“The U.S. military is considering allowing regional combatant commanders to request presidential approval for pre-emptive nuclear strikes against possible attacks with weapons of mass destruction on the United States or its allies, according to a draft nuclear operations paper.”
That’s the opening paragraph of a report from Japan’s Kyodo News Service. Yes, you read it right: pre-emptive nuclear strikes. “The paper identifies nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as requiring pre-emptive strikes to prevent their use.”
But that’s not the most horrifying part of this draft paper. (Remember, this isn’t policy yet. It’s just what the Pentagon is considering.) There is a lot more that the Kyodo News Service didn’t mention. The document wants regional commanders to be able to “request Presidential approval for use of nuclear weapons for a variety of conditions.”
For example, we wouldn’t have to know for sure that someone is threatening us with a WMD attack. In fact, the paper admits that “the United States may not know with confidence what threats a state, combinations of states, or nonstate actors pose to US interests.”
But a good soldier assumes the worst, as the paper quite explicitly points out. So, according to the plan, it should be just fine to use nukes “to demonstrate US intent and capability to use nuclear weapons to deter adversary use of WMD.” If we even suspect that they might threaten us, we’d nuke ‘em first, to show them we mean business. How can they know we’ll use the weapons unless we actually use the weapons?
There is more. Under this plan, we could use nukes even against an enemy that has no WMD. Once war starts, commanders can ask permission to use their nukes “for rapid and favorable war termination on US terms,” or just “to ensure success of US and multinational operations.” We could nuke any “critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential adversary leadership values most.” In other words, nuke ‘em anytime, anywhere. Winning is the only thing.
The DOD draft paper talks a lot about integrating nuclear and conventional weapons into a single battle plan. What they used to call the “firebreak” -- the huge step from conventional to nuclear weapons -- is gone now. We’d go back to the days when President Eisenhower said that he planned to use nuclear weapons “exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else” on the battlefield.
But this plan might take us beyond anything Eisenhower or the other cold war presidents imagined. Now, even against an enemy with no WMD, we might use nukes before war starts. The document calls for regional commanders to ask for permission to use nukes “to counter potentially overwhelming adversary conventional forces, including mobile and area targets (troop concentration).” With all this talk of pre-emptive attacks, what does “potentially overwhelming” mean? Who knows? It sounds like, if the “bad guys” have a very big troop concentration, we just might nuke ‘em even before the fighting starts, to make sure we win.
Or at least they are supposed to think we might. “The US does not make positive statements defining the circumstances under which it would use nuclear weapons,” the document explains. “Maintaining US ambiguity about when it would use nuclear weapons helps create doubt in the minds of potential adversaries, deterring them from taking hostile action.” So all options have to be open.
Could we nuke not just their troops and military bases, but the power plants or water supplies that civilians also depend on? What about their factories in densely populated cities? Commanders do have “the responsibility to attempt to minimize collateral damage to the greatest extent practicable,” the document says. But we are talking about hydrogen bombs here. How much damage limitation is really “practicable”?
Not to worry. Apparently they’ve run this past the Pentagon lawyers, who decided that “such damage is not unlawful so long as the anticipated loss of life and damage to property incidental to the use of force is not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained by the attack.” Of course, it’s the people dropping the bombs who get to decide what’s “not excessive.” With language that loose, anything could be justified.
If you are a military strategist, you might see the next big problems. If we nuke ‘em, how can we fight ‘em? How can we be sure friendly troops would be safe from the effects of the bomb? The battlefield would be a hotbed of nuclear radiation. How can we invade and conquer an irradiated nation?
Well, those smart Pentagon planners are already one step ahead of you: “Careful consideration [must] be given to the potential impact of nuclear effects on friendly forces,” they say. And “the US must be prepared to fight and win on a contaminated battlefield following a US nuclear strike.” Of course, they don’t explain just how these tricks can be pulled off.
But they do add a sentence that sounds like the key to the whole document: “The demonstrated ability of US forces to survive and to sustain successful combat operations in WMD environments presents a stronger deterrent force to potential US adversaries.” The basic idea has not changed since the cold war days. It’s still all about sending a message: “Executing a nuclear option, or even a portion of an option, should send a clear signal of United States’ resolve. Hence, options must be selected very carefully and deliberately so that the attack can help ensure the adversary recognizes the ‘signal.’”
So here’s the plan. We spread the word that we might use nukes any time, against anyone we don’t like. To make the threat believable, we drop one or two, we equip our troops to survive in a radioactive environment, and we let the world know that we think nuclear annihilation is perfectly OK. That ought to send a signal loud and clear.
The Pentagon planners want the world to get another message, too: the U.S. arsenal will be “so numerous, advanced, and reliable that the US retains an unassailable edge for the foreseeable future.”
All in all, as the paper says, the goal is to use the U.S. nuclear arsenal to “deter potential adversary use of WMD and dissuade against a potential adversary’s development of an overwhelming conventional threat.” For those who need to hear the message more poetically, the document is decorated with this nice quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “It is a doctrine of war not to assume the enemy will not come, but rather to rely on one’s readiness to meet him; not to presume that he will not attack, but rather to make one’s self invincible.”
The U.S. as The Borg. Resistance is futile. Don’t even think about messing with us. Just fall in line and take orders. That’s what it’s all about.
It may be a coincidence that the Japanese news report about this Pentagon paper came out the same day that the North Koreans fired a missile into the Sea of Japan. White House chief of staff Andrew Card complained that the North Koreans are “looking to kind of be bullies in the world." Of course, Card knows this is laughable. He knows who the real bullies in the world are. He works with them every day.
It’s no coincidence, though, that Japanese journalists are alerting us to the continuing dangers of nuclear weapons, just as it’s no coincidence that the Japanese are taking the lead in the struggle to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Japan, the first victim of the bomb, has always been uniquely sensitive to its horrors. Meanwhile, the president of the United States wants to weaken the NPT, so that he can be even more free to build up the U.S. nuclear advantage.
The plot thickens when you consider that only one U.S. newspaper immediately picked up the Japanese press story -- the conservative Washington Times. It’s hard to resist the suspicion that this story got out because someone in the Pentagon wanted it out. With North Korea so close to Japan, the signal would surely be transmitted to Pyongyang.
But the signal is surely meant to be heard at the UN too, where the NPT is under review. If anyone is expecting the U.S. to begin really living up to its NPT commitment to move toward a nuclear-free world, forget about it. The Borg can’t disarm. Intimidation is its very lifeblood.
That, of course, is just how the neocons in the Bush administration want it. They want the U.S. to rule the world for a long time to come, and they aren’t ashamed to say it. On the contrary, they figure that you have to say it, loud and clear. The Borg method (some call it the Al Capone method) is the most efficient (and cheapest) way to stay on top of the heap. The more you intimidate and bully, the less likely you are ever to have to fight. That’s the theory.
Of course there was that guy Hitler who apparently believed the same theory. So maybe, in the long run, it doesn’t work so well in practice.
For now, though, the neocon Borg may very well get its way. Nuclear intimidation may become an even bigger part of U.S. foreign policy. Unless, that is, we raise our voices in protest. You know how to do that, right?
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org