A Controlled Use for Weapons
Elbridge Colby has an interesting article in First Things (see here if you’re not a subscriber) addressing the ability of nuclear weapons to fit within the just war tradition. One point worth emphasizing comes to mind upon reading his summation of the “nay” argument (with which he disagrees):
The argument proffered by the churchmen is as follows. For the use of force to be morally tolerable it must be discriminate – civilians may not be the object of direct, deliberate attack – and it must be proportionate to the evil confronted and the good achieved. In light of these premises, an empirical claim is made: that nuclear weapons, by their very nature, cannot be used in a discriminate and proportionate fashion and thus are illegitimate. As Archbishop O’Brien has argued, nuclear weapons “cannot ensure noncombatant immunity and the likely destruction and lingering radiation would violate the principle of proportionality.”
This judgment is grounded in an empirical assessment that escalation is highly probable in a nuclear exchange and therefore that the demands of proportionality cannot be satisfied. As Archbishop O’Brien puts it, “Even the limited use of so-called ‘mininukes’ would likely lower the barrier to future uses and could lead to indiscriminate and disproportionate harm. And there is the danger of escalation to nuclear exchanges of cataclysmic proportions.” Nuclear weapons, in short, cannot be used discriminately and proportionately, both because of their inherent destructiveness and because their use is so likely to incur further, catastrophic damage. Therefore, because nuclear weapons cannot be used morally in warfare, they have no justifiable use and warrant elimination.
Specifically, Colby’s topic is the “sharp change” from the Cold War acceptance that nuclear weapons were an unavoidable reality to “blunt statements insisting on the imperative of near-term nuclear disarmament.” In that context, the largest point that the advocates for disarmament elide is that possession is not morally equivalent to use. If the act of possession of nuclear weapons assists actual peace, then the possibility of their deployment is not a trumping argument.
As Colby points out, it isn’t implausible to suggest that the existence of nuclear weapons, and the utter horror with which they tinge the concept of war, have limited large-scale traditional war. To be sure, cataclysmic weapons merit tight control and constant warnings against their use, but it isn’t at all clear that eliminating them totally is desirable — certainly not unilateral elimination.