Sunday, October 08, 2017

Why nuclear disarmament is wrong

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded this week to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of 468 non-governmental organisations across 101 countries. Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Nobel committee, stated that the award recognised ICAN's work “to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”. According to the BBC, ICAN's supporters “include actor Michael Sheen.”

Now, whilst one contradicts a B-list actor at one's peril, it is nevertheless a good juncture to review exactly why organisations such as ICAN are wrong, and why nuclear disarmament would be a bad thing. Let's begin with those “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”, by returning to 1945 and the use of nuclear weapons to end the Second World War.

The image of the mushroom cloud, and the destruction inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki dominates modern media coverage of these events. Rarely, however, does the media also recall the incendiary bombing campaign conducted by the Americans prior to the use of nuclear weapons.

Between March and June of 1945, Japan's six largest industrial centres, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, Osaka, Yokohama and Kawasaki, were devastated. As military historian John Keegan wrote, “Japan's flimsy wood-and-paper cities burned far more easily than European stone and mid-June...260,000 people had been killed, 2 million buildings destroyed and between 9 and 13 million people made July 60 per cent of the ground area of the country's sixty larger cities and towns had been burnt out,” (The Second World War, 1989, p481).

Unfortunately, this mass bombing campaign, conducted with conventional chemical munitions, and inflicted upon civilians and military alike, did not stop the war. Only the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stopped the war.

In terms of the number of deaths, “reported numbers vary, but it has been estimated that by the end of 1945, 90 000 to 120 000 out of a civilian population of about 330 000 in Hiroshima, and 60 000 to 80 000 out of 280 000 in Nagasaki, would be dead as a result of exposure to the intense heat, physical force, and ionizing radiations emitted by the bombs,” (Long-term Radiation-Related Health Effects in a Unique Human Population: Lessons Learned from the Atomic Bomb Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

So, the first conclusion to draw from this is that conventional munitions killed more people, and didn't stop the war, while nuclear weapons killed less people, and did stop the war. In terms of “humanitarian consequences”, being burnt alive by incendiary weapons rather than the blast wave, thermal radiation or ionising radiation of a nuclear detonation, seems scant consolation. 

In the decades since the Second World War, the presence of nuclear weapon stockpiles have been justified on the basis of deterrence: as long as the use of nuclear weapons by one side will result in a retaliatory strike that guarantees their own destruction, then a nuclear war is unwinnable, hence there is no incentive to use nuclear weapons. 

Despite the logic of deterrence, many continue to argue that nuclear weapons should now be abolished by means of multi-lateral disarmament. A recent article in NewScientist by Debora Mackenzie argued that deterrence is unstable:

“The growth in US missile defence systems...undermine deterrence by, in theory, allowing a country to launch a first attack safe in the knowledge that it can intercept any retaliatory strikes...deterrence is only ever a temporary stand-off, lasting just until the enemy finds a way to neutralise your deterrent. Ultimately, the technological capacity to see, hear and otherwise detect and destroy other countries' weapons could become so good that first strikes will become winnable, and deterrence will no longer work...What else will keep the nuclear peace? Optimists are promoting a UN treaty to ban all nuclear weapons,” (Accidental Armageddon, 23rd September 2017).

Which brings us back to ICAN, who promoted the 'Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty'. The nine recognised nuclear powers refused to sign this at the United Nations in July. And they were right not to do so, for the following reason:

A world without nuclear weapons is a world in which a nuclear war is winnable. As demonstrated in the 1940s, it only requires one nation to secretly begin the production of nuclear weapons, (breaking whatever treaty they may have signed), to gain a head-start on their enemies, and they will be able to use nuclear weapons without fear of reprisal. A world without nuclear weapons is a world in which there is an incentive to use nuclear weapons. Multi-lateral nuclear disarmament would therefore take us into the most unstable and dangerous state of all.

Once nuclear weapons have been invented, there is no going back to a world without them. It's not a question of optimism or pessimism, it's a question of logic.


Peter B said...

Great read. I found it intriguing. My best buddy has a physics
degree and follows up on history too. He pretty much told me about how
Robert McNamara came up with a way to increase the yield of these fire strikes
by flying the planes really low, increasing the hit rate and possibly scaring
the Japanese through the shock of seeing these planes fly over them so low.
Personally I am more interested in reading up about how these gravitational
waves are detected. The story behind this years Nobel prize for Physics
had really peaked my curiosity. My background is in electronics and I know
field theory, but these gravitational waves intrigue me (due to Einstein's efforts
and other's for that unified theory for the 4 forces, of which you obviously know
getting gravity into it has proved the most difficult).
You ahould do an article on it, this is currently above my head !

Gordon McCabe said...

Hi Peter.

The gravitational wave detection is truly remarkable. There is this one here: