Nuclear War – The Moral Dimension – A Review

The book, Nuclear War – The Moral Dimension, by James W. Child, argues that a strong conventional defense, an invulnerable second strike, counterforce capability, and stateman-like prudence deters nuclear war for all sides, even if exercised by only one party. He advocates mutual arms control as circumstances permit. Published in 1986, this work confronts the US–Russia conflict. However, it is still applicable in the multipolar world we live in now.

In the book’s conclusion, Child lays out principles to abide by (quoted and paraphrased below),

1. We have an overwhelming moral duty to avoid nuclear war – Except at the cost of totalitarian slavery or utter annihilation, any cost to avoid it must be borne. Such war, especially a first strike, serves no policy objectives.

2. We must take all reasonable steps which can now be taken to avoid nuclear war. – He says this means, at a minimum, two things. First, strategic nuclear forces must be strong enough to deter and secure enough to survive a nuclear attack. Second, that conventional forces are effective enough to deter conventional aggression. Though the first is mostly met, as we’ve seen in the recent past, the second is not and we foolishly open ourselves to no alternative but nuclear escalation. Establishment of a “hotline” with China is essential to avoid an “inadvertent war,” a war no one wants but no one can avoid, such as happened with World War I. We must also pursue arms control, both nonproliferation and arms reductions, in an effort to lower the chance of nuclear war that benefits all parties.

3. We have a moral right to fight a nuclear war if we are attacked by nuclear weapons. – We have a moral right and duty of self-defense which entitles us to destroy our adversary’s ability to make war (military and industrial targets) or to command making war (governmental, party, and internal security apparatuses.) This “counterforce” retaliation would save millions of American citizens and allies.

4. We have a duty to take great pains to minimize noncombatant casualties. – The unrestrained slaughter of millions of civilians is never justified. Defensive targeting must deliberately reduce collateral civilian deaths. This duty also requires improving weapons accuracy which enables lowered nuclear yields to achieve the same counterforce effects. With this care, we have the moral right to put the adversary’s population at risk if we are to deter aggression and save our own citizens and those of our allies. Citizens have the duty to restrain their governments from aggression and if they fail to do so, they relinquish their absolute immunity as noncombatants. Each side’s citizenry has this responsibility and risk.

5. Within the bounds set above, we have the moral right to use nuclear weapons in our own defense in order to extinguish the war-making capacity of any nuclear aggressor. – It is not a “necessary evil.” It is morally justifiable. Once something safer comes along, such as workable, multilateral disarmament, we would be irrational and immoral not to avail ourselves of this preferable alternative. But until such time, we need not be made to feel guilty by those long on moral indignation but short on genuine alternatives.

Child concludes with these remarks,

We must develop strong, unfrightened, affirmative attitudes toward the risk of nuclear war. Only then can we disenthrall ourselves from myths and perhaps lessen the danger. We must see the threat of nuclear war as it is: of large but still human dimensions; a very difficult but ultimately tractable problem. But like all really important problems of human existence, the solution will come in bits and pieces to be slowly and patiently assembled: a more secure deterrent force replacing a vulnerable one here; a mutually adopted measure against accidental war there. In this painstaking process, we must dare to bear the risk of nuclear war if we are ever to make that risk go away.

This brief summary doesn’t do Child’s thesis justice but will have to suffice. His book is a thought provoking read. Child died in 2005 at the age of sixty-four. He left a legacy of mentoring, moral thought, adventure, and uplifting comradery.

For different reasons, a historicist or futurist might cite the following scripture to say that, ultimately, deterrence must fail,

But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 2 Peter 3:7 (English Standard Version)

Here, I must adopt a historical/idealist perspective and say the End will be comprehensive, overwhelming, and supernatural. We may well suffer limited or total nuclear war, but the End will not come until the good news of the kingdom is proclaimed throughout the world.

Fail Safe 1964 Ending, 7 minutes, YouTube, posted Nov. 12, 2020, Bill Lange