Weeks of rising media chatter about nuclear war and other major regional conflicts are a form of "war games" that we'd do well to handle with caution
On Wednesday, North Korea fired 23 missiles. One landed less than 37 miles from South Korea’s coast. South Korea responded with three air-to-ground missiles along a territory closed to commercial air traffic, and around 100 artillery shells from North Korea entered a military buffer zone. According to the Japanese Coast Guard, another missile landed 16 miles from the Northern Limit Line—the closest encroachment since the Korean War’s 1953 armistice—and other North Korean missiles neared Sokcho and Ulleung, yielding air raid alarms on the latter island. North Korea is calling on the US and South Korea to halt joint air exercises, which are part of Operation “Vigilant Storm” in the region.
This week, the US also received warnings from China in relation to expansion of its US presence in Australia: an aircraft parking apron at RAAF Base Tindal, inland from the city of Darwin, receiving six B-52s, a long-range heavy bomber used primarily for ocean surveillance and defense but with the capacity to carry nuclear loads as well. China called on these two powers, which are strengthening their alliance through joint training exercises that have been carried out via similar visits since the 1980s, to avoid “escalat[ing] regional tensions” and “trigger[ing] an arms race” by pursuing an “outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality”.
And therein lies the question: who is escalating? US President Joe Biden has been warning all month, overtly and consistently, that Russian president Vladimir Putin is preparing to use nuclear weapons—and that the Kremlin is laying the groundwork for Russian “justification” by spreading rumors of Kyiv preparing its own dirty bomb first. This is a common move in the region, which also recently saw Azerbaijan claim Armenian preemptive aggression to justify invasion into soil ostensibly settled after 2020 hostilities. The game here is to entrench international debate through a “he said, she said” that in this case amounts to a fog of potentially nuclear war.
In 1983—literal Cold War days—the movie WarGames imagined a military computer simulation where the only winning move, to stave off nuclear apocalypse, was to refuse to play the game at all.
It’s a lesson we struggle to enact in the “real” world, where many of our crises, from inflation to the nuclear doomsday clock, are exacerbated by reckless discussion—and yet, still necessary to discuss, if we can do so responsibly, among good-faith actors.
Our most recent gamification of war started in February, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which early armchair commentators insisted would be over in weeks, with a level of overconfidence echoing misguided World War I rhetoric a century prior. Nine months on, the ongoing fallout is joined with escalating military pressures between the US and China over Taiwan (a nation key to Western tech futures), and North Korean missile strikes are of a piece with these recently rising shows of military force. Ostensibly, such performative displays are intended to prevent future violence, but such “sabre-rattling” always carries with it the menace of actual armed combat.
For all that the US shows deep political schisms, though, this is one place where many from the extreme alt-right and center-liberal left share underlying concerns, even if responses to those concerns differ wildly. Amid both far-right nationalist rhetoric calls for US withdrawal from worldly politics (by any means, and via any concessions to violent oppressors in other regions) and centrist liberal calls for a cessation of hostilities through Russia and China expressly abandoning their expansionist projects, is a wealth of everyday human beings rightly terrified by the prospect of more widespread and even nuclear war.
The problem for us all is that it is almost effortless to talk about wartime escalation, and the threat of nuclear deployment, as if it were a game—and in so doing, to exacerbate that same threat. It’s also easy to buy into the manipulative rhetoric that bad-faith actors are disseminating, by blaming the “other side” for escalating tensions in a manner that, again, shows very little learning from the lead-up to World War I, or the hard reality of unrelenting German encroachment before World War II.
What can we do?
For one, we can avoid signal-boosting media that thrives on this spectacle. Yes, it may be important for major political leaders and their diplomats to issue these warnings to one another, but foreign powers are also looking to see the impact of such brutal rhetoric as it plays out in other states’ media. Our media—our fears, and our willingness to disseminate them—are weapons in these war games, too.
For another, we can renew calls for our respective countries to commit to mutual disarmament and peace-building initiatives. Some of these efforts are already underway, and deserve our attention and promotion in mainstream and social media networks above and beyond the “thrills and chills” of current discourse around military training exercises. On October 31, for instance, the UN’s First Committee (on Disarmament and International Security) approved a draft resolution, sponsored by Japan with US backing, for “a common road map towards a world without nuclear weapons”. It is a choice not to elevate this kind of peace-building work instead.
And lastly? Although it’s extremely difficult in fraught political environments like the US, which have seen seemingly insurmountable schisms between mainstream conservative and liberal groups and radicalized alt-right movements, we can also strive to recognize the rare common ground that exists in a shared desire, found in everyday people across the political spectrum, not to descend into World War III.
Even if our ideas about how to avoid that outcome differ to a troubling ideological degree, we can begin to lay the foundation for healing by recognizing the fundamental role that fear and uncertainty have been playing in our rhetoric all along.
What would our approach to these “war games” look like if we recognized how easily our panic is weaponized by bad-faith global actors? What could everyday civilian response entail, when faced with the prospect of further political efforts to gamify our reaction to potentially devastating crises a world—our world—away?