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Hey Pentagon, How Are Nuclear Weapons Working Out for You?

07.11.2008 | POLITICS

If you aren't a Defense Department official, a high-ranking military officer, a top academic, or employed by a defense think tank, it's almost impossible to find a seat at the national security table. That applies as well to war's counterpart, peace. In other words, it's just as difficult for nuclear disarmament advocates to make themselves heard if they're not part of that world's establishment.

But the gateway to the field cracked open for one when Dissent magazine published a piece entitled "Banning the Bomb: A New Approach," in its Winter 2007 issue. After 25 years of study, its author, Ward Wilson, an independent scholar unaffiliated with any academy or organization, developed a new approach to disarmament. Not long afterwards, MIT's International Security magazine ran another article of his, "The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima."

Few are aware of the extent of the anti-nuclear field. It encompasses groups such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the Arms Control Association, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

This last one, which calls itself the largest NGO in the US "devoted exclusively to research and training on nonproliferation issues," has finally accorded Wilson the status he needed to win a seat -- if yet a couple of rows back -- at the nonproliferation and disarmament table. The Martin Center staged its first worldwide nonproliferation essay contest and Wilson's essay, "The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence," won. The grand prize consists of publication in the Martin Center's prestigious journal, Nonproliferation Review, a substantial cash award, and a presentation in Washington hosted by disarmament heavyweight, Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, at the New America Foundation.

The heart of Wilson's argument can be found in the first two paragraphs of his Dissent article:

"In July of 1945, U.S. president Harry Truman wrote in his diary [of the atomic bomb] 'It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.' Terrible and useful. For sixty years, people have focused on the terrible aspects of nuclear weapons. . . . on the other hand, people have rarely talked seriously about the usefulness of nuclear weapons. Do they really win wars? Are they effective threats?

"[R]ecent reevaluations of the track record of nuclear weapons, and reinterpretations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. . . make it possible to argue that there are very few situations in which nuclear weapons are useful. [Thus facilitating the case that there] are practical, prudential reasons for banning nuclear weapons."

In essence, Wilson is speaking to the defense establishment on its own terms. While, to many of us, nuclear weapons conjure up images of burning flesh, moral appeals are lost on the Pentagon. Its only concern is winning wars.

Wilson's award is especially timely because it's capable of working in synergy with an upcoming article on deterrence in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by Dr. Lewis himself, as well as with a recent piece on the Bulletin's website by Lawrence Korb, national security analyst and former assistant secretary of defense.

In "The U.S. Air Force's indifference toward nuclear weapons," Korb writes:

"From its creation as a separate service at the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force was first among equals amid the nation's three military departments and four armed services [due] primarily to its leading role in developing and deploying strategic nuclear weapons. . . . But with the Soviet Union's collapse. . . . Strategic nuclear deterrence was no longer seen as central to U.S. security and the attention and resources of. . . the air force began to flow toward traditional air missions. Rather than the Bomber Barons, the air force in the post-Cold War era was led by the Fighter Mafia."
As for the disarmament community, it sometimes resembles not only Washington's inside world, but, as alternative health advocates call it, the "cancer industry." In other words, what happens if what we're fighting for comes to pass? Some disarmament NGO employees even seem to develop an affection for nuclear weapons.

For example, a prominent disarmament blogger recently wrote: "I've been thinking that I should blog more about my favorite cruise missile -- the BrahMos. So, stay tuned for some BrahMos mania coming your way soon." The blog isn't visited much by those outside the industry. But, if it were, the presumed irony might be lost on the public.

Of course, enough can't be said about the impact of the work these NGOs do. They also deserve accolades for providing an opening for a maverick like Wilson.

We'll give Wilson the final word. In a recent post at his blog, Rethinking Nuclear Weapons, he writes:

"I believe we are at a time when the intellectual structure that has frozen thinking about nuclear weapons into rigid systems is coming apart and new ideas, new ways of looking at the problem are emerging that will change everything, perhaps even our reliance on nuclear weapons."

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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