 9/11. After getting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq going, he returned to the quest for nuclear superiority and freedom from the MAD concept, even putting a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.
 Pop culture
In the black comedy Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) the MAD concept was taken to its ultimate level, putting all three terms in big, bold capital letters. In the film, it is revealed that the Russians have built a "Doomsday Machine" in order to deter any attempt at nuclear war. The machine was designed to release large amounts of dangerous radioactive material into the atmosphere, thus rendering the Earth completely inhospitable, if there was ever a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Because the system was automated and could never be switched off, mutual destruction really was assured - thus bypassing any tricks a participant in nuclear war could do to prevent retaliation. The device is ultimately triggered when a fanatical American air force commander launches an unauthorized attack on the Soviet Union, not knowing of the device's existence. The movie illustrates the principal paradox of MAD: each move that makes your own deterrent more credible (thus providing safety) also breeds the danger of swift escalation leading to one's own destruction.
Later, in the 1983 "cult classic" WarGames, the MAD concept was used to conclude that in reality, it was not possible to win a nuclear war as everyone would die. The final scene shows the computer simulating practically every possible nuclear confrontation possible (with hilarious titles for the hypothetical scenarios such as "Zaire Alliance", "Gabon Surprise", and "English Thrust") until it realised that there was no scenario where there was truly a winner - even small skirmishes ended up, through the concept of MAD, escalating until the entire world was thoroughly toasted. The famous concluding line of the film is, "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."
 Has it happened before nukes were involved?
In Blackadder Goes Forth, Captain Blackadder explains that World War I shouldn't have happened, because the plan was that the two armies on either side (the "balance of power") were so huge that war would be unthinkable, ensuring a concept similar to MAD would keep the peace. Although the result of the Great War wasn't the total destruction associated with an all-out nuclear war, the casualties were so severe that the conflict sowed many of the long term causes of the Second World War and the Cold War. The trouble with the plan? It was bollocks.
It's MAD! MAD, I TELL YOU!!!
 See also
- Something's Gone Wrong - from Dr. Strangelove (1964)
- The Doomsday Machine - from Dr. Strangelove (1964)
- It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World-- Doesn't actually have anything to do with Mutually assured destruction but it is a fine film in its own right.
- ↑ Otherwise, the other side could launch a preemptive strike to take out your weapons.
- ↑ Otherwise, there is too great an incentive to attack. Or, even if you wouldn't, your opponent might fear being left in that position, and thus preemptively attack.
- ↑ Of course, it's there to protect Europe from Iranian missiles, not Russian ones. Right?
- ↑ It also goes against all historical evidence, but that's Blackadder for you. In fact, prior to World War I, all sides were convinced that overwhelming offense would win any war before there was time for utter destruction.