The End of the Future

Jeff McMahan

  • The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell
    Cape/Picador, 256 pp, £7.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 224 02064 1
  • The Two-Edged Sword: Armed Force in the Modern World by Laurence Martin
    Weidenfeld, 108 pp, £5.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 297 78139 1
  • Zero Option by E.P. Thompson
    Merlin, 198 pp, £10.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 85036 288 1
  • Disarming Europe edited by Mary Kaldor and Dan Smith
    Merlin, 196 pp, £10.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 85036 277 6

The Reagan Administration’s bellicose posturing and its apparent relish for the Cold War have finally succeeded in rousing Americans to an awareness of the danger of nuclear war. But, while Reagan and his associates certainly deserve most of the credit for dispelling people’s complacency, the American campaign against the nuclear arms race has also received considerable inspiration from a series of articles by Jonathan Schell which appeared this past February in the New Yorker. These articles have now been reprinted in book form, and are continuing to have a profound impact on people’s thinking about the nuclear threat.

The book is divided into three sections. The first contains a detailed discussion of the probable consequences of a large-scale nuclear war (which in the New Yorker was juxtaposed, in the usual way, with advertisements for luxurious living), and concludes that such a war could conceivably lead to the extermination of all human life. This then leads to a series of reflections on the prospect of human extinction. The third section challenges the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, and advocates complete nuclear and conventional disarmament, and the renunciation of national sovereignty.

The power of the book lies in Schell’s passionate concern for the future of the human race. The sombre meditation on the possible death of the entire human species seeks to explain and justify this concern. Schell distinguishes between two losses which would occur if nuclear war were to result in the extinction of human life. One is the loss which existing people would suffer in dying prematurely. The other is the loss of future generations. While he believes that both losses would be incalculably tragic, he regards the latter as ‘supreme’. Indeed, it is the conviction that it is supremely important morally to ensure the existence of future generations that animates and informs the whole of the book.

Several possible justifications for this conviction come out during the course of Schell’s somewhat rambling argument, but none of them is more than partially successful. One focuses on the extent to which existing people’s lives would be impoverished by the expectation that all human life would soon come to an end. At present our lives are enriched by the assumption that they will be linked in various ways with the lives of future people. Future generations serve ‘as the audience for our works of art, as the outstretched hands to receive our benefactions ... as the minds that will provide us with immortality by remembering our words and deeds, and as the successors who will justify us by carrying on with the tasks that we have started or advanced’. Thus if their existence comes into doubt, our ‘own lives become progressively more twisted, empty and despairing’. Schell illustrates this claim by presenting a poignant vision of the blighting effect the belief that we may be the final generation can have on love, marriage and art, as well as on our social and political relations. It is obvious, however, that this explanation cannot account for the overriding importance which he attributes to ensuring the existence of future generations. The prospect of extinction can have adverse effects on our lives, but there are other things which can have equally adverse effects without being as dreadful as extinction would be. So the evil of extinction cannot be fully explained in terms of its impact on the lives of the living.

Schell is aware of this. He stresses that his ‘emphasis on us ... does not mean that our only reason for restraining ourselves from elimination of the future generations is to preserve them as auxiliaries to our needs.’ Future people should not be regarded instrumentally, as agents for carrying on with ‘enterprises that are supposedly grander and more splendid than they are ... The works of man are great, but man himself is greater.’ He claims that ‘what we must desire first of all is that people be born, for their own sakes.’ For ‘if we let them into life they will have abundant opportunity to be glad that they were born.’ In these passages Schell has cited, and apparently conflated, two distinct reasons for ensuring the existence of future generations. When he speaks of ‘valuing the future human beings themselves’, he seems to have in mind the view that the existence of human life is intrinsically valuable, that it is simply a good thing that people should exist. On the other hand, when he refers to the ‘desire that the unborn exist for their own sake’, he seems to have in mind the view that people can benefit by being brought into existence, and that we have a duty, other things being equal, to benefit future people by causing (or allowing) them to exist.

These views can diverge in their implications, but they are nevertheless sufficiently similar to be treated together. Each provides a reason for ensuring the existence of future generations, but not the reason that Schell is looking for. To see this, let us compare two choices. The first is the choice between extinction and the perpetuation of the human race. The second is a hypothetical choice between perpetuating the human race just on planet Earth and perpetuating the human race both on Earth and on some other planet. In this second choice, the alternative which involves populating another planet would, we may suppose, roughly double the number of people who would exist in the future. Thus the first alternative in each of these two choices would involve denying life to roughly the same number of people. Extinction would deny life to a large number of people who would have had intrinsically valuable lives, or who would have benefited from being alive. But so would the failure to populate another planet. So on either of the two views cited by Schell, populating only one planet rather than two would be just as bad as choosing extinction rather than the perpetuation of the human race. One doubts whether Schell would accept this conclusion. The problem is that the views he has cited simply emphasise producing greater numbers of lives that would be worth living. As long as the number, length and quality of the lives would be roughly the same, then in principle it ought not to matter whether the lives would be spread out over time in a long succession of generations, or whether they would all be compressed into a small number of generations. In short, it ought not to matter whether they would be spread out over time or over space. But Schell seems concerned that the human race should be spread out over time.

While his discussion of these matters is in many respects plausible and illuminating, he fails in the end to provide more than a partial justification for the supreme importance he attaches to ensuring the existence of future generations This leaves his central objection to nuclear deterrence – that it risks extinction – without as solid a foundation as he would like. Still, this objection may have some force for those of us who already share his view of the importance of future generations. His other criticisms of the doctrine of deterrence are, however, less persuasive. These other criticisms attempt to buttress the central moral objection by attacking the doctrine’s intellectual credibility. According to Schell, deterrence is doubly contradictory. One ‘contradiction’ is that deterrence requires that ‘we seek to avoid our self-extinction by threatening to perform the act.’ But ‘we cannot both threaten ourselves with something and hope to avoid that same thing by making the threat – both intend to do something and intend not to do it.’ The view that Schell is here attacking is certainly incoherent, but it is merely a caricature of deterrence. Deterrence is a relation between two actors, not something that ‘we’ do to ‘ourselves’. Schell’s second objection is at least aimed at the right target. He notes that the point of threatening a retaliatory strike is to prevent a first strike; therefore if a first strike occurs, a retaliatory strike is then pointless. This is true, and the paradox has long been recognised. Schell, however, concludes that ‘one cannot credibly deter a first strike with a second strike whose raison d’être dissolves the moment the first strike arrives.’ This is simply false, as Schell implicitly acknowledges when he notes that revenge can serve as a surrogate for a ‘rational motive’.

Critiques of deterrence feature prominently in other recent books. Laurence Martin argues in his Reith Lectures that the theory of deterrence based on ‘mutual assured destruction’ has ‘serious and probably fatal flaws’. He goes on, however, to endorse a refined version of nuclear deterrence which emphasises ‘counterforce targeting’, ‘limited nuclear options’, and so on. The Two-Edged Sword is unashamedly a defence of the status quo. Martin sums up his position by citing the old WWI cartoon in which one of two soldiers in a shell-hole responds to the other’s complaints by saying: ‘if you knows of a better ’ole, go to it.’ Martin is a more capable strategic analyst than Schell, and his writing is certainly crisper than the repetitive, often tiresomely long-winded prose that characterises The Fate of the Earth. But his book is rather thin and passionless, and many of its arguments are too brisk to carry conviction.

In writing about Martin’s Reith Lectures, any reviewer will want to be as brief and inconspicuous as possible: otherwise he risks having his own efforts compared with the brilliantly satirical and justly celebrated review which E.P. Thompson published in New Society some months back. Although it is rather unpleasantly savage in its attacks on Martin himself, the piece is nevertheless immensely entertaining, and its reappearance in a new collection of Thompson’s papers is greatly welcome. Zero Option brings together a number of the most important of Thompson’s recent articles and speeches, ranging from lengthy papers on deterrence and the Cold War, to brief articles on the Polish crisis and the Falklands war. The one on the Falklands war – it was righteously deplored in the House of Lords following its initial publication in the Times – is a powerful denunciation of the motives and behaviour of the various parties concerned in the conflict. The conflict is depicted as an absurd contest for ‘face’, initiated by the declining Argentine junta in order to whip up an orgy of patriotism, and exploited by the British Government to rescue its own popularity at the polls. The US and Soviet Governments are pictured manoeuvering adroitly on the sidelines, each occupied with the business of protecting or advancing its own interests. Here and elsewhere Thompson has made an obvious effort (if any effort was required) to be impartial and objective in his criticisms of the super-powers. The idea that he and his ‘fellow travellers’ in the disarmament movement are tools of the Kremlin, which is the part they have been assigned in ‘the Cold War script’, is given the lie consistently throughout the book. References such as that to ‘the monotonous state-licensed idiocy of Communist intellectual orthodoxy’, or to ‘the interminable and threatening argument between born-again Christians and still-born Marxists’, exemplify, not only his rich literary and polemical resources, but also his persistent refusal to allow his efforts to be exploited for any purpose other than the promotion of peace. Thompson attacks the theory of deterrence on the ground that, ‘by maintaining each party in a posture of menace to the other, it fixes indefinitely the tension which makes the resolution of differences improbable.’ Thus it has become ‘the ideological lubricant of the arms race’.

In the recent literature, the most penetrating and persuasive critique of nuclear deterrence is to be found in the contribution by Allan Krass and Dan Smith to an excellent collection of papers entitled Disarming Europe. Krass and Smith distinguish between the theory of mutual assured destruction, or ‘pure deterrence’, and the counterforce theory of deterrence. Pure deterrence threatens an aggressor with punishment: counterforce strategy threatens him with defeat. A similar contrast is commonly drawn between ‘deterrence’ and ‘warfighting’, with the suggestion that those who emphasise warfighting are not interested in deterrence. As Krass and Smith show, this is unfair to the advocates of counterforce. Counterforce also aims to deter, but ‘the deterrent function is the product of the ability to fight a nuclear war and win it.’ Krass and Smith present a number of cogent arguments against pure deterrence, and show how an increasing awareness of the theory’s defects has led strategists like Martin to embrace the counterforce theory. They go on, however, to provide an equally forceful critique of counterforce. Disarming Europe is one of the very best books yet to be written on the problem of nuclear weapons in Europe. In addition to the essay on nuclear strategy by Krass and Smith, it contains a useful inventory of nuclear weapons in Europe compiled by William Arkin. The paper on Nato doctrine by Sverre Lodgaard presents both the most convincing exposition of the case for the new cruise and Pershing II missiles and the most devastating critique of that case that I have yet encountered. There is also an excellent paper by David Holloway on the Soviet view of theatre nuclear weapons.

The contributors to this volume claim to know of a better ’ole than nuclear deterrence – at least where European security is concerned. The papers by Ben Dankbaar and Anders Boserup explore and defend the idea that the security of Europe could be enhanced by the adoption of an alternative, non-nuclear defence policy. This is a possibility which Martin simply ignores, and which Schell rejects. Schell argues that ‘nuclear disarmament cannot occur if conventional arms are left in place’: for, if conventional wars are allowed to break out, nuclear weapons will soon reappear. This is an important argument, but not a decisive one. For the advantages of a strong non-nuclear defence may be such that a country which had adopted it would have no incentive to rearm itself with nuclear weapons, even in a time of war. In any case, it is more likely that nuclear disarmament cannot occur unless a viable alternative defence policy is put in place of nuclear deterrence – at least as an interim measure. For it is unlikely that people will be willing to ban the bomb unless they are persuaded that there are equally effective ways of defending their values.

Boserup argues that a non-nuclear system of defence should be manifestly defensive in character. (For example, it should be without long-distance transport, and should avoid long-range weapons.) Stability, he contends, is not a function of the balance of power (as Martin believes), but depends on the superiority of each side’s defensive capabilities over the other side’s offensive capabilities. Following up this line of thought, he might have mentioned that, as Liddell Hart has argued, defence has been gaining in advantage over offence for well over a century. This is partly because the changing nature of warfare has enhanced certain natural advantages enjoyed by the defence: for example, the defence can fight from prepared positions, taking advantage of the shelter provided by the terrain, while the offence must expose itself to fire while it is advancing. The defender’s lines of supply and communication are also more secure. Again, the defence has gained from advances in conventional weapons technology. In recent years the most significant advance has been the development of precision-guided munitions, or PGM. Certain PGM are now so light that they can be operated by individual infantry soldiers. This has increased the vulnerability of tanks, but there have been no correspondingly significant developments which have increased the vulnerability of infantry soldiers. Thus, because the offence must rely more on tanks and less on infantry than the defence, PGM have on balance benefited the defence. Because they are so light, PGM are also well suited for use in guerrilla warfare. This opens up possibilities for the non-nuclear defence of Europe which are only beginning to be explored.

In the course of his essay on this subject, Dankbaar notes that the border areas of West Germany, where much of the fighting in a major European war would take place, consist mainly of forests and villages. This is significant, for these are precisely the types of area which lend themselves to guerrilla defence. In these areas, guerrilla forces can attack by stealth and then quickly fade back into the landscape before the invading forces have time to react. It would therefore be possible for part of Nato’s forward defence to become the responsibility of local militia units armed with PGM (among other things) and trained in guerrilla warfare tactics. These militia units could be composed largely of reservists and local volunteers, thus releasing some of Nato’s regular forces for deployment in open areas and in depth. This is only one proposal. Dankbaar’s essay is particularly valuable in the exposition it provides of various other proposals which have been made for sup-lementing or replacing Nato’s regular conventional forces with plans for territorial defence.

There are various objections to the idea of non-nuclear defence besides that put forward by Schell. One is that, if Nato gives up tactical nuclear weapons while the Warsaw Pact retains them, there will then be nothing to deter the Warsaw Pact from using their nuclear weapons to achieve a decisive advantage on the battlefield – or indeed using them to destroy Nato’s main forces pre-emptively. Boserup answers this objection by stressing that Western Europe’s forces ‘must be arranged so that they do not provide meaningful targets for the nuclear weapons of the enemy. For this reason they must be widely dispersed and mobile, and able to function independently of any logistics installations, airfields, harbours, and the like.’ It should be stressed that it is an advantage of conventional forces that they can safely be dispersed. Nuclear weapons, by contrast, have to be concentrated in a small number of readily identifiable sites. If they were dispersed, they would then be vulnerable to attack or theft by terrorists. Moreover, the tight controls that are now maintained on the firing of nuclear weapons would have to be relaxed, so that the probability of an unauthorised firing would be increased. But, as long as nuclear weapons must be clustered together, they will provide tempting targets for pre-emptive nuclear strikes.

Strengthening non-nuclear defences provides a way of reducing or eliminating Western Europe’s dependence on nuclear weapons that can be pursued independently of lengthy and uncertain negotiations between the superpowers. The gradual strengthening of non-nuclear defences could be paralleled by the gradual and unilateral phasing out of nuclear weapons. The contributors to Disarming Europe seem generally to favour this course. They are agreed, for example, that Nato should unilaterally abandon its plan to deploy cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. Yet they also think that the Geneva negotiations on theatre nuclear forces should be supported. They apparently endorse what E.P. Thompson calls the peace movement’s ‘double track’ position, which involves both encouraging super-power negotiations and pressing for unilateral disarmament initiatives. In the case of the Geneva negotiations, however, these two tracks are doubtfully consistent. Cruise and Pershing II missiles are, at least at present, among the few weapons which the negotiations are about. And one cannot seriously negotiate the abandonment of weapons which the other side knows one is prepared to abandon anyway. In any case, there is at present every reason for scepticism about the outcome of the Geneva negotiations. The two sides have come to the negotiating table with wildly divergent and highly distorted pictures of the military balance. And each has put forward proposals designed for European and domestic consumption, in the confident expectation that they will be rejected by the other side. As Thompson himself points out, there are various senior figures in the Reagan Administration whose ‘attitude to negotiations is strictly cosmetic and propagandist’. And indeed Reagan and Brezhnev have both used the occasion to gratify the world audience with effusive professions of a deep desire for peace. All that stands in the way is the intransigence of the other. Meanwhile, the deployment date for the new missiles draws nearer, and it seems increasingly likely that the missiles will be installed. The development of an alternative defence policy for Europe would allow us to turn the spotlight away from this edifying spectacle, and instead get down to the serious business of nuclear disarmament.