Friday, 8 November 2013

A Moral Question

I am reading Chapter 6, "Concerning Total War," in Poul Anderson's Thermonuclear Warfare (Derby, Connecticut, 1963). This chapter is dense with data about acceptable and unacceptable levels of radiation on which I am unable to comment.

However, I have reached this passage which does raise one question of policy:

"As long as our whole population is highly vulnerable to attack - or to the by-products of a purely military attack - we have no choice except to threaten retaliation on the enemy's own people." (p. 75)

Well, we always do have a choice. If personally attacked, I could choose Ghandian non-violence - although I wouldn't. But, in the situation that Anderson describes, I would not threaten retaliation on the enemy's own people. I am not able to say what would happen in practice, of course, but any country whose policies I was able to influence (which in practice means none!) would develop every possible defensive measure (e.g., land mines and anti-tank guns against tanks, not tanks against tanks) but meanwhile would pledge not to attack and would call on the populations of other countries to pressurize their governments not to attack either.

To attack a population with nuclear weapons would, to my mind, be unacceptable. Therefore, to threaten to do so would also be unacceptable. Meanwhile, it would be an urgent priority to reduce our own population's vulnerability, of course.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

But the means you prefer does nothing to prevent a hostile power from attacking if that power is bound and determined to actually DO so. Here I have to agree with Anderson's argument, because it fitted in with what the situation was when he wrote THERMONUCLEAR WARFARE. I agree the aptly named MAD strategy was unsatisfactory, except it actually worked. The coldly calculating realists in the Soviet Poliltburo plainly decided the risks of attacking were not worth the costs they would suffer from an American counter strike.

Needless to say, this kind of policy can work only when the parties involved have leaders who are both realistic and make it plain to their enemies they WILL strike if the other side attacks. It will not restrain either terrorists who manage to get their hands on nuclear weapons or rogue nations with crazy leaders.

Almost done rereading the expanded edition of VIRGIN PLANET. Next comes THERMONUCLEAR WARFARE.


Paul Shackley said...

Even if the other side did attack, I would not think it right to commit genocide against their population. I would want to protect our population while encouraging the population of an aggressor to overthrow their regime. No guarantee of success, of course.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

There are many reasons why I disagree, but I'll focus on just one or two. What GOOD does it do to encourage revolt in a hostile power if that power keeps tight control of communications and the media? And uses propaganda spread out over decades to indoctrinate the people to sharing its hostility to rival powers? That was exactly what the USSR did!

Moreover, if a credible threat of counter attacking in kind prevents an agressor from striking at all exists, isn't that better than passivity? My view is that an open rejection of using nuclear weapons is more likely to encourage an aggressor to strike.

I'm reminded of what Commander Abrams said to Dominic Flandry in Chapter 18 of ENSIGN FLANDRY:

"You know," he said, "ever since Akhnaton ruled in Egypt,
probably since before then, a school of thought has held we
ought to lay down our weapons and rely on love. That, if love
doesn't work, at least we'll die guiltless. Usually even its
opponents have said this is a noble idea. I say it stinks. I say
it's not just unrealistic, not just infantile, it's evil. It denies we
have any duty to act in this life. Because how can we, if we let
go of our capability?
"No, son, we're mortal--which is to say, we're ignorant, stupid,
and sinful--but those are only handicaps. Our pride is that never-
theless, now and then, we do our best. A few times we succeed.
What more dare we ask for?"

So, like Anderson, I too reject pacifism. No responsible can just sit by and let his people face utter ruin and destruction if even something as unsatisfactory as the MAD strategy can hold off an implacable enemy--either the USSR or the Merseian roidhunate.


Paul Shackley said...


You are right that encouraging revolt would not do much good in that particular situation.

I also reject pacifism but draw the line at threatening to burn to death a population of non-combatants, including women and children.

I would like to see the Great Powers implementing nuclear disarmament now that their Cold War is over!

Fortunately, I am extremely unlikely ever to be in a situation where my views would influence a national policy! - although we all need to be informed and have views on such issues.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

I'm glad you too reject pacifism. And I too regard with horror the prospect of using nuclear weapons in genocidal ways. The development of low yield tactical nukes suitable for MILITARY use on legitimately military targets makes using massive hydrogen bombs less likely by RATIONAL powers.

Unfortunately, while the train wreck which is post Soviet Russia is less of a danger, we still face risks. Esp. from fanatical Muslim jihadists who would love to get their hands on nukes. Here I have the regime in Iran in mind, hopped up as it is on Shia millennialism or any number of terrorist jihadist outfits inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda. To say nothing of rogue nations with arguably unstable or crazy leaders, such as North Korea.

The regime in Peking also comes to mind as another possibly cold calculating power which may need to be held in check by the MAD strategy.