February 2, 2011

A Controlled Use for Weapons

Justin Katz

Elbridge Colby has an interesting article in First Things (see here if you're not a subscriber) addressing the ability of nuclear weapons to fit within the just war tradition. One point worth emphasizing comes to mind upon reading his summation of the "nay" argument (with which he disagrees):

The argument proffered by the churchmen is as follows. For the use of force to be morally tolerable it must be discriminate - civilians may not be the object of direct, deliberate attack - and it must be proportionate to the evil confronted and the good achieved. In light of these premises, an empirical claim is made: that nuclear weapons, by their very nature, cannot be used in a discriminate and proportionate fashion and thus are illegitimate. As Archbishop O'Brien has argued, nuclear weapons "cannot ensure noncombatant immunity and the likely destruction and lingering radiation would violate the principle of proportionality."

This judgment is grounded in an empirical assessment that escalation is highly probable in a nuclear exchange and therefore that the demands of proportionality cannot be satisfied. As Archbishop O'Brien puts it, "Even the limited use of so-called 'mininukes' would likely lower the barrier to future uses and could lead to indiscriminate and disproportionate harm. And there is the danger of escalation to nuclear exchanges of cataclysmic proportions." Nuclear weapons, in short, cannot be used discriminately and proportionately, both because of their inherent destructiveness and because their use is so likely to incur further, catastrophic damage. Therefore, because nuclear weapons cannot be used morally in warfare, they have no justifiable use and warrant elimination.

Specifically, Colby's topic is the "sharp change" from the Cold War acceptance that nuclear weapons were an unavoidable reality to "blunt statements insisting on the imperative of near-term nuclear disarmament." In that context, the largest point that the advocates for disarmament elide is that possession is not morally equivalent to use. If the act of possession of nuclear weapons assists actual peace, then the possibility of their deployment is not a trumping argument.

As Colby points out, it isn't implausible to suggest that the existence of nuclear weapons, and the utter horror with which they tinge the concept of war, have limited large-scale traditional war. To be sure, cataclysmic weapons merit tight control and constant warnings against their use, but it isn't at all clear that eliminating them totally is desirable — certainly not unilateral elimination.

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So you would argue that Israel's nuclear arsenal is good thing for peace? How about India and Pakistan? No moral issue to possession and the very real possibility of mass murder resulting? How about North Korea? Iran, a good idea to maintain peace in the region? Let's remember that the US and the Soviet Union came very close to initiating a nuclear holocaust during the Kennedy years.

I didn't read the article itself, but the idea of a just, nuclear deterrence strikes me as like saying it's responsible and moral to wave around a loaded gun in a crowded public place (to keep the peace, of course) so long as it doesn't actually go off. I say simply putting millions of innocents at risk even for "defense" cannot be just.

Posted by: Russ at February 2, 2011 4:16 PM

Russ, it beats the hell out of another multi-million casualty world war.

I believe in a nuclear deterrent, but it could be a fraction of the scale and be just as effective. Our nuclear arsenal need only be large enough to eliminate our two largest potential enemies -once-. We likely only need a few dozen nuclear missiles to accomplish that, anything more is just wasted money.

If you put a grenade in my hand and tell me that you'll pull the pin if I sit down, I'm not going to sit down. It doesn't make me less likely to sit down if you strap 27 grenades to me with the same threat.

Posted by: mangeek at February 2, 2011 4:26 PM

Well, of course it would seem that way to
Russ, who holds only the most tenuous connection to reality.

There are good guys and bad guys in the world, and America and Israel are two of the best good guys on the planet. You Leftists want to deny that, but this means the people whom you consider morally equivalent, who are themselves truly evil, are just as good as we are in their eyes.

If that is so, why don't you try living in one of their miserable hellholes of a country and report back how much better it is than the bad old Amerikkka?

Posted by: Contrarian View at February 2, 2011 7:16 PM

If I were an Israeli Jew,I guess I'd rather have the ability to annhiliate millions of Muslims bent on the destruction of my people than play sheep again.
It will occur if Israel winds up with their backs to the wall.I hope it doesn't get there,but that's up to the Muslims.
I'm not saying this lightly or with any wish that such a disaster would ever occur,but it's gotten to a really critical situation.

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 2, 2011 8:18 PM

Ah, yes, do as we say not as we do. There's a word for that, no?

How about honoring our treaty obligations? Are those not the supreme law of the land? Question: what does the NPT require of the US?

Posted by: Russ at February 9, 2011 9:59 AM

"If you put a grenade in my hand and tell me that you'll pull the pin if I sit down, I'm not going to sit down."

It doesn't bother you folks that this is the same kind of reasoning that inspires some to walk into crowds wearing explosives? God is on our side... their side is evil and must be coerced for the sake of peace, etc.

Posted by: Russ at February 9, 2011 10:04 AM
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