The only winning move

The movie WarGames is the film that best sums up my generation’s take on the Cold War. Though it came out seven years before I was born, it brings together the experience of living decades removed from World War II- after proxy wars and decades of a nuclear and conventional arms race.

In short, I don’t understand the Cold War paradigm. Did I have to be there? Perhaps I did, but the stakes seem skewed. The United States created its nuclear stockpile as a way to ward off Communist influence. It also overthrew democratically elected presidents in the Middle East, South America, and Africa as means to an end- namely, a world of capitalist countries and United States military supremacy. The USSR had a similar vision in a somewhat different filter, and did the same things. Oh, and on several cases they almost destroyed all humankind due to hair-trigger nuclear systems.

Fighting for an idea is only so important. The citizens of the earth come before that. And creating an infrastructure that threatens all people just because you disagree with some of them is irresponsible and ludicrous. These weapons did not put an end to war- in between 1945 and 2000 about 40,000,000 (PDF) people died in armed conflict. People fighting under the banner of Communism still died by the millions, just like US soldiers and their allies and proxies.

The paradigm baffles me. On a smaller scale- say Chicago has a giant death ray that could level the city. But it’s a cure for many problems like crime, and it will be used responsibly!

Two issues. Firstly what was originally made by reasonable people will eventually end up in the hands of unreasonable people. You probably know some people you wouldn’t trust with your car, would you trust them with your community’s safety? Secondly, the death ray is itself a problem that it cannot solve. You’ve gone to the edge of space and looked into the void. There is no further to go- something so destructive that it cannot be made anything other than an existential threat.

In the final scene, the maniacal sentient supercomputer (any movie involving computers will have at least one of these) is set to use NORAD systems and launch the United States’ nuclear arsenal against the Soviets. In a moment of insight, the brilliant bad-boy hacker (see previous sentence) orders the computer to play Tic-Tac-Toe against itself. As a well-played game always ends in a draw, the computer begins to understand the concept of a no-win scenario- that sometime actions are always futile. After running through hundreds of global events involving nuclear weapons, the AI surmises that “the only winning move is not to play.” That there is no geopolitical advantage to nuclear weapons, because any scenario involving them is never winnable.

So the United States and the USSR considered World War III well worth the effort if their opponents were all dead too. As an existentialist myself, isn’t there a better way to live our short lives rather than work to make them shorter?

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