If Harry Truman had decided against using nuclear weapons, it is very unlikely that I would be here to write this. My father was a Marine captain in 1945 and was scheduled to take his company ashore in the first wave of the invasion of Japan. His life expectancy in that assault would have been about fifteen minutes. The nuclear strikes on Japan probably saved his life. The loss of thousands of lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be weighed against the more than one million American lives, and millions of Japanese lives, that would have been lost in the final battles of that war. That first and only use of nuclear weapons taught lessons we must not forget on the eve of the campaign to liberate Iraq.
America is not the only nation to have used weapons of mass destruction. In World War I, thousands died grotesquely from German use of mustard gas against allied troops. In World War II, the Soviets used biological weapons. Before the 1942 battle of Stalingrad, they spread tularemia bacteria among the Germans, infecting thousands. Saddam, of course, used chemical weapons many times against Iranian troops and against Iraqi Kurds, killing thousands. The Germans and Saddam — and arguably the Soviets — violated what I will call the First Rule of WMD: Weapons of mass destruction should be used when the only alternative is to incur — or inflict — casualties of a magnitude that vastly greater that the WMD will cause.
The Second Rule of WMD is that we must maintain them as a deterrent. By 1991, chemical and biological weapons were a commonplace. Secretary of State James Baker is credited with deterring any use of WMD against American and Coalition forces by threatening Saddam Hussein with nuclear retaliation. That deterrent remains credible because, so far, it has not been challenged. If Iraq — or, for that matter, Iran or North Korea or any other WMD-armed nation — uses them against us, it will be necessary to respond just as Mr. Baker threatened. In 2003 Iraq and its WMD again are on the front burner. Having failed with every other argument against military action to disarm Saddam, the nattering nabobs say we’re going nuclear. Dr. Strangelove’s beeper must be going off like MAD.
It began with the President’s National Security Strategy document released last September. That paper emphasized that the United States can and will strike preemptively to “counter a sufficient threat to our national security” and “to forestall or prevent” the use of WMD against us. Also last September, as the Washington Times reported last week, the President issued a secret order, National Security Presidential Directive 17. Some of the chattering class say NPD 17 means that we plan to use nuclear weapons in the coming Iraq campaign.
According to the Times report, a classified part of NPD 17 says that “nuclear weapons are part of the overwhelming force that Washington might use in response to a chemical or biological attack.” It goes on to cite one William Arkin, a “military analyst” who “quoted ‘multiple sources’ close to the preparations for a war in Iraq as saying that the focus is on ‘two possible roles for nuclear weapons: attacking Iraqi facilities located so deep underground that they might be impervious to conventional explosives; and thwarting Iraq’s use of weapons of mass destruction.’” Mr. Arkin and his sources aren’t distinguishing between academic exercises and real war planning.
There are always thousands of “what ifs” that war planners consider. Inevitably there will be someone among the Pentagon RSG (real smart guy) crowd who will say, “Hey, why don’t we nuke his butt?” And there were probably staff papers for both sides of the argument which have long-since been buried. But that’s a long way from saying we’re going to do it.
There are reports of new tactical nuclear weapons being designed for use against hardened targets without causing above-ground damage. If we can test nuclear weapons underground without doing damage above, we can design weapons to do this. Or can we? How you get the weapon deep enough underground before it detonates is a problem that hasn’t yet been solved. And, thanks to Lil’ Billy, we haven’t tested a nuclear warhead in the better part of a decade. Which means we don’t know if it would work as intended.
Even if we could, we have no compelling reason to cross the nuclear threshold in a preemptive strike. If Saddam is buried so deeply our forces can secure the area and wait. Eventually, the bad guys will come out or die of starvation. We can probably hurry them along by cutting off their air supply. Saddam has his WMD in hardened underground facilities. (Which is one of the reasons that Hans and the Blixies are ridiculous. They don’t go underground anywhere, far less anywhere WMD are likely to be.) And if we can destroy the weapons, or cut off command and control over them, we don’t need to resort to preemptive nuclear strikes. Use of nuclear weapons against deep, hardened targets would violate WMD Rule 1.
America has to decide for itself when and how it goes to war. But there are limits to the proper exercise of American power. Using nuclear weapons without first being struck by WMD, or determining that WMD are about to be used against us without any other means to prevent it, would forever make America a brutal monster in our own minds as well as the world’s. We would shatter ourselves on the rocks of guilt. George Bush is no Caligula. Take this to the bank: nuclear preemption won’t happen in Iraq.
If some of Saddam’s Scuds manage to leak through our defenses and deliver chemical or biological weapons, then we must respond with a nuclear weapon. We should hit them with the lowest-yield tactical nuclear weapons we have in our arsenal. Saddam’s “palace” in Tikrit or the al-Tharthar or Abu Ghurayb facilities — all of which probably contain WMD — would be appropriate targets. But for the fact that it’s in Baghdad, the headquarters of the “Special Republican Guard” — which has responsibility for concealing and using Iraqi WMD — would be at the top of the list. But there, we must draw the line. Baghdad is a city of millions, and we want to liberate Iraq, not incinerate it.
Using nuclear weapons to respond to WMD attacks is terrible to contemplate, but in this new era we must consider it, even plan for it. We cannot allow terrorists and others to believe they can use such weapons against us without suffering the most horrific consequences. Mr. Bush is not a monster. Neither is he a fool. If we are struck by Iraqi WMD, and hundreds of our troops are killed, several of Saddam’s “palaces” should quickly become smoking, glowing holes in the ground. Buck Turgidson, call your office. Saddam delendus est.
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