That was my response Friday when a friend tweeted me with news that President Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Unguarded as my words were, though, similar sentiments would soon reverberate across the land as incredulous newswatchers wondered the same question aloud. Like him or not, what exactly had Obama done during his first eight months in office to deserve what is, arguably, our species’s highest honor for reconciliation?
TIME.com writer David Von Drehle remains one of the incredulous, apparently. As he ponders next year’s Nobel, and the list of presumably more deserving recipients, the journalist has reached an odd, yet captivating, conclusion:
If the Nobel Committee ever wants to honor the force that has done the most over the past 60 years to end industrial-scale war, its members will award a Peace Prize to the bomb.
Von Drehle is not kidding in the least. In his adroitly titled, “Want Peace? Give a Nuke the Nobel,” he argues
that industrial killing was practiced by many nations in the old world without nuclear weapons. Soldiers were gassed and machine-gunned by the hundreds of thousands in the trenches of World War I, [right] when Hitler was just another corporal in the Kaiser’s army. By World War II, countries on both sides of the war used airplanes and artillery to rain death on battlefields as well as cities, until the number killed around the world was so huge that the best estimates of the total number lost diverge by some 16 million souls. The dead numbered 62 million or 78 million — somewhere in there.
So when last we saw a world without nuclear weapons, human beings were killing one another with such feverish efficiency that they couldn’t keep track of the victims to the nearest 15 million. Over three decades of industrialized war, the planet averaged about 3 million dead per year. Why did that stop happening?
It did, Von Drehle says, for one reason: Thanks to nuclear weapons,
Major powers find ways to get along because the cost of armed conflict between them has become unthinkably high.
Is Von Drehle right? It’s an old argument, that the power of the nuke is not explosive, but aversive; that no one really wants to see one go off. And although there’s exactly zero chance the Norwegians will give a Peace Prize to the Peacekeeper, the notion has got to have the inventor of dynamite—Alfred Nobel—cracking up in his grave.