An Escalatory Game for Fools and Madmen

Photograph Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine – CC BY-SA 2.0

Last Friday, I addressed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Below is the video of my statement, along with a transcript. 

If you are interested in my immediate feelings on speaking to the UN Security Council – a mix of gratitude, anger and despondency – you can listen to my interview from that afternoon with Randy Credico, Reggie Johnson and Ray McGovern on NYC’s WBAI radio. 

Here’s what I said:

Madam President, thank you for this opportunity to speak here today.

As a way of introduction I am a US Marine Corps combat veteran of the Iraq War. In 2009, I was a political officer with the US State Department in Afghanistan. I resigned my position over the escalation of that war. I have been a direct participant in the violence of war. I know its moral wickedness, I know its intellectual dishonesty and that is why I sit here today with a white poppy on my lapel to remember and recognize all the victims of war. It is my hope that sitting here today I can represent those who do not very often have a voice at this table.

I was last in this building as a Cub Scout when I was ten years old. That was 1983, the same year as the now well-documented near-nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. If not for the actions of one man that September, I might not have had the opportunity to grow up and live my life. None of you would have either. May God bless the memory of Stanislav Petrov.

Eight years later, in 1991, the same year I graduated high school, the Soviet flag came down at the Kremlin, and the Cold War ended. Collectively, we had been given the potential of a world no longer divided into two opposed nuclear-armed camps. The reality of that potential proved short-lived, and now here we sit, no safer and arguably at a greater risk of nuclear war than in 1983. 

Looking back, that lost potential for a world that could have been elicits a bitterness, part anger and part despondency, that casts a grave and sorrowful shadow over this institution. 

In the past 30 years, the number of nuclear-armed nations has grown. Arms treaties have been broken, including unilaterally and without merit by my own country. Modernization of nuclear forces by all parties has greatly increased the destructive capability of missile and bomber fleets, so even though numbers and yields of nuclear weapons have diminished, improved accuracy has increased the destructive power of those fleets. There are warheads designated as “usable” nuclear weapons. Disturbingly, we have generals, diplomats and politicians who believe such things exist.

The dissolution of arms control talks following the abrogation of the treaties leaves us with nuclear-armed powers that not only do not have the mechanisms to restart talks but also do not have the means to talk even during a crisis. That speaks nothing of the lack of political will or the immense mistrust between the nuclear powers. 

I have been speaking of the nuclear weapons at the top rung of the escalation ladder. Today, it is the weapons being used in Ukraine that are leading us to that top rung, which is an apocalyptic point of no return.

The US and NATO strategy for the war in Ukraine has been two-pronged: economic and military. Neither have worked and neither will work. As the strategy has failed, it has not been revisited, replaced or remanded, but reinforced. Thus, we have seen a steady wave of escalation for two years. 

The US and its allies never considered diplomacy, a needed third prong, which should have been the primary and dominant effort. Diplomacy was openly disparaged and repudiated. This was appalling diplomatic malpractice. And now, as a consequence, we sit here today as the killing, the destruction and the suffering enter their 26th month. 

The reality in warfare is that whatever new technology or tactic you introduce, your enemy will counter it and, more often than not, does so in an escalatory manner, to which you respond in kind. It is circular by nature but also linear, hence the infamous escalation ladder. You escalate or you de-escalate. There is no neutral or parallel option.

Ukraine is no exception to this. Attack the Kerch Bridge or blow up the Nord Stream pipeline, and Russia attacks Ukrainian energy infrastructure and port facilities. Send HIMARS rockets and Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine, and Russia introduces glide bombs and hypersonic weapons. 

On Monday, President Putin announced a Russian goal of buffer zones in Ukraine, presumably territory to the west of the annexed oblasts that will be taken as a response to the extended range munitions and F16 fighters to be provided to Ukraine. In recent weeks, multiple NATO heads of state and their generals, most prominently the French, have openly called for the deployment of NATO combat units to Ukraine. The Russian response has been to remind us of their nuclear capabilities. 

This is an escalatory game for fools and madmen. We are lucky we have made it this far. The arguments for continuing this war reside in the domain of those whom the American political scientist C. Wright Mills labeled crackpot realists in the first decade of the Cold War. Yet those crackpot realists had the good sense not to engage in a war like Ukraine, and both sides had leaders like Jack Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, and Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, men who had the courage and integrity to negotiate. 

I do not condone or support Russia’s invasion. Although provoked, it is a preemptive war that violates international law and is a strategic error. However, it must be noted that Russia attempted negotiations in 2021, 2022 and 2023, efforts that may have prevented, concluded or frozen this war if those diplomatic offers had been responded to in kind.

This war is a brutal and unwinnable meatgrinder. The toll is shocking and disgusting. It is a moral horror. Hundreds of thousands of casualties and ten million refugees. Incalculable environmental and infrastructure damage. Eastern Ukraine is a land depopulated, devastated and destroyed. Its fields and towns are saturated with mines and unexploded ordnance, and the toxic residue of modern war poisons its air, land, and water. Generations of unborn Ukrainians will pay for this war, either in land made uninhabitable or through mothers who give birth to dead, deformed and disabled babies. Ask the representatives here from Iraq, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and other nations if you believe war ever comes to an end. I believe the representative from Algeria can tell you what landmines do to a people and a land.

The escalatory trajectory of this war points to a risk greater than anyone should be willing to accept. This institution must do everything in its power to preclude any further escalation of this war and everything possible to force a ceasefire and initiate a political process for a lasting peace. If a ban on the transfer of weapons and munitions into this war is what is needed to force a ceasefire and negotiations, then so it must be. 

This Security Council must accept the responsibility of this moment and act to end this existential peril we face.

Finally, I wish to make a plea to abolish the UN Security Council veto. Whatever justifications the veto may have had, specious and self-serving as they often were, the ongoing genocide in Gaza has forever nullified such arguments. Claims made at this table that to protect civilian lives, ceasefire resolutions must be vetoed are as Orwellian as the assertions made in Washington, DC and Tel Aviv that genocide is self-defense. 

As the Palestinian people are being defiled and destroyed, the US for more than five months has defied the world, providing diplomatic cover and unlimited military assistance to Israel as it carries out its unholy genocide in Palestine. In order for this institution to honor its founding commitments and principles, the permanent member veto must be abolished. Never again should a nation be able to protect occupation, oppression, apartheid and genocide.  

Madam President, again, thank you for this opportunity to address this body. 

Matthew Hoh is the Associate Director of the Eisenhower Media Network. Matt is a former Marine Corps captain, Afghanistan State Department officer, a disabled Iraq War veteran and is a Senior Fellow Emeritus with the Center for International Policy.

Matthew Hoh is a member of the advisory boards of Expose Facts, Veterans For Peace and World Beyond War. In 2009 he resigned his position with the State Department in Afghanistan in protest of the escalation of the Afghan War by the Obama Administration. He previously had been in Iraq with a State Department team and with the U.S. Marines. He is a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy.