Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

From Nagasaki to Damascus: Just War and American Consistency

Daniel R. Allen


By Daniel R. Allen

September 6, 2013

As the world weighs a response to chemical weapons attacks in Syria, it is helpful to reflect on the larger issue of the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Just over sixty-eight years ago, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Syria’s recent WMD usage compels us to consider to what extent humanity is capable of preventing the next use of nuclear weapons.

I encountered this issue head-on when I traveled recently to Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the anniversaries of the atomic bombings, alongside a group of faculty from Christian universities throughout North America. Two renowned activists committed to abolishing nuclear weapons led our group, one of whom had the unenviable task of trying to craft a policy position for the World Evangelical Alliance in advance of the 2015 NPT conference.

I am not a pacifist; in fact, I served in the military (in peacetime), and would do so again. Government has a broader responsibility to uphold just and healthy societies, and the Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines on Security and Defense outline the case for just use of force, saying that “Laws governing the use of force have been articulated in American state and federal statutes, in international laws such as the Geneva conventions on war, and in the historic Christian ‘just war doctrine.’”

However, when it comes to nuclear weaponry, Just War ideas have been abused. In 2011, a scandal occurred when a class for nuclear weapons officers in the US Air Force appeared to attach classic Augustinian Just War criteria to the righteousness of obeying lawful orders to launch on command. Criteria were glossed over, including proportionality and discrimination against non-combatants. With Just War criteria only weakly applicable to the use of nuclear weapons, what’s left is an argument based on military necessity combined with the pursuit of a peace superior to that which could otherwise be obtained. This argument is lacking.

Nuclear weapons and a second-strike capability are at the heart of deterrence theory, said to have kept the Cold War from spiraling out of control. Even presuming that tens of thousands of warheads were necessary then, in what ways is Cold War deterrence still relevant today? Maintaining that many warheads increases the odds that a weapon, or material from one, will fall into the hands of a non-deterrable actor, such as a terrorist group. Given the nuclear triad of bombers, missiles, and sea-based launch platforms, there is no reason to think that tens of thousands of warheads are needed to serve as a deterrent.

Further, our understanding of ecology should be factored into any calculation of weapons employment. Consider the impact that a small number of detonations would have on global temperatures and crop growing seasons. A small nuclear exchange would have a devastating effect on global access to staples, causing skyrocketing food prices and compromising access to energy, fertilizers, and pesticides. Any first use of nuclear weapons would greatly harm one’s own population. Absorbing a first strike, compounded by retaliation, would add insult to injury. So, neither a first nor second strike appears rational. Credibility has a great cost. Even if the United States could rely on tactical nuclear weapons, ecological and economic effects undermine this justification.

What about the diplomatic costs? Consider for a moment how the global community is reacting to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. A single use of the most isolated tactical nuclear weapon may render the Western democratic consensus meaningless and all pretenses to moral superiority dead. In this scenario, tactical victory would equal strategic failure with the sacrifice of the United States’ long-run interests for a short-run military necessity. A situation in which tactical nuclear weapons are the sole source of victory on the battlefield is one in which the United States has already lost. The superior peace pursued by the just war disappears with even the smallest nuclear exchange.

Nuclear weapons will never entirely disappear. But the time is now to double down on dismantling unnecessary stockpiles of warheads and to step up partnerships that lower the threat of nuclear terrorism. All WMDs are not created equal in terms of their effects. We need to see clearly to confront both nuclear proliferation and the WMDs used by the world’s tyrants to oppress their own people.

- Daniel R. Allen is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Anderson University. He is also director of the Global Studies Program and co-director of the Peace and Conflict Transformation Program.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”