I have a distinct memory from my childhood of my parents trying to explain the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction to me. It blew my mind. The idea that two sides wanting the same thing - peace - would choose invest more into the trappings of war instead of just deciding to disarm completely made little sense to a 9-year-old me.
I'm 46 now, and I'm still not sure it makes much sense.
MAD is a cessation of active conflict by means of threat of annihilation. That's not the same thing as peace. Not by a long shot. Though MAD keeps the shooting and bombing at bay, it perpetuates conflict and misery through passive aggressive exchanges between the powerful; a flourishing and insidious network of covert intelligence operations (that are often used as much against one's own side as they are against the enemy); and a general feeling of anxiety from the omnipresent threat of a nuclear Armageddon hanging over the heads of the populace.
What a way to live.
I remember naively asking my parents why America would participate in such an agreement. "If we really want peace," I said, "why not just get rid of all our bombs and guns and refuse to fight?"
"Because that would leave us vulnerable," they responded.
Everyone talks about being willing to sacrifice - even die - for their respective causes and countries, but almost always in the context of fighting, killing and valiantly attempting to destroy and defeat (or at least, defend against) their enemies.
No one is ever enthusiastic about the idea of sacrificing in the context of vulnerability. Or in the context of negotiation and conflict resolution. Or in the context of doing what truly takes courage: refusing to perpetuate conflict by participating in the madness that is mutually assured destruction.
And so it goes. Each nation, each party, each person maintaining an arsenal and a defensive posture, assuring ourselves that it's because 'the other side' does it.
We don't have a choice.