Monday, January 01, 2018

From the Archives - A Moral Argument for Civil Defense: Advice to America’s Catholic Bishops (1983)

This article appeared exactly 35 years ago today, in the January 1, 1983, issue of Crisis Magazine, a Catholic journal of opinion (previously known as Catholicism in Crisis).

A Moral Argument for Civil Defense: Advice to America’s Catholic Bishops

“Justice demands that those who do not make war not have war made upon them.” This is a central teaching of the Catholic Church that is repeated emphatically in the second draft of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on peace and war. Just war doctrine demands discrimination in battle and both the United States and the Soviet Union in part meet this moral requirement in their strategic plans, which do not target nuclear weapons against civilian populations as such. However, to meet it fully, both nations must also protect civilian populations from the effects of enemy weapons.

The bishops do not adequately address the question of civil defense in their draft letter, nor is it likely that they will do so in the final version next May. In spite of that oversight, I would like to set forth here the moral principles which compel a government to protect its people from weapons of mass destruction, principles drawn in part from the bishops’ own document.

Moral Foundations: Just War and Vatican II
Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, condemned indiscriminate warfare by saying: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” This moral judgment has obvious applications to gruesome examples of modern warfare: the obliteration bombings of Coventry and Tokyo, the blitz against London, the firebombings of Dresden and Hamburg, the use of chemical weapons in Afghanistan, Laos, and Kampuchea. By extension we can apply it to the extermination policies of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao — even though these were not acts of war in the conventional sense.

civil defense shelter 1960sA mistaken interpretation of the Council’s judgment maintains that any use of nuclear weapons would be “indiscriminate” and therefore damnable. Yet the evolution of modern technology made possible pinpoint attacks on purely military targets. Weapons such as the neutron bomb have been designed primarily with the principle of discrimination in mind: enhanced radiation warheads arrest the aggressive movement of tank forces without affecting innocent civilian populations nearby. Their lethal effects are short-lived and narrowly targeted.

However, intercontinental strategic weapons are still so destructive that even pinpoint bombings of missile silos can spread harmful radioactive fallout indiscriminately to civilian areas. Simple measures can be taken to protect against these effects. These must be examined in the light of moral reasoning.

Defense Against Nuclear Weapons
The American bishops write, contrary to the facts, that “the presumption exists that defense against a nuclear attack is not feasible.” They ignore extensive and presumably effective air defenses deployed by the Soviet Union, along with the available technology for ballistic missile defense (BMD) — whether in the form of antiballistic missiles (in place in the Soviet Union, abandoned by the United States), space-based laser — or conventional-BMD, or sophisticated anti-weapon weapons like particle beams. Moreover, the bishops all but overlook the possibility of passive civilian defenses — except in this passage:

“In discussing non-violent means of defense, some attention must be given to existing programs for civil defense against nuclear attack, including blast and fallout shelters and relocation plans. It is unclear in the public mind whether these are intended to offer significant protection against at least some forms of nuclear attack or are being put into place to enhance the credibility of the strategic deterrent forces by demonstrating an ability to survive attack.”

civil defense handbook 1940sThe bishops here unwittingly present two strong reasons to support civil defense: emphatically, significant protection against the effects of nuclear weapons is possible; secondarily, the ability to survive indeed increases the credibility of the deterrent strategy of the United States government. Clearly this is the most peaceful component of nuclear deterrence: it requires no weapons and possesses none of the moral ambiguity of nuclear weapons. If the bishops someday see fit to condemn the mere possession of nuclear weapons, they shall have no justification to condemn the peaceful means to protect innocent civilians against an aggressor.

The bishops recommend that an independent panel of scientists, engineers, and physicians examine the feasibility of civil defense as a means to survive a nuclear war. Yet many such studies have been done over the past thirty years. The consensus is that nuclear war is indeed survivable and, in the words of one of the latest studies, “no insuperable barrier to recovery exists.” It would indeed be horrible, but preparations for the potentially horrible can significantly mitigate its consequences. If targeting civilian populations in your enemy’s territory is morally unjustifiable, acquiescing in the unnecessary death of innocents in your own country is morally repugnant. It deserves unhesitating condemnation.

Civil Defense: A Life or Death Issue
“Questions of war and peace,” write the bishops, “have a profoundly moral dimension which responsible Christians cannot ignore. They are questions of life and death.” War is evil not in itself but because it is the cause of human suffering and death. To alleviate suffering and prevent death is ipso facto a moral good. That is why an increased American commitment to civil defense is a moral imperative. Every reason exists for the bishops to express their support for such a commitment: (1) Above all, civil defense saves lives. Estimates vary, but in the event of nuclear war some civil defense will save more lives than no civil defense. (The Swiss have a slogan: “Better civil defense without nuclear war than nuclear war without civil defense.”) (2) As I argued earlier, civil defense is an integral component of a deterrent strategy, the only component that is objectively peaceful. It is also, many experts argue, the most effective part of a deterrent strategy. Soviet military planners and their leaders in the Kremlin are cautious. If they have no guarantee of victory — that is, if the United States can demonstrate an ability to survive, recover, and challenge Soviet hegemony — they will not be as ready to risk a strategic conflict.

Nuclear war would no doubt be the most tragic disaster ever to befall mankind. There is no need to make it any worse by ignoring its consequences. There are, of course, some problems with civil defense as it exists today: crisis relocation is far from perfect, shelters are not invulnerable, panic and confusion may still occur. Yet to refuse to plan for these contingencies is as sinful as launching a nuclear weapon in the first place.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “it is the concrete individual who lends meaning to the human race. We do not think that a human being is valuable because he is a member of the race; it is rather the opposite: the human race is valuable because it is composed of human beings.” The responsibility of the nation is to preserve and protect as many human beings as possible. To neglect that responsibility reveals a moral turpitude worse than the Nazi Holocaust, worse than the Stalinist purges, indeed worse than any conceivable use of nuclear weapons. To commit ourselves to civil defense is to reaffirm a choice God made available to us several thousand years ago: “I set before you life or death, a blessing or curse. Choose life then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of Yahweh your god, obeying his voice, clinging to him; for in this your life consists …” (Deuteronomy 11:26)

Richard E. Sincere, Jr., is research assistant for church and society at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a member of the visiting faculty of the Georgetown University School for Summer and Continuing Education, and president of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the American Civil Defense Association.

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