Thinking the unthinkable

John Naughton: the myth of ‘Civil Defence’

The Western powers and the USSR started by producing and stockpiling nuclear weapons as a deterrent to general war. The idea seemed simple enough. Because of the enormous amount of destruction that could be wreaked by a single nuclear explosion, the idea was that both sides in what we still see as an East-West conflict would be deterred from taking any aggressive action which might endanger the vital interests of the other.

It was not long, however, before smaller nuclear weapons of various designs were produced and deployed for use in what was assumed to be a tactical or theatre war. The belief was that were hostilities ever to break out in Western Europe, such weapons could be used in field warfare without triggering an all-out nuclear exchange leading to the final holocaust.

I have never found this idea credible. I have never been able to accept the reasons for the belief that any class of nuclear weapons can be categorised in terms of their tactical or strategic purposes.

The author of these words was not, as you might expect, some disarmament freak, nor an aging member of CND, nor even an elderly academic whose corns have never quite recovered from the long slog to Aldermaston. He was, in fact, the late, and justifiably lamented, Earl Mountbatten, and the excerpt is taken from his last major speech, delivered to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on 11 May 1979. The complete text has been reprinted by CND under the heading ‘The Speech We Ignored’. The question is: who is ‘we’?

Not the disarmament lobby, surely, for Mountbatten was only articulating what its members have been saying for generations – namely, that the idea of ‘winning’ a nuclear war is cruel and dangerous nonsense. The fact that Mountbatten agreed with this assessment is only further evidence of the sound sense and judgment which he displayed, par excellence, in the last war.

The people who have ignored Mountbatten’s speech belong, not to the disarmament lobby, but to the general community of intellectuals in this society who pride themselves on their knowledgeable awareness of contemporary issues: politicians, academics, journalists, commentators; contributors to literary and political journals; readers, indeed, of this. For one of the things that is most striking about the question of nuclear war is the intellectual paralysis which it evokes. In this respect, it is different from, say, the Jewish holocaust – a subject on which dozens of our brightest intellects have been deployed in recent years, and which has been treated, directly or obliquely, in novels like William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, films like The Night Porter, and in the writings of Hannah Arendt, George Steiner, Bruno Bettelheim and a host of others. But on the subject of the nuclear holocaust there is a deafening silence. It is as if, somehow, the entire topic had been declared out of bounds, as if it were ‘unthinkable’.

Such a state of affairs is profoundly dangerous both to our prospects of survival and our liberty.[1] The decisions about nuclear weapons which are currently on the agenda of the Thatcher Government have awesome implications for British society. Yet large sections of the intellectual establishment treat them with what Daniel Moynihan once described as ‘benign neglect’. In this respect, Britain is radically different from some of her European neighbours – particularly Holland, where a vociferous debate about the neutron bomb, proliferation, disarmament and cruise missiles has raged for years. Perhaps this is simply another manifestation of the disdain displayed by élites in this society towards ‘technical’ questions: they are seen as matters essentially for ‘boffins’, back-room boys and the like, rather than as grist for serious intellectual mills. Or perhaps it is a reflection of the bias towards the humanities, politics and economics inherent in the education of our opinion-formers.

But while accepting that British intellectuals have tended to shy away from their responsibilities in this area, we must also recognise that there are powerful reasons for their reluctance. For the whole issue of nuclear weapons and their consequence is indeed distressing in the extreme. Many people, for example, feel that even to engage in factual analyses of these matters somehow carries the connotation of moral approval. To discuss the (very considerable) differences between the effects of, say, a nuclear explosion at ground level and one detonated in the air smacks of fiddling while civilisation burns, of quibbling over degrees of incommensurable misery. This is precisely the kind of computation that the mathematical psychopaths in the Pentagon do (so the argument runs). So why should civilised people debase themselves by playing such macabre games?

There is something in this argument, but I fear it is misguided – for two reasons. In the first place, the absence of informed critical analysis of the rationale, costs and effects of nuclear weapons means that the military strategists and their political mouthpieces are given an unimpeded run in the mass media, Parliament and elsewhere. The ‘logic’ of their calculations goes unchallenged – except perhaps at the level of moral absolutes. The inconsistencies and illogicality of strategic plans remain unexposed – and the public debate is the poorer as a result. At this critical juncture in our affairs, such impoverishment is more than we can afford.

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[1] The Commons Debate of 24 January this year was the first to be held on the subject of nuclear weapons for 15 years, and it lasted only about five and a half hours.

[2] The news that the last Labour Administration managed to conceal the £1000 million cost of the upgrading of Polaris (the Chevaline project) in the Defence Estimates does not say much for the effectiveness of Parliamentary scrutiny in this area.

[3] See Herbert Scoville Jr, ‘America’s Greatest Construction: Can it work?’, New York Review of Books, 20 March 1980.

[4] Guardian, 23 June 1980.

[5] The Effects of Nuclear War, Croom Helm, £7.95, 0 7099 0364 4, 1980, p. 18. Anyone seeking a lucid briefing on the main aspects of nuclear weapons and their effects will find this little book invaluable.

[6] For example, in pamphlets like ‘How to survive the Nuclear Age’, the Ecology Party, 80 p; ‘Civil Defence: The Cruellest Confidence Trick’, CND, 40 p; or in Peter Laurie’s Beneath the City Streets, (Panther, 1979).

[7] Jonathan Schell’s In a Time of Torment (Knopf, 1975) provides a graphic account of the links between Nixon’s foreign policy and his strategy for domestic political repression which culminated in Watergate.

[8] Spokesman Pamphlet No 71, 45p, ‘prepared’, according to the title page, ‘for the people of England’ One wonders what Mr Thompson has against the Scots and the Welsh.