Friday, November 15, 2002

Why we cannot use nukes

I originally wrote this in November 2002 as the war with Iraq loomed and have reposted it here using the same date. It was in response to calls from various quarters, including at least one US Representative, that President Bush announce he would unleash America's WMD arsenal in response to WMD use by Saddam's forces. Here is the original text with no changes except I have removed now-dead internet links. 

This was my original title: Why the US cannot retaliate against Iraq if Iraq uses WMDs

I have noted that before the Gulf War, the US warned Iraq that its use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons would result in atomic retaliation by America, a threat that was credible then and helped prevent Saddam from ordering their use.

In the potential war against Iraq now, though, we cannot make a credible threat of WMD (meaning, atomic) retaliation against Iraq. Here's why.

The US has no biological weapons. For at least 30 years, US policy on bioweapons has been "no use" under any circumstances. US bioweapon research has been done to only to develop defensive measures.

US policy on chemical weapons is "no first use." We have stated that we reserve the right to retaliate in kind against an enemy who uses chemical weapons against us. It is an empty reservation because the US does not have the means to deliver chemical weapons nor the stocks of chemical weapons to be delivered in the first place. I was trained both as a nuclear and chemical target analyst, and the chemical-weapons systems we trained to employ have not been in US inventory since the mid-1950s. There simply were, and are, no newer systems, so we used the only data available, despite the fact that we didn't have them anymore. The quantity of chemical weapons required to achieve significant casualties against enemy forces is simply enormous, and the US has never made the huge investment in infrastructure and manning that is required to maintain the capability. And not least, American military commanders despise chemical warfare anyway, with a revulsion for it that dated back to World War I.

US policy on atomic weapons is that we reserve the right to use them as the situation warrants. Successive administrations, both Democratic and Republican, specifically rejected declaring "no first use" of nuclear weapons.

The US Army's artillery used to be able to do this.
No longer, thank God.
All this means that the only WMD that the US can retaliate with is atomic. But there are technical constraints in using them, too. First, the arsenal of US nuclear weapons has shrunk dramatically since September 1992, when President George H.W. Bush denuclearized the US Army, which had a lock on small-yield atomic warheads. Since then, the Army has had none. Even the smallest Air Force warheads are many kilotons in design yield. Neither the Navy nor Marines ever stocked tactical warheads.

So unless G. W. Bush decides that truly massive atomic retaliation is called for, we really have nothing to A-bomb Iraq with. That's the technical side of why we cannot retaliate in kind against Iraq. But those are not the only reasons.

British Prime Minister John Major's claims to the contrary, allied threats to use WMDs as retaliation cannot be a decent bluff. We are not making war against the Iraqi people, whom we have already declared are in need of liberation, not conquest. To nuke Iraqi civilians as retaliation for an act of Saddam's madness would make no sense at all and would be the most immoral thing I can imagine.

Using atomic weapons against Iraq would accrue to the US no strategic or tactical benefit. Tactically, conventional weapons are now so destructive that nukes are not even necessary just to destroy enemy formations and installations. The idea that we would nuke cities is repulsive: our objective is not to destroy Iraq but to liberate its people from murderous repression.

Military historian T. R. Fehrenbach wrote in This Kind of War, "You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life - but if you desire to defend it, to protect it, to keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud. The object of warfare . . . is not to destroy the land and people, unless you have gone wholly mad."

There is no military situation imaginable that would even remotely justify American use of atomic weapons.

The political consequences of using atomic weapons would be enormously destructive to America's alliances and coalitions. NATO always accepted, very reluctantly, the potential use of nuclear weapons if invading Soviet forces threatened the actual survival of a NATO member state. For America to use nuclear weapons against Iraq would engender such harsh reactions from our NATO allies that the alliance would probably dissolve. Now, some may argue that NATO may as well dissolve, but if so, it should be done for the right reasons, and nuking Iraq isn't one of them.

Other nations around the world would run away from alignment with America as fast as they could. Our forces based overseas would likely be ejected by their host nations. American efforts to promote democracy in Asia, Africa and South America would lose all credibility. American citizens abroad would be subjected to the rule of the mob in many countries. No longer would America be a "shining city on a hill" for the rest of the world to emulate.

Morally, using atomic weapons against Iraq fails every test of just war theory. Because they can achieve no legitimate military purpose, they could do nothing except destroy for destruction's own sake. Yet destruction for its own sake is exactly what bin Laden's terrorists did on Sept. 11. Such nihilism can never be a just end of war. Atomic weapons inherently cannot be used in a way that discriminates between military personnel and innocent civilians.

Potential downwind effects could kill or make ill infants, adults, the elderly, the helpless, livestock and crops and would likely extend into neighboring countries. Iraqis and surrounding peoples would be thrown into panic, creating the worst refugee crisis in history. All these results would be morally bankrupt. They could never be excused and would never be forgiven.

Anyone who calls for using nuclear weapons against Iraq, even in retaliation, abandons the finest principles of America's ideals and hopes. Proposing their use might scratch a jingoistic itch for overwhelming force and quick results. But such calls must not prevail. Nuclear weapons would be militarily useless. Their use would start a rapid decline of America's greatness on the world stage and would be a true crime against humanity, irredeemably immoral.