The Moral Use of Nuclear Weapons?

January-February 2013By C.H. Ross

C.H. Ross, a former Army officer, is a lawyer in Nashville.

A Fighting Chance: The Moral Use of Nuclear Weapons.  By Joseph P. Martino. Ignatius. 283 pages. $15.95.



Joseph Martino is a retired Air Force colonel with ex­tensive experience in the de­velopment of weapons sys­tems. He is also the only person in the non-Communist world who thinks seriously about the moral implications of nuclear war. If you don’t be­lieve it, just ask him.

For most reflective Chris­tians, the decisive question in the debate over the morality of nuclear deterrence is whether such a policy necessarily in­volves the intent to launch a nuclear attack against the enemy’s civilian population. A formidable body of Christian opinion holds that the answer is yes, and that the manufac­ture and possession of these weapons is therefore morally wrong. In the Catholic world the contrary position is held by the current pope, the ma­jority of the American bishops, and (anti-climactically) your reviewer.

Martino is not a nuclear pacifist, but is highly impatient with the suggestion that deter­rence is possible without such intent. He variously describes the idea as an “attempt to evade the real but difficult moral questions” surrounding the issue, as “an attempt to evade thinking about how to use nuclear weapons morally,” whose adherents “want to have it both ways,” and so on. For readers slow on the up­take, the concluding chapter is entitled “The Moral Problems Won’t Go Away.”

People who think that everyone is out of step but themselves tend to be poor company, and Martino’s con­stant incantatory disparage­ment of the bona fides of others is likely to irritate readers who aren’t on the Colonel’s side to begin with. But there is a countervailing grace in Marti­no; he is quite willing to irri­tate people on both sides. His position is not what conven­tional conservatives would ex­pect from his preliminary arguments (let alone the book’s repulsive subtitle). He is aware of, and basically accepts the bedrock Catholic principle disallowing the targeting of ci­vilian population centers. He does not argue (as some al­leged Catholics have) that in modern warfare there really are no civilians anymore, and that it is therefore licit to de­clare the whole enemy state a free-fire zone. Rather, Marti­no’s theory of deterrence is based on what he calls “war- fighting” nuclear tactics. He believes that it is possible to use certain nuclear weapons with morally proper discrimi­nation between civilian and military targets, and that the prospect of such use can effec­tively dissuade potential ag­gressors. It is an interesting concept. An effective deter­rence not inherently based on murderous intent is a consum­mation devoutly to be wished for. But wishing for it, and demonstrating its practicability, are different matters, and in the latter endeavor Martino is not as successful as he be­lieves.

A feasible and credible “war-fighting” deterrence would require at least two things: a suitable arsenal of nuclear weapons with destruc­tive capacities low enough to admit of discriminating use, and a command structure ade­quate to ensure effective and properly controlled employ­ment of the weapons. The former could almost certainly be achieved, but the latter is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Who will decide when the weapons must be unleashed, and against what targets? Military men in situ? One fervently hopes not. The battlefield is a notoriously poor breeding ground for rational moral decisions. Martino, to his credit, seems to grasp this, and refuses to give carte blanche to the field command­er. But what is his alternative? A foggy setup in which “polit­ical leaders…transmit their decisions to the field com­manders and in turn know what the commanders are doing…. [Commanders] must be told by proper author­ity what constraints they will operate under and be held accountable for staying within those constraints.” How’s that for hardheaded practicality — particularly from a man who elsewhere accuses the U.S. Catholic bishops of not living in the “real world”?

Are we really to suppose that some harried, outnum­bered NATO commander in danger of imminent annihila­tion will not neglect to clear his only means of survival with some politician in an air­borne command post a thou­sand miles away? On the other hand, if actual presidential kibitzing is not to be the order of the day, how could a set of guidelines laid down in ad­vance be of sufficient use to field commanders, who must deal with innumerable contin­gencies in a setting of rapid kaleidoscopic change? And what possible meaning can “accountability” have in this context? If some jittery major general elects to incinerate Kiev or Prague, and Armaged­don ensues, what difference will it make, after the fact, that U.S. policy requires that he be punished for it?

Martino, in short, has forgotten to tell us how to bell the cat. Nor is this the only disturbing element in his just­-war analysis. At times it seems that he is willing to employ traditional Catholic moral cate­gories so long as they point to the conclusion he wants. When they pinch, he dumps them without ceremony. The worst instance of this occurs when he confronts a basic tenet of Catholic moral philos­ophy: that a moral end cannot justify the use of an immoral means. Martino magnanimous­ly concedes that this “is a fair argument, and must be ad­dressed.” But his manner of “addressing” it is to dwell for several pages on the horrors that would attend a Commu­nist conquest of the West. He insists that his approach is “not simply a consequentialist one,” and that is true enough. This is not “simply” consequen­tialism, it is consequentialism with a vengeance. The results of a Communist victory are seen as so monstrous that moral reflections on the means of resistance lose all signifi­cance. In fairness, Martino does not consistently teach that the end justifies the means. Many of his own arguments presuppose the contrary, and indeed in another context he does not scruple to call the bishops consequentialists! Still, at some places in the text one can imagine old Screwtape counseling a young tempter: “If your patient is not the kind of idiot who can be convinced that Communism is not evil, you might try convincing him that it is the only evil, and that anything done against it must be right.”

A related problem area is Martino’s discussion of a major requirement of the traditional just-war theory — the com­parative justice of the cause for which the war is waged. Un­like many NOR readers and contributors, I have no particu­lar problem believing that gov­ernment and culture in the West, with all their undeniable evils, are still preferable to those in the Communist world. Such a position is at least tenable as things have stood recently — but it no longer seems to me that the possibility of fundamental change in the East can be dis­missed out of hand. Martino, on the other hand, appears to believe that the Soviet empire is not only evil, but immutable and immortal. That attitude is widespread, particularly on the political right, but it stems from a lack of historical per­spective. We often forget that Communist governments have existed for only 72 years — the merest eye blink in human history. To suppose that they will continue indefinitely in all of their traditional virulence is to ascribe to Communism an unprecedented hardiness for no good reason. Already there are signs that the system as we have known it may be breaking down. In another life­time, there may be no Com­munist countries left, except in the sense that France is today a “Catholic” country. The idea that defeat by the Soviets would necessarily involve the final, irremediable extinction of the good is not self-evident — indeed, it smacks of despair.

Nor is Martino sensitive to the rapid moral decline of the West. Perhaps it is time some­one suggested that for just-war purposes, “comparative” recti­tude is not enough — that there is a “floor” through which the West may fall, becoming so bad that it may no longer justly wage war, even against other evil cul­tures. We are not there yet, but we are grimly close. What qualitative moral difference is there between putting Solzhe­nitsyn in the gulag and put­ting Joan Andrews in solitary confinement? For our genera­tion, the question is not “Will I die for Danzig?” but “Will I kill for the clinics?”

None of this is to say that the anti-nuclear party in the Catholic Church has been free from intellectual sloth and complacency. With regard to purely defensive systems, much Catholic discourse has been depressingly irrational. Martino’s chapters on these systems are his best, and those interested in mitigating the horrors of war will profit from them.

But despite these strengths, this is a flawed book, reflecting moral indeci­sion in the author. At heart, he wishes to be loyal to the Catholic tradition, but his na­tional and cultural baggage causes him to make unconscious compromises with frank­ly secular strains of moral thought. Martino’s book de­serves a reading, but it would be wise to read it in conjunc­tion with Nuclear Deterrence: Morality and Realism by Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez, the pastoral of the U.S. bishops, and perti­nent statements of the Holy See.



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