Conventional thinking holds that deterrence has kept us safe. If, that is, you don’t mind a little brinkmanship like Berlin in 1961 and the Cuban Missile crisis. The history of the Cold War was also sprinkled with accidents such as the 1966 Palomares, Spain crash of a B-52 bearing four hydrogen bombs.
Nor has the Cold War’s thaw elicited the same sigh of relief from the disarmament community as from the public at large. One state or another always seems to be looking for an excuse to develop nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda or Chechen rebels, make no bones whatsoever about their nuclear avarice.
Thus does the prospect of Russia’s loose nukes falling into the wrong hands and an A.Q. Khan wanna-be replenishing the nuclear black market keep us more or less permanently on edge. Add to that conflicting reports on the security of Pakistan’s nukes. Finally, just to make absolutely sure we don’t become complacent, plenty of nuclear weapons still remain on hair-trigger alert.
This kind of peace conjures up the old sight gag about nitroglycerin — one false move and we’re blown to kingdom come. No doubt about it: Deterrence is looking a little shop-worn these days. At the same time, thanks in part to President Obama’s stated commitment, disarmament is being refurbished to the glossy finish it boasted for a brief spell in the eighties.
Let’s not forget, though, that conventional weapons do a pretty good job of mimicking nuclear weapons. Where does that leave us then? Post-nuclear disarmament, we’d still be on the road to total war, just not tailgated by nuclear weapons.
In fact, the net effects are disturbing in their similarities. To the victims of Dresden and Hamburg, on the one hand, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the other, the quantitative and qualitative differences between the two types of bombing ranged from negligible to nonexistent. Those who survived the A-bomb attacks weren’t saying to themselves: “I bet I’d be in a lot less pain if my injuries were inflicted by conventional weapons.”
The justifications commonly given for total war are either collective guilt or the argument that, because they contribute to the war effort, civilians can be classified as combatants. Total war’s unstated assumption, meanwhile, is that a state can suffer no more disastrous fate than invasion and occupation.
It’s nice to know that “Give me liberty or give me death” still lives. But, in light of technological developments in warfare, this hoary rallying cry needs an overhaul. How about “Give me liberty or give all of us death”?
Wait, What’s Behind Door Number Three?
In the Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Third Edition, Lawrence Freedman writes:
The response from those prepared to contemplate use [of nuclear weapons] tended to be based on a choice of values rather than strategic logic. It was considered ‘better to be dead than red’, to go down fighting rather than to succumb to the horrors that had come to be associated with communist rule. The nuclear pacifist might argue that [for] a particular code of honour to be applied to a whole society was an imposition more absolute and authoritarian than the type of rule it was supposed to avoid.
Freedman then quotes Lieutenant-General Sir John Cowley [writing in 1960]:
The choice of death or dishonor is one which has always faced the professional fighting man [who] chooses death for himself so that his country may survive, or. . . that the principles for which he is fighting may survive. [With nuclear weapons] we are facing a somewhat different situation, when the reply is not to given by individuals but by countries as a whole. Is it right for the government of a country to choose complete destruction of the population rather than some other alternative, however unpleasant that alternative may be?
Retaliating against an aggressor with total war will likely result in the obliteration of not only vast swaths of the population on both sides, but those very qualities with which the state earned our loyalty, such as respect for human rights. In other words, the question fundamental to total war and not often asked is: Just how much is preserving the sanctity of the state worth? The “unpleasant alternative” of which Lt. Gen. Cowley speaks is, of course, submitting to enemy rule.
Perhaps an aggressor can be repelled with another method besides an all-out preemptive attack or retaliation, whether nuclear or conventional. Let’s think of a recent example of a state that’s invaded another state and met with strong resistance. Oh, that would be us when we invaded Iraq.
Sure, the Iraqi Army’s capacity for retaliation was killed on contact. Nevertheless, as everyone knows, the citizens of Iraq have made our lives as occupiers hell. While Iraq has yet to shake us off, at least it’s reduced us to the point where we’re not getting much of anything out of their country. But what application does this have for the United States were it to be attacked?
Call me whimsical, but instead of trading apocalyptic death and destruction with a state that attacks us, what if we made an end run around mass destruction? In other words, if an attack by intercontinental missiles — whether the warheads are nuclear or non — is imminent, why not make it clear that we choose not to retaliate in kind?
Say what? Refusing to fight back is not only un-American, it runs contrary to human nature. Even if we sought to behave otherwise, it wouldn’t be long before we were caught in the death spiral of total war.
It’s true that the idea there’s a time to attack and a time to yield might better be applied to a state other than a superpower. But, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend it’s the United States that’s attacked.
Upon signal, we’d disband our armed forces and they’d morph into a resistance movement with hidden caches of weapons at their disposal. It’s not, of course, as un-American as it sounds: Guerilla warfare was employed in the early days of the Revolutionary War and by select forces during the Civil War. If it makes nuclear types feel any better, think of this approach as a second-strike capability, just not nuclear.
Because total war can’t be waged on an insurgency — though Russia came close in Chechnya — not only is much less life lost, but less infrastructure demolished. Also, aside from retaining the moral upper hand, should an insurgency ultimately prevail, it would generate a national myth which, like the Revolutionary War, could sustain us for 200 years.
This may have seemed like a pointless exercise to some. But is it any more so than a method of waging war that stands to kill millions on both sides, level the landscape, and ravage the environment?