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The Dubious Moral Justification for a Nuclear Second Strike

The aim of presenting the case for the continued possession of these terrifying weapons that hold the potential to destroy all life on earth this way seems to be to convince citizens that nuclear weapons are morally justifiable and thus somehow 'acceptable.'

If the reason seems unclear, then it may be worthwhile for the average citizen of goodwill in a nuclear-armed country to resolve this new year to urge their leaders to renew their commitments to arms control and ultimately, the elimination of these genocidal weapons. (Photo:US Department of Defense)

If the reason seems unclear, then it may be worthwhile for the average citizen of goodwill in a nuclear-armed country to resolve this new year to urge their leaders to renew their commitments to arms control and ultimately, the elimination of these genocidal weapons. (Photo:US Department of Defense)

Poised as the nuclear powers appear to be to resume the nuclear arms race, leaders of these countries have been at pains to assure their countrymen and the rest of the world that, though determined to maintain and even expand their nuclear arsenals, they will only use them for the purposes of a second strike i.e. in retaliation to a nuclear first strike by a nuclear-armed belligerent. Their pledges are meant to reassure us that nuclear weapons are for defensive rather than offensive purposes. The aim of presenting the case for the continued possession of these terrifying weapons that hold the potential to destroy all life on earth this way seems to be to convince citizens that nuclear weapons are morally justifiable and thus somehow ‘acceptable’. For a number of reasons, however, a second strike may not be as morally defensible as leaders would have us believe. 

Firstly, consider that, given the short reaction time needed to retaliate to a first strike, leaders would have to bypass normal administrative and civic oversight processes, the very mechanisms designed to curb politicians’ excesses and keep their more base instincts in check, to launch a second strike. As such, a second strike can only be launched in anger or, more aptly, rage. Arguably, they would be more volatile in this state than even when contemplating the launch of a nuclear first strike; where some calculus, however sinister, is required on the part of those whose finger is on their country’s nuclear button.

Secondly, consider the argument that reserving the right to launch a second strike is necessary to maintain the peace as it acts as a deterrent. For the threat of a nuclear second strike to serve as a credible deterrent, it has to be disproportionate. The threatened response will have to be massive to the point of being genocidal whether subject to a barrage of one, two or more missile attacks in an initial strike. By its very nature, this implies that there is limited strategic or tactical value (in military terms) in the use of nuclear weapons during a second strike. Their main (sole?) value lies in the capacity to sow terror in the hearts and minds of the nation’s enemies by invoking the spectre of annihilation. Leaders’ proclamations of their willingness to launch a second strike thus amounts to a taunt; a goading of their adversaries along the lines of, “Go ahead, try me if you dare and see how terrible the consequences will be.”

The message that one’s nation will be satisfied with nothing less than an attack which results in the total destruction of their enemies signals that restoring any semblance of ‘normalcy’ or détente between adversaries will not be possible after a nuclear exchange.

The message that one’s nation will be satisfied with nothing less than an attack which results in the total destruction of their enemies signals that restoring any semblance of ‘normalcy’ or détente between adversaries will not be possible after a nuclear exchange. In so doing, it forecloses the possibility of reconciliation or the restoration of relations between survivors in warring nations and ensures their eternal enmity. This thought is cause for despair considering that the scattered survivors left in the broken nations that were involved in a nuclear confrontation would have to rely on each other more than ever given the catastrophic global consequences of even a minor nuclear exchange between nuclear powers.  

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Lastly, lest we forget, for all the efforts which politicians put into drawing a distinction between a nuclear first and second strike, nuclear weapons are still nuclear weapons and retain the characteristics of nuclear weapons whether used in a first or second strike. A crucial characteristic of nuclear weapons is that they are indiscriminate and do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. It follows that the louder one declares one’s willingness to carry out disproportionate and less-targeted strikes that are of limited strategic or tactical military value, the fewer qualms one has about the taking of civilian lives.

Based on the reasons outlined above, a nuclear second strike can only be described as an act of vengeance. Thus, when leaders proudly put forward the position that their nation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons only as a second strike, they effectively proclaim that they represent a vengeful and wrathful people. Is this the societal value that citizens of nuclear-armed countries would like leaders to embrace in their behalf? Is this the sort of sentiment that the rank-and-file citizen in a nuclear-armed country would like to echo across the ages to their grandchildren and grandchildren’s children? If not, and if leaders’ disavowal of launching a nuclear first strike is as sincere as they would have us believe, for what reason should any nation continue to possess nuclear weapons?

If the reason seems unclear, then it may be worthwhile for the average citizen of goodwill in a nuclear-armed country to resolve this new year to urge their leaders to renew their commitments to arms control and ultimately, the elimination of these genocidal weapons. And should the approval of one’s descendants or the appeal to advance our shared universal values not be sufficient to persuade them to resolve to do so, bear in mind that the continued existence of a nation’s nuclear arsenal means that its citizens must continue to entrust their protection and wellbeing to leaders who, as part of their job requirement, must be both quick to anger and harbour homicidal tendencies. One leaves it to the reader to decide if this is the sort of leader the individual citizen or their compatriots deserve at a time when democracy and hard-won freedoms seem to be on the retreat domestically the world over and assassination and targeted killing appear to have become an integral tool of foreign policy.

Gerard Boyce

Gerard Boyce

Gerard Boyce is an Economist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College) in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity and can be reached at gdboyce@yahoo.com.

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