My childhood was haunted by the monster known to South Carolinians in that time and place as "the atom bum." I lay awake nights worrying about a nuclear strike the same way children of earlier generations worried about the monsters under their beds or the crazy son the mean old man up the road reputedly kept locked up in the attic. It was my Boo Radley, but one I would never really come to terms with. We heard—from whispered rumors on the
playground of things overheard on the evening news or from adult
conversations— that if it fell on our heads it would leave a crater
stretching to the next small town; we heard about shadows on walls in Japan;
we heard about radiation burns and radiation sickness and the poisoning of the air and water.
During a brief period—I don’t know what prompted it or why it
stopped—we used to have "bum" drills, where we’d hide under our
desks. What good would hiding under a desk do? I asked my teacher.
She told me to hush up and get back under the desk, but then admitted she didn’t know.
During the late seventies, when I was a teen-ager, post-apocalyptic fiction abounded. (The best were–if you’re
looking for something to read– were Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Russell Hoban’s beautiful but challenging Riddley Walker.)
After the Cold War receded, people didn’t talk about it so much for awhile. But of course it’s never really gone away.
It’s with a certain sense of inevitability that I now read in The Guardian that "five of the west’s most senior military officers and strategists," have put together a manifesto warning NATO that it needs to face up to the nuclear option if it wants to be able to cope with the dangers facing the dangerous, fragmented world today. Specifically, they say, we must keep open the option of a preemptive strike "to try to halt the "imminent" spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destructions."
While no monolithic superpowers may be planning just at the moment to invade our countries (as we were told at various times in my little town the USSR was gearing up to do, primed to do, on the point of doing), our enemies today really are everywhere. This “radical manifesto for a new NATO” therefore contends that the first strike nuclear option is and must remain an indispensable instrument of deterrence,since “there is "simply no realistic prospect of a
The authors of the recommendation are: (1) General John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the US
joint chiefs of staff and Nato’s ex-supreme commander in Europe, the US’s top soldier under Bill Clinton”; (2) General Klaus Naumann, Germany’s former top soldier and ex-chairman of
Nato’s military committee, under whose leadership “Germany overcame its post-WWII taboo about combat
operations”; (3) General Henk van den Breemen, a former Dutch
chief of staff, whom ;The Guardian describes as “an accomplished organist,” which for some reason I find cheering; (4) Admiral Jacques Lanxade, a former French chief of
staff; and (5) Lord Inge, field marshal and ex-chief of the general staff
and the defense staff in the UK. (The Guardian) They argue that NATO’s decision-making processes need to be reformed, among other ways by "[a] shift from consensus decision-taking in NATO bodies to majority
voting, meaning faster action through an end to national vetoes."(The Guardian) Yep, this sounds like a group of men who have had plenty of experience assessing military necessities.
But even among the five authors of the manifesto, the nuclear first-strike option is described as "controversial." (The Guardian). Lord Inge said that "to tie our hands on first use or no first use removes a
huge plank of deterrence". (The Guardian).
As the article remarks, “[r]eserving the right to initiate
nuclear attack was a central element of the west’s cold war strategy in
defeating the Soviet Union,” the writer of the article remarks. Is it a workable strategy for the 21st Century?
[General Klaus] Naumann [Germany] suggested the threat of nuclear attack was a counsel of
desperation. "Proliferation is spreading and we have not too many
options to stop it. We don’t know how to deal with this."
NATO needed to show "there is a big stick that we might have to use if there is no other option", he said.(The Guardian)
A lot of people back in the day thought that the overt acknowledgment of the "nuclear option" led by a direct and inevitable path to nuclear proliferation. Won’t letting it be known overtly that we are prepared to unleash hell against a significant threat simply encourage little and big countries that aren’t part of NATO to reignite the Arms Race? And is that something we can afford these days? "Critics argue that what was a productive
instrument to face down a nuclear superpower is no longer appropriate," says The Guardian.
Robert Cooper, an influential shaper of European foreign and security policy in Brussels, said he was "puzzled".
"Maybe we are going to use nuclear weapons before anyone else, but I’d be wary of saying it out loud."(The Guardian; emphasis added)
Which in a way is what I’m saying. Even if we want to keep this as an option—and I wasn’t really aware that we’d let it go— should we be announcing it to all these angry third world countries and terrorists?
I suppose that the authors of the manifesto feel that citizens of the western democracies need to acknowledge the risks and take responsibility for the policy. Perhaps they are right to require the NATO countries to face up to their options and own up to their intentions. This I don’t know. I do know that my own religious views—arising from a tradition never noted for its pragmatism—requires me personally to oppose such a policy. I recognize that other people of more pragmatic bent may reach different conclusions. In any case, what stand I might feel compelled to take regarding such a policy is matter for another day
Just for now, through my reflexive dismay, all I can say is, “Hello, Mr. A-Bum! WE MEET AGAIN, OLD FRIEND."
CROSS-POSTED AT BUCK NAKED POLITICS