Morality: Can mankind live with nuclear destruction?

War has weighed heavily on mankind's conscience ever since the shame of Cain.

And the prospect of nuclear destruction on a scale risking extinction of the race has intensified guilt pangs over the past two generations. Anyone in the Judeo-Christian tradition who disobeys the commandment ''thou shalt not kill'' has a great deal of explaining to do, to himself and others. Anyone who contemplates violating that commandment to the extent of the millions of deaths of a nuclear holocaust must answer as well the accusations of unborn generations.

For Quakers the answer has always been clear. Nothing justifies taking another man's life. Pacifism is the Christian's only moral position.

For some fundamentalist Protestants the answer has been equally clear -- and just the opposite of the Quakers' precept. A war against godless enemies is justified and sometimes close to mandatory for Christian soldiers.

Most Westerners, whatever their religious persuasion, have been more ambivalent in their attitudes to war. At least since the slaughter of the American Civil War and World War I, combat has been regarded less as heroic than as evil.

Yet war has usually been viewed as a lesser evil as, most conspicuously, the World War II fight against the murderous and expansionist Hitler. And a pacifist commitment to sacrifice one's own life rather than kill another, while regarded as saintly in an individual, has been regarded as irresponsible in political leaders who might wish to offer the same collective commitment for their nations.

In extremity, then, and under certain conditions, the ''just war'' has been widely approved. A consensus developed that the conditions giving a war relative moral sanction would have to include these: defense of biological survival or of overriding societal values such as freedom; proportionality of political ends and military means (including a reasonable chance of success in a struggle, without an unacceptable cost in blood, treasure, and those values being defended); noncombatant immunity; and a ban on causing unnecessary suffering.

Nuclear weapons, quite simply, made a mockery of these conditions.

The atom bomb and its even deadlier cousin, the hydrogen bomb, were no mere leaps from bow to crossbow, from arrow to bullet, from peasant infantry to Napoleonic conscript, from horse to tank, from artillery to airplane. From 1945 on it was no longer a tribe, city, or nation whose existence might be threatened by war. Now it was entire civilian populations - and civilization itself -- at stake.

Under these circumstances proportionality, the sparing of the innocent, and even defense itself lost all common-sense meaning for any nuclear war. What advantage is there in any defense that presumes the deaths of tens of millions of the peoples being defended? What system of values could endure -- no matter which side technically ''won'' a war -- in the radioactive rubble following a nuclear exchange?

What application of Clausewitz's maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means could ever see fulfillment of a rational political aim in the poisoning of vast swaths of the earth? What distinction does the mushroom cloud make between combatants and civilians? What limit on ''unnecessary'' suffering can possibly be imposed on a weapon that indiscriminately burns, maims , and sterilizes those it does not immediately vaporize?

These terrible questions -- and the whole anguishing moral issue raised by nuclear weapons -- exercised the generation so suddenly confronted by them. The times were apocalyptic. The flash of a thousand suns over Hiroshima still seared the memory. The images of the near-dead searching the charred landscape for missing children and husbands still haunted the Americans who had triggered this awesome explosion. The hitherto unsuspected lingering effects of radiation became known and persuaded thinkers that the nuclear bomb was even more malevolent than anyone yet realized.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the contrite fathers of the bomb, began his penitence at the first successful atomic test, recalling the sentence from the Bhagavad-Gita, ''I have become Death Destroyer of Worlds.'' John Hersey translated the abstract notion of the bomb into concrete suffering in his famous portrayal of the victims in Hiroshima.

Westerners, at least, widely expected that the technological revolution of destruction would now shock men into a political revolution that would end the anarchical nation-state system and force cooperation on the world.

The US, in the Bernard Baruch Plan, offered to put its monopoly of atomic bombs under international control - then, when the offer was rejected by Moscow on grounds of obtrusive inspection, went on to race the Soviet Union in building the H-bomb and the intercontinental missile.

In remorse, some of the leading physicists from the team that had loosed the nuclear genie founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to try to tame the genie that could never again be imprisoned in the bottle of ignorance. In anger Nevil Shute conjured up a global desert of nuclear survivors in his novel ''On the Beach.'' In despair various disarmament groups in the West sought a unilateral Western renunciation of the terrible new weapons. In protest numerous couples refused to bring children into what they considered a suicidal world.

In this era Pope Pius II rejected the use of all atomic, biological, and chemical weapons as immoral, noting that this was now a question ''of the annihilation, pure and simple, of all human beings within its radius of action.''

A committee of the World Council of Churches echoed this view, saying that any intention to use hydrogen bombs against cities violates ''every element of Christian faith, hope, and ethics.'' If necessary, the committee concluded, Christians should accept a cease-fire ''on the enemy's terms and resort to nonviolent resistance.''

The potent phrase ''better Red than dead'' was coined. Edvaard Munch's painting ''The Scream'' and Franz Kafka's parable ''The Trial'' became the symbols of the age.

Mankind, however, cannot long sustain a state of crisis. After the initial spasm of nuclear alarm, things ''normalized.'' People got used to living under the shadow of the bomb. Moral anguish was sublimated.

The man in the street found extinction too awful to contemplate -- and remote from the daily round of getting and spending. The layman regarded nuclear weapons and their incomprehensible balance of vulnerability (rather than defense) as too abstruse to penetrate. Western strategists steeped in realism didn't want to be paralyzed by moral compunctions when they viewed their Soviet counterparts as unrestrained by such niceties. Soviet strategists didn't want to undermine the communist ideology of the inevitable victory of Leninism over capitalism by any spurious ''bourgeois'' morality that posited all men as equal without distinguishing between classes and social systems.

In the 1960s and '70s public complacency about nuclear issues seemed to suffice. The prospect of a peaceful generation of electricity prettified the nuclear image. And the very balance of terror of nuclear weapons so chastened the superpowers that neither side used them after those first two bombs that ended World War II.

Their preventive potency extended downward as well in that part of the globe most vital to both superpowers: Europe. Despite the heaviest concentration of opposing armies and firepower anywhere in the world on the East-West faultline dividing Germany, peace has by now been preserved in Europe, even on a conventional level, for longer than ever before in this century.

In the '60s and '70s, too, in addition to the comfort of the non-occurrence of nuclear war, a certain easing of the early '50s East-West hostility took place. The Soviet Union mellowed after Josef Stalin's death. The US relaxed from previous cold-war rigidity. And after the scare of nuclear confrontation in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis the two superpowers gingerly began to talk about arms control.

The bilateral treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, space, and under water was signed in 1963. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, with its corollary pledge by the superpowers to curb their own nuclear appetites, was signed in 1968. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) was signed in 1972 to usher in a decade of detente. SALT II was signed (even if not ratified by the US Senate) in 1979.

But then things soured again. The Soviet Union pushed a two-decade military buildup (begun after the humiliated Nikita Khrushchev pulled his missiles out of Cuba in 1962) well past the point that even charitable Western observers considered parity with the US. Most spectacularly, new Soviet European-range missiles that had no NATO equivalent gave the Soviet Union nuclear as well as conventional superiority in the immediate European theater.

At the same time a frustrated US, in the throes of Vietnam withdrawal and impotence before the seizure of the US Embassy in Iran, was discovering the cost of its failed attempt to avert the North Vietnamese conquest of Indochina. In retrospect, the US intervention was seen to have sent the American economy on an inflationary spin, diverted resources from general-purpose to much-too-specialized uses within the military budget, led to the backlash of no draft, and reduced real US military expenditures in the '70s during the most critical decade of the Soviet military buildup.

In this mood an aroused electorate put Ronald Reagan in the White House, on a platform of getting tough with the Russians, opposing SALT II, and regaining military superiority by a massive American buildup. If the Soviet Union didn't cry uncle it would have to face an arms race to end all arms races -- one in which the more robust American economy would spend the ailing Soviet economy into the ground.

In their first nine months in office President Reagan and his Defense Department pursued these themes vigorously. The US would not resume strategic arms negotiations until it had expanded its armory and could bargain with Moscow from a position of strength. Domestic social welfare would be trimmed to meet the new demands of the military budget.

Limited nuclear war was both thinkable and winnable. Defeatist talk saying there would be no winners was demoralizing and misleading; millions might die in a European or even a superpower nuclear exchange, but a comprehensive civil defense program could save the rest.

For the first year of Reagan's incumbency tough talk seemed to be just the thing American citizens wanted to hear. But with time the cumulative exhortations to military might raised nuclear war from the public's subconscious to a very conscious level, indeed. Through becoming more thinkable, nuclear war again became intolerable, in a way it had not been since the late '40s and early '50s. Revulsion started in northern Europe, then spread to the US.

For growing numbers, the nuclear contest ceased to be some abstract US-Soviet game and became instead a deadly potential reality in which Neustadt, West Germany, and Middletown, USA, might be demolished. The attempt of arms control to discipline the arms race was seen to have failed. Soviet-American confrontation looked irreversible.

At the same time the cost of military preeminence began to sink in in the US and erode support for this priority. Numerous hardhats and blacks who had voted for a Reagan who would flex American muscle found themselves without jobs and had second thoughts about the glories of global power. Some businessmen who heartily approved of Reagan's drive to get the government off their backs nonetheless resented the high interest rates needed to fight an inflation that was only being pushed up by increased military spending. Congressmen who had vied with each other in jumping onto the Reagan bandwagon in 1981 dug in their heels on the Reagan military budget of 1982.

In the past year, to the surprise of every political observer, these developments coalesced into a resurgence of nuclear angst and moral concern -- even in America -- that can only be compared with the recoil of the first years of the bomb. Peace demonstrators massed in the streets of Amsterdam and Bonn. Nuclear-freeze resolutions swept grass-roots America, from Vermont town meetings to a referendum in Reagan's home state of California. Conservative businessmen got involved. Church hierarchies that had not gone near the Vietnam protests -- including the Roman Catholic bishops -- also got involved. Even the very conservative American Medical Association warned of ''the catastrophic dangers to all life in the event of nuclear war.''

Ground Zero, a new nuclear-education organization, quickly sold out close to 250,000 copies of its paperback guide to urgent issues, ''Nuclear War: What's in it for You?'' Jonathan Schell's eloquent cry of cold rage, ''The Fate of the Earth,'' hit the best-seller list.

The freeze movement gained political weight with the endorsement of Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon -- and the joining-in of black leaders for the first time in the Washington, D.C., freeze campaign. And President Reagan was moved to override his own Defense Department, resume strategic arms talks before the US had attained a new position of strength, play down military confrontation with the Soviet Union, and make Moscow an initial offer that aimed at more than simply eliciting a Soviet nyet. By now the reawakening of agony over nuclear weapons has revived all the old issues of conscience. And the intervening years have helped define the fundamental moral choices for each nation: (1) renunciation of nuclear weapons altogether; (2) the threat of their routine use in any war in pursuit of victory; or (3) the threat of their retaliatory use for the purpose of ''deterrence,'' or preventing war.

The moral case for total renunciation is argued most persuasively by Schell. (Implicitly, that is. The course he explicitly advocates is actually global nuclear and conventional disarmament, coterminous with ''invention of political means by which the world can peacefully settle the issues that throughout history it has settled by war.'' In any present-day, less Utopian context, however, Schell's aversion to both deterrence and the nuclear threat to life strongly implies that the ethical man's response should be to force his own government to abjure these weapons, irrespective of what other governments do.)

Thus, Schell's aim is less a prescription of some new system of security than moral indictment of the present one. He gives graphic images of individual horror in remembering the Hiroshima victims. He speculates about danger to the planet in the incalculable risk that total nuclear war might deplete the ozone layer and admit the sun's ultraviolet rays to burn up all animal and plant life.

He excoriates the ignoble holding of millions of civilian hostages that is inherent in deterrence. He summons the witness of the never-to-be-born after a nuclear holocaust. He looks into an ''abyss in which all human purposes would be drowned for all time.'' He mourns ''that the fruit of four and a half billion years can be undone in a careless moment.''

Complacency toward our peril, Schell preaches, would be surrender ''to absolute and eternal darkness: a darkness in which no nation, no society, no ideology, no civilization will remain; in which never again will a child be born; in which never again will human beings appear on the earth, and there will be no one to remember that they ever did.''

Schell's threnody for the future gets little sympathy from proponents of the second school of strategic thought. Colin S. Gray, a part-time State Department consultant on arms control and probably the most articulate of the ''war-fighting-war-winning'' strategists, is impatient with such moral qualms, regarding them as a sapping of Western will and toughness.

The popular view that nuclear war is unsurvivable, he has asserted, ''has such a pervasive and malign effect upon American defense planning that it is rapidly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for the United States.'' He finds this view so naive as to be unworthy of serious rebuttal by actors in the real world of power.

He further notes that Soviet military doctrine unsentimentally calls for fighting to win - with nuclear weapons, if it comes to that. The West therefore weakens itself fatally against its adversary, he contends, if it doesn't show the same resolve. He faults the American defense community for having come to ''fear the arms race more than it did the Soviet Union.''

A serious rebuttal of Schell's moral cause is, in fact, offered by advocates of the third school of those favoring nuclear deterrence. Gregory Treverton, Harvard University lecturer in public policy and former assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, finds Schell's initial discussion of the consequences of nuclear war well written and useful. But then, he says, what Schell has drawn from the less likely end of the spectrum of possible nuclear war scenarios ''becomes more and more implicitly the likely outcome, and that really drives the rest of the book.

''And then he demolishes the one fragile thing we have going for us -- the notion of deterrence -- by saying it's immoral.''This notion of deterrence holds that the grim virtue of maintaining nuclear weapons rests not on their use, but on their nonuse -- that is, their value in preventing war altogether by threatening unacceptable retaliation on any attacker.

The quality of deterrence has been proved, the argument runs, in this century's unprecedented 37 years of peace in Europe, precisely because of the nuclear stalemate. Despite Berlin crises in 1948 and a decade later that in any previous era might well have led to combat, the fear that any war might escalate to intolerable nuclear war has in this period averted even subnuclear war in Europe. In an age that has achieved an appalling degree of destructiveness even in ''conventional'' weapons, this is a laudable accomplishment.

In addressing this paradox, Gen. Sir Hugh Beach, warden of St. George's House in Windsor, England, concedes that ''one can envisage no actual use of nuclear weapons that would not be morally indefensible. . . . What important difference is there between East and West Germany today which could approach -- by an order of magnitude -- the difference between either of these present societies and what would subsist poststrike?'' Even a retaliatory strike ''would be revenge carried to the length of insanity.''

Yet Sir Hugh continues, in the January review of St. George's House, ''the strategy (of threatening nuclear retaliation) remains viable'' just because of its credibility and its deterrent effect on any Soviet leader who might consider an attack on Western Europe.

In this context, unilateral Western renunciation of nuclear weapons and of a declared strategy of retaliation would weaken deterrence and have the immoral effect of reducing inhibitions on subnuclear as well as nuclear war.

''So now we have arrived at the central problem,'' Sir Hugh goes on. ''It is necessary both to possess nuclear weapons and to form the intention that in certain circumstances we would use them -- and yet their actual use in any circumstances must be morally outrageous -- which is absurd.'' This absurdity, Sir Hugh continues, ''is a paradox which no logic, nor any alternative line of policy which I know of, can mitigate. It remains to live with it!''

Michael Quinlan, a practicing Roman Catholic, former undersecretary of the British Defense Ministry, and present deputy secretary in the Treasury, defined some criteria of the moral debate in addressing listeners at St. James's Church in London last March.

The choice between deterrence or renunciation ''is extremely hard, intellectually, morally, and practically, and the beginning of wisdom and honesty is simply to recognize that,'' he acknowledged. ''Each of the alternatives has to face very grave difficulties, including ethical difficulties; these do not weigh upon one side alone. . . .

''Christian debate must seek to arrive at principles and guidelines which will be valid for very hard cases, not just for easier ones; and for the long-term future, not just for the next few years. . . . We must be prepared to answer to ourselves honestly, for example, whether the moral imperatives we recommend, whether pointing to deterrence or to unconditional renunciation would still have been valid and compelling in the face of a nuclear-armed Hitler.''

Those who on balance favor the choice of deterrence must then face the hard ethical question: Can it be moral, even where the purpose is prevention of war, ''to contemplate and indeed prepare for the hypothesis of actually using nuclear weapons if aggression ever pushes us that far''?

Quinlan thinks so, in that deterrence cannot be mere bluff and still deter: ''We could not operate, morally or practically, on the basis of some secret determination that we would never in fact use the weapons even in face of nuclear attack. . . . I regard (nuclear) planning as legitimate when matched against the alternative: the alternative, so far as I can see, not merely of risking hostile domination but also of making war actually more likely, not less.''

Neither renunciation nor deterrence actually solves the moral dilemma, Quinlan concludes: ''They are simply rival ways of trying to live with it.

''The major task for Christians must surely be to pray and to work, so far as we can, gradually to dissolve the problem -- to create between East and West the kind of international understanding and openness that exists between Britain and the United States, or more strikingly now between France and West Germany, where states simply do not have to take seriously the possibility of armed conflict between them. . . .

''Only international justice and freedom and openness and trust, real and not just rhetorical, can radically transform (our condition); and there, in my view, is where Christian goals must lie. I personally cannot believe or accept that the system of deterrence -- security based on keeping profound adversaries apart by the fear of monstrous disaster -- is how mankind must be content to live out the rest of earthly history; we must try to find a better way in safety.''

Next: The strategy of nuclear weapons Suggested further reading:

Two books give the best overview of the basic moral issues in war: Barrie Paskins and Michael Dockrill, The Ethics of War, London: Duckworth, 1979; and Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, New York: Basic Books Inc., 1978.

The first searches for a modern restatement of the just-war tradition and pacifism suited to a nuclear and guerrilla age. The second argues the morality of defense.

Other books and articles discussing the issues include:

The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine, by Herbert A. Deane. New York: Columbia University, 1963.

Ethics and Nuclear Deterrence, Geoffrey Goodwin, editor. London: Croom Helm, April 1982.

''Victory is Possible,'' by Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne, Foreign Policy No. 39, summer 1980.

The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, by J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Hiroshima, by John Hersey. New York: Bantam Books.

Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War, a moral and historical inquiry, by James T. Johnson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Perpetual Peace, by Immanuel Kant, translated by Lewis W. Beck. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill & Co., 1957.

Life After Nuclear War, by Arthur M. Katz, Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1981.

The Face of Battle, a study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, by John Keegan. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Law of War and Peace in Islam: A Study of Moslem International Law, by Majid Khadduri. New York: Garland Publishing Inc.

Death in Life, by Robert Jay Lifton. New York: Random House, 1968.

''Preventing War, Why Deterrence Becomes an Inexorable Policy,'' by Michael E. Quinlan. The Tablet, July 18, 1981.

The Fate of the Earth, by Jonathan Schell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

''Freedom and the Bomb,'' by E. P. Thompson. New Statesman, April 24, 1981.

War and Morality, by Richard Wasserstrom, editor. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1970.

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