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The Profits of Fear
August 19, 2005 6:24 AM   Subscribe

"The neutron bomb has to be the most moral weapon ever invented." -- Sam Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb. [an article by Charles Platt on boingboing.net]
posted by iffley (53 comments total)

 
I've previously heard it called the "ultimate capitalist weapon" -- kills the gomers, leaves all that precious infrastructure. But "moral weapon" sounds like an oxymoron.
posted by alumshubby at 6:32 AM on August 19, 2005


Twisted logic to be sure.

Start with the premise that we want to kill the maximum number of people and the answer just pops right out.

Of course one might question that premise.
posted by caddis at 6:32 AM on August 19, 2005


This ought to be good. I RTA, learned a lot about the neutron bomb, and the frightening people running the show:

It seems to me axiomatic that most primary actors on the global stage are disturbed people, because an obsessive lust for power is itself a pathology, and in a competition among thousands or millions of power seekers, only the most pathological are likely to win.


As for it being a "moral weapon", RTA!

Ideally he wanted to reduce blast damage to zero, to eliminate the wholesale demolition of civilian housing, services, and amenities that he had witnessed in Seoul. He saw a way to achieve this if a fusion reaction released almost all of its energy as radiation. Moreover, if this radiation consisted of neutrons, which carry no charge, it would not poison the environment with residual radioactivity.

The bomb would still kill people--but this was the purpose of all weapons. _If_ wars were liable to recur (which Cohen thought was probable), soldiers were going to use weapons of some kind against each other, and everyone would benefit if the weapons minimized pain and suffering while ending the conflict as rapidly as possible.

Cohen came up with a design for a warhead about one-tenth as powerful as the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. If it was detonated at 3,000 feet above ground level, its blast effects would be negligible while its neutron radiation would be powerful enough to cause death within a circle about one mile in diameter. This was the battlefield weapon that came to be known as the neutron bomb.

Such a weapon obviously would be more civilized than large-scale hydrogen bombs, and would also be more humane than conventional bombs, because it would create an all-or-nothing, live-or-die scenario in which no one would be wounded. A stream of neutrons cannot maim people. It will not burn their flesh, spill their blood, or break their bones. Those who receive a non-lethal dose will recover after a period of intense nausea and diarrhea, and Cohen estimated that their risk of subsequent cancer would be no greater than the risk we experience as a result of exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke. As for the rest, death would come relatively quickly, primarily from shock to the central nervous system. As he put it in his typically candid style, "I doubt whether the agony an irradiated soldier goes through in the process of dying is any worse than that produced by having your body charred to a crisp by napalm, your guts being ripped apart by shrapnel, your lungs blown in by concussion weapons, and all those other sweet things that happen when conventional weapons (which are preferred and anointed by our official policy) are used."

After assessing every aspect and implication of his concept, he reached his modest conclusion: "The neutron bomb has to be the most moral weapon ever invented."

posted by Scoo at 6:36 AM on August 19, 2005


It's nifty technology and all, but I'm not sure about the supposed benefits. You bomb an airbase and kill the soldiers, but leave the assets for the enemy to use. You bomb a factory, kill the workers, but leave the resources. Unless followed up by an almost immediate invasion and seizure of these resources, you're not exactly weakening your opponent's long term ability to resist.
posted by dsquid at 6:44 AM on August 19, 2005


in a competition among thousands or millions of power seekers, only the most pathological are likely to win.

For us Americans, that means Republicans *AND* Democrats, folks, and never kid yourselves.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:46 AM on August 19, 2005


you're not exactly weakening your opponent's long term ability to resist.

Ability to reisist, maybe not. Willingness to resist... well, that's the idea.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:47 AM on August 19, 2005


Wow. This is a fantastic article, thanks for pointing me to it.
posted by localroger at 6:49 AM on August 19, 2005


I did read the article. So what's your point?

By that "logic" I'd say a sniper is an even more moral weapon, since they're concentratiing on individuals rather than wholesale groups, they can discriminate between innocent civilians and combatants, etc. When we had a FPP on snipers here not too long ago, a lot of MeFi'ers were aghast at the idea.
posted by alumshubby at 6:55 AM on August 19, 2005


Yes, we want to eliminate the wholesale damage of civilian housing. We just want to eliminate the civilians instead. That's morality for you.
posted by caddis at 7:01 AM on August 19, 2005


a nucular bomb. a weapon of mass indiscriminate murder. a moral weapon?

Cohen's assessment of his former colleagues is a bit less flattering. He remembers them as "people who thought they had a God-given ability to know the unknowable. At best, their behavior was hallucinatory."

Pot. Calling. Kettle. Black.
posted by three blind mice at 7:03 AM on August 19, 2005


Yes, we want to eliminate the wholesale damage of civilian housing. We just want to eliminate the civilians instead. That's morality for you.

I'm not advocating the neutron bomb, but I think his general idea was that because the bombs were smaller, you could target specific areas, like military installations, rather than taking out a whole city.
posted by unreason at 7:05 AM on August 19, 2005


As opposed to the "Nude Bomb," widely regarded as the least moral weapon.
posted by klangklangston at 7:12 AM on August 19, 2005


I'd say that a modern bunker-buster is just about the most moral weapon, if any weapon could truly be described as 'moral'. A bunker-buster can target the leaders, rather than the drones, and decapitate a military opponent, rather than destroy it by attrition. Of course this requires spot-on intelligence regarding the location of the enemy's primary assets, which is where the problems lie.
posted by veedubya at 7:14 AM on August 19, 2005


It also helps if their bunker isn't built under a civilian air-raid shelter, too.
posted by alumshubby at 7:19 AM on August 19, 2005


It's a compelling argument. The worst thing about Nukes, IMO is the environmental damage, which this thing seems to address.

As to whether it's the 'most' moral weapon, though, I dunno. Certainly more moral then most of the weapons in WWII.

Of course I would make the argument that it's not the weapon, but the user who bares the responsibility, and that a neutron bomb, would be a more moral choice in many situations then a Nuke, or napalm, or whatever.
posted by delmoi at 7:24 AM on August 19, 2005


Designer of the neutron bomb. You ever hear of the neutron bomb? Destroys people - leaves buildings standing. Fits in a suitcase. It's so small, no one knows it's there until - BLAMMO. Eyes melt, skin explodes, everybody dead. So immoral, working on the thing can drive you mad. That's what happened to this friend of mine. So he had a lobotomy. Now he's well again.
posted by bondcliff at 7:29 AM on August 19, 2005


ah, Repo Man, there's my moral voice right there.

Radiation, yes indeed! You hear the most outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-boxed do-gooders telling everybody it’s bad for you. Pernicious nonsense! Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year. They ought to have 'em too. When they canceled the project it almost did me in. One day my mind was ready to burst. The next day nothing swept away. But I showed them. I had a lobotomy in the end.
posted by Candide at 7:38 AM on August 19, 2005


His idea of it being moral may come from the fact that given a target, you could either drop a conventional nuke and kill everyone, destroy the area and generate huge numbers of ongoing casualties from lack of shelter and clean water, or drop a neutron bomb and leave all the infrastructure there.
Deaths from cholera and other diseases caused by lack of infrastructure often rival deaths from explosions, and having intact urban areas would allow the population to recover faster after a conflict.
The choice is not between a neuton bomb and a bunch of roses, you could say.
posted by tripitaka at 7:48 AM on August 19, 2005


Dead-eye Dick combines both the neutron bomb and sniping, it is the official book of the thread!
posted by asok at 7:50 AM on August 19, 2005


A Machine to End War by Nikola Tesla February 1937

Nonetheless, Tesla's dream for a technological means to end war seems as impossible now as it did when he proposed the idea in the 1930s.

Missing Utopia - The End of Wardenclyffe!

Our civilization COULD have been very, very different than the sad and primitive state that it finds itself in presently. If Wardenclyffe would have succeeded and if we bypassed wars...today, we would be cloning; mastering anti-gravity; building on a huge scale; traveling to the stars at the speed of light and much more. Our society could have been similar to the world of Star Trek where Earthly wars have been eliminated; hate and racism have been eliminated; food is replicated; energy and knowledge have been converted to benefit everyone; and we are all bettering ourselves and improvong the human condition, etc.
posted by thomcatspike at 8:35 AM on August 19, 2005


Efficiency and progress is ours once more
Now that we have the Neutron bomb
It’s nice and quick and clean and gets things done
Away with excess enemy
With no less value to property
No sense in war but perfect sense at home…

posted by TedW at 9:02 AM on August 19, 2005


Every time someone talks about this, the hits on my blog (samcohen.org) like double

Sincerly,
not the inventor of the nuetron bomb
posted by menace303 at 9:16 AM on August 19, 2005


The worst thing about Nukes, IMO is the environmental damage

A philosophical point I know, but for me it's the deaths thing.
posted by biffa at 9:29 AM on August 19, 2005


I didn't agree with everything he had to say, but that was a very interesting article. Thank you for posting it.
posted by Malor at 9:34 AM on August 19, 2005


Your bra bomb better work, Nerdlinger.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:41 AM on August 19, 2005


When we had a FPP on snipers here not too long ago, a lot of MeFi'ers were aghast at the idea

Snipers have a bad rap.

What fires the blood and draws parallels between U.S. Troops and the Serbs/Nazis is the wreckless picking off of non combatants going about their daily business.
posted by CynicalKnight at 9:44 AM on August 19, 2005


I think you're missing the point. You wouldn't drop a neutron bomb at an enemy city. The point of a neutron bomb was that you could lob one at an advancing Soviet armored column and kill it dead without hurting people in the German villages 5 miles away.

If you wanted to take out a city, you'd still use a few regular old thermonuclear warheads. If you wanted to take out a factory, you'd bomb it conventionally.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:47 AM on August 19, 2005


So is this the bomb Jesus would use?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:49 AM on August 19, 2005


Given the choice between destroying a city with a) carpet-bombing, b) traditional fission and fusion weapons, or c) a neutron bomb - it seems pretty obvious that 'c' is the most moral choice of the three.

What's immoral is bombing civilian population centers to begin with. But if you're determined to do it anyway, using neutron bombs seems to be the polite and constructive thing to do.
posted by Ryvar at 10:41 AM on August 19, 2005


Considering that one primary aim of most international conventions on war is the differentiation between military and civilian populations, I would say no, not moral at all.
posted by dreamsign at 10:45 AM on August 19, 2005


Intriguing.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:56 AM on August 19, 2005


Considering that one primary aim of most international conventions on war is the differentiation between military and civilian populations, I would say no, not moral at all.

*Groan*. Again, from the article:

His first requirement was that wars should be fought as they had been historically, confining their damage to military combatants while towns and cities remained undamaged and their civilian inhabitants remained unscathed. This concept seemed quaint in a new era where everyone and everything was at risk of being vaporized in a nuclear exchange, but Cohen saw no reason why nukes had to be massively destructive. Technology existed to make them so small, they could cause less damage than even some conventional weapons.
posted by Scoo at 11:11 AM on August 19, 2005


What's immoral is bombing civilian population centers to begin with. But if you're determined to do it anyway, using neutron bombs seems to be the polite and constructive thing to do.

And that is precisely why the neutron bomb is so immoral Ryvar: it lowers the cost and makes it more likely to happen.

If men had to face each other across the trenches like in WW1 and suffer thousands of casualties for each engaement, there would be a hell of a lot fewer Republicans mongering for war.

Then again, maybe not.
posted by three blind mice at 11:23 AM on August 19, 2005


Ryvar: "What's immoral is bombing civilian population centers to begin with. But if you're determined to do it anyway, using neutron bombs seems to be the polite and constructive thing to do."

According to the article, Mr. Cohen's goal was the complete elimination of civilian casualties and deaths. The neutron bomb, as he describes it, is supposed to be a precision bomb that only hits military targets. That's the whole point. I think that, as the article notes, urban legend/myth has confused everybody so much that we really have no idea what the neutron bomb means without reading about it. That's one of the reasons this article is so neat.

Sadly, I don't think this bomb would have, for example, stopped the Japanese in WW2. But it sounds like it's worth trying elsewhere. I also feel as though the author seems to have something against Muslims, who aren't just "religious nuts with box cutters." They deserve respect, and that respect means seeing that, if they want to (and there might be some cause for them to want to) they can be a real threat to our fancy-ass 'technological western democracies.'
posted by Viomeda at 11:23 AM on August 19, 2005


three blind mice: man, this is nuts. You didn't read the article either? Did anybody?
posted by Viomeda at 11:27 AM on August 19, 2005


Remember when war was about holding territory Risk-style and not about shocking the enemy into admitting defeat by killing as many of them as it took? Seriously, the all-around consensus that's existed since borders became fairly static in the first world is apparently that conflict means you smack the other country and tell them to cut it out.

In this way, nuclear war is a lot more like terrorism than traditional war. And this was the tense status quo for decades: the threat of terrorism. The times, they aren't a-changin'...
posted by mikeh at 11:40 AM on August 19, 2005


As others have pointed out, this is just for conventional WWII style Kursk warfare. Everyone knows that war is terribly asymmetrical today.

Also let's say the Russians were coming over the Rhine in a tank column, who's to say they won't all be in APCs with heavy radiation shielding that they can drop off once they become reasonably close to NATO combatants. If Russia's action in WWII were any indication, they valued their war resources far more than the soldiers themselves. I doubt such a weapon would be much of a deterent to an authortarian regime. It'd be either "die of radiation or die of us shooting you".
posted by geoff. at 11:43 AM on August 19, 2005


That said, the neutron bomb is pretty much useless against modern terrorism, since small cells hide in the middle of civilian populations. It really only works against large militaries and established powers. Once again, a relic of the Cold War.

Of course, a paranoid friend of mine is convinced that China is going to conquer the US within a couple generations, so maybe he should be convincing someone to stockpile neutron bombs.
posted by mikeh at 11:46 AM on August 19, 2005


Mr. Cohen's goal was the complete elimination of civilian casualties and deaths

It's an intriguing method, but every time we see technology employed to replace soldiers on the ground, we end up with (foreign) civillian deaths. (one telling measure of our attitudes toward the value of domestic/foreign lives is our willingness to pummel an opponent senseless with air support before moving any soldiers in) We're now in the age of remote armed vehicles with human guidance yet -- remember killing the three old clerics with a rocket in Afghanistan? "They looked like Taliban".

confining their damage to military combatants while towns and cities remained undamaged and their civilian inhabitants remained unscathed

I understand how the neutron bomb is supposed to leave infrastructure (and civillian infrastructure is, incidentally, protected by international law, so this is to the good), but how is it supposed to target particular personnel?

Technology existed to make them so small, they could cause less damage than even some conventional weapons.

So we're talking about really small bombs, the destructive energy coming from nuclear reactions that won't leave radioactive decay. Tell me again how this will result in less civillian casualties than conventional weapons? Or are we simply saying less civillian casualties than standard nuclear arms? Since when do our opponents readily mark off military assets and separate them from civillian?
posted by dreamsign at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2005


These neutrons, do they contaminate underground oil reserves?
posted by caddis at 12:03 PM on August 19, 2005


according to the article, no.

There was no contamination of anything, that was the point. If one went off you either died pretty quickly (shock to the central nervous system.) or you got better with not that much more chance of cancer.

He covered that in the article.

also, about tanks being protected, that was the whole point of neutron bombs, it would be impossible, because neutrons are more penetrating than other types of radiation.
posted by Iax at 2:58 PM on August 19, 2005


The neutron bomb as a moral weapon is a pipe dream. Cohen may have had good intentions, but we all know what road those can pave. I watched The Thin Red Line once with a guy I knew who had served two six-year terms in the military (first in the Army, then in the Navy), and at one point, as a squad of soldiers from C Company were moving through the grass towards a hillside fortification, he said, "Those guys are too close together. They should be more spread out." I thought about it for a moment, and realized the logic behind that thought - when your opponent has explosives like grenades and rocket launchers, you don't want your forces too bunched together.

The same logic would apply on a larger scale for an army faced with a neutron bomb - instead of large columns, the army would disperse into companies and platoons with a mile or so between them, so as not to present any attractive targets to the bomb-launchers. The forces would reconcentrate only to attack fortified positions, such as... cities.

This is all assuming that war planners even wanted to avoid civilian casualties at all costs. They do not. The enemy's cities present attractive targets in themselves, not just because their civilian populations can be held hostage to terror, but in the conventionally more important sense that they contain industry and infrastructure vital to the enemy's war effort. In the latter case, the neutron bomb is useless, up until the point when a city is within striking distance of an occupying force, when it makes perfect sense to kill all its inhabitants with neutron bombs, then sweep in the next day to take over what's left. Once some unlucky detail has finished pulling out the corpses and burning them in the streets, all the munitions factories, railways, and supply depots are ready for commandeering and immediate use. Little muss or fuss, compared to the ugliness of street-by-street urban warfare. The logic becomes even more coldly compelling once those in charge have lost any compunction against terror-bombing civilians, as happened in both theaters of World War II, and arguably in Viet Nam as well.

The neutron bomb would never have made war more moral, or spared civilians, because to those wielding the weapons, the sparing of civilians comes second to minimizing one's own losses and winning the war.
posted by skoosh at 3:33 PM on August 19, 2005


Forgot to add: the neutron bomb is only more moral in comparison to conventional nuclear weapons. It cannot be considered more moral than conventional arms, because although the latter can permanently maim, they are not nearly so indiscriminately lethal.
posted by skoosh at 3:39 PM on August 19, 2005


How moral would it be to eliminate all of those pesky brown folks from the oil rich Middle East with neutron bombs so that we could suck all that oil down for the West?
posted by caddis at 3:59 PM on August 19, 2005


So is this the bomb Jesus would use? Excellent!

It was correct then and its is correct now. The neutron bomb is the ultimate capitalist weapon. It kills thousands indiscrimnantly and preserves real estate.

The article demonstrates the ignorance and folly of all those military planners and politicians, but that doesn't mean that Cohen, on the other hand, is right.

The history of warfare is a continuous evolution of more terrible ways to kill people. The invention of the stirrup created the armored knight. The invention of the crossbow brought about the end of knights. The invention of gunpower brought about the end of castles and sieges, but it didn't bring an end to more deadly warfare. It was once thought that the machine gun would bring about the end of modern wars. Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite said "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops." And so on. When a weapon is invented, it is guaranteed to be used and there is no weapon so terrible or effective that it will lead to fewer innocent deaths. Weapons do not bring about peace -- only changes in the hearts and minds can bring about peace. Moral and weapon are two words that do not belong together.
posted by JackFlash at 4:18 PM on August 19, 2005


Sounds to me like someone trying to ease his conscience for his involvement in the advance of nuclear weapons by convincing himself that it has "good" uses.

Kinda like Edward Teller, who was constantly trying to promote "peaceful" uses of nuclear bombs, like exploding one on the moon and then using a mass spectrometer to determine the composition of the soil (or something to that effect).
posted by Target Practice at 4:19 PM on August 19, 2005


Well, there's always using one here on Earth and then using a mass spectrometer to determine the composition of the enemy.
posted by dreamsign at 6:21 PM on August 19, 2005


Was anyone else disturbed that his weapon does the same to survivors as the inventors mom did to him? Or that the guy readily suggests that? Thank god he wasn't molested... I can only imagine what he would have made....
posted by KantoKing at 6:36 PM on August 19, 2005


"Alas, the way in which the neutron bombs were built totally perverted Cohen's original plan for them.

Two sizes were devised. Both were configured to explode near ground level, so that instead of minimizing blast damage they would maximize it to satisfy the enduring military need to blow things up. "

Herein lies the problem-a weapon is only as "moral" as those who wield it.
posted by MadOwl at 5:51 AM on August 20, 2005


I am still having trouble with the concept of a weapon capable of killing tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of people all in one fell swoop as being the most moral weapon ever invented.
posted by caddis at 8:32 AM on August 20, 2005


I am still having trouble with the concept of a weapon capable of killing tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of people all in one fell swoop as being the most moral weapon ever invented.

caddis puts in another unintentional vote for actually reading the article before commenting on it.

I'd differ slightly with the premise of the article, though. Use of the neutron bomb, as described, to take out military targets without collateral damage or contamination in a one-mile radius is certainly more moral than the result of a 100 megaton H-bomb airburst over a major metropolis.

But there is an argument to be made that the latter weapon, extant and unused, serves as a deterrent to the instigation of world war in a way that the former does not. Isn't avoidance of world war a pretty noble goal, morally speaking?
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:15 PM on August 21, 2005


I read the article. The neutron bomb is still one of the most immoral, not the most moral, weapons ever invented. If you love killing, then perhaps you can find it moral, otherwise it is an abomination. Killing in quantity and with efficiency does not make a moral weapon. I think that makes an immoral weapon. All you killers can disagree.
posted by caddis at 5:59 PM on August 21, 2005


In terms of deathcounts you could argue the neutron bomb is no better or worse than other weapons; both are abominable. However, the reduced economic damage of the neutron bomb acts as an economic incentive for its possessor to use it. Effectively it makes killing people more attractive to the used and increases the chances that its possessor will order mass killing. This would suggest it is potentially less 'moral' than the prior nuclear alternatives.
posted by biffa at 2:19 AM on August 22, 2005


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