Nuclear Argument

Keith Kyle

  • Objections to Nuclear Defence: Philosophers on Deterrence edited by Nigel Blake and Kay Pole
    Routledge, 187 pp, £5.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0249 0
  • Reagan and the World: Imperial Policy in the New Cold War by Jeff McMahan
    Pluto, 214 pp, £3.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 86104 602 1
  • A future that will work by David Owen
    Viking, 192 pp, £12.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 670 80564 5
  • The Most Dangerous Decade: World Militarism and the New Non-Aligned Peace Movement by Ken Coates
    Spokesman, 211 pp, £15.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 85124 405 X

‘It’s not that Ronald Reagan hasn’t got any ideas of his own,’ an American who held high office in the Pentagon under Jimmy Carter remarked recently. ‘The trouble is that he has such peculiar ones.’ He was referring to what has been officially termed the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) but what is much more appropriately called Star Wars. It is the President’s idea for making nuclear weapons ‘impotent and obsolete’. With all the fervour of a true believer he has announced that he is staking his faith in America’s scientific and technological genius on the proposition that a carapace can be erected over the United States – and (why not?) over Nato Europe as well. Any and every incoming missile is to be intercepted at some place along the flight path starting with the initial boost phase. After all, Americans produced the atom bomb, they got to the Moon, why not this as well? Reagan wants $26 billion spent on research and then, when American scientists have come up with the secret, they can share it with the Russians – then they will both be safe. Anyone who opposes the project – and some of America’s most distinguished citizens have explained, in lucid prose and with impeccable logic, why it cannot succeed and why it is dangerous to try – can be shown either to lack faith in America’s ability to do anything it really sets out to do or to be morally unwilling to depart from the appalling implications of Mutual Assured Destruction.

What is one to make of this? Few informed people in America, let alone elsewhere, seem prepared to defend the Star Wars proposition in all its stark simplicity – though it matters that these few include the President and the Secretary of Defence – but that has not stopped powerful forces building up behind it: government intervention to the tune of $26 billion should work wonders for the free market economy of the United States and for its scientific profession. Also there are many strategists who, while hastily disclaiming responsibility for the President’s utopian claims on SDI’s behalf, are willing to present a more modest case for a better mix between defensive and offensive weapons. But it is the utopian claims, not the practical arguments, that have the popular appeal. After all, since both sides have had nuclear weapons so-called defence policies have required us to stand on our heads – to abandon all thought of defending our civilian populations and our urban societies in return for being able to threaten the other side with certain mass destruction. We have become so accustomed to this abnormal posture that, by a process of Darwinian adaptation, we have, as it were, sprouted fresh feet out of our upturned heads. Ronald Reagan has been daring or foolhardy enough to suggest that we learn at immense expense to resume what was once regarded as the right-way-up position. This is disconcerting orthodox strategists and their moral critics alike, since the voices of moral censure on this question normally come from a different direction.

Given that nuclear weapons pose apocalyptic moral problems, it is scarcely to be wondered at that philosophers and theologians, the two classes of person generally supposed to be expert at discussing questions of morality, should feel a compulsion to join in the debate about them. Many of the contributors to Objections to Nuclear Defence, a symposium on the moral aspects of the strategy of deterrence from a group of professional philosophers, take as their frame of reference the ancient doctrine of the just war which has inspired most attempts to create international laws of war. Resort to force should have a cause sufficiently just to override the moral ugliness of war. There should be a reasonable prospect of success; the damage to be inflicted, and the lives lost, should be proportional to the good to be gained or the evil prevented by taking up arms; the actual conduct of the war should be discriminate, avoiding any direct attack on non-combatants. The authors ask whether these rules make any sense if nuclear weapons are used, and conclude, unsurprisingly, that they do not. One of the authors, Father Roger Ruston, points out that in 1977, when the latest Protocol of the Laws of War was adopted at Geneva, both Britain and the United States entered a reservation to the effect that ‘the new rules introduced by the Protocol are not intended to have any effect on and so do not regulate or prohibit the use of nuclear weapons.’ If the Protocol is intended to define civilised bounds, the use of nuclear weapons is clearly outside them. But it is said that nuclear weapons are not for use but to deter. Can it be morally acceptable to possess for deterrence what it would be immoral to use? This is the most excruciating dilemma of our times.

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