Up until recently, I didn’t have a very firm opinion on nuclear warfare. I was aware there were Catholics who argued both for and against the use of atomic weapons (See WCCLE 5.1, setting: Teton National Forest, characters: Graham Harrison and Duncan Nobles), but I hadn’t done enough research or thinking about the topic to definitively pick a side. After teaching history lessons on the Second World War and researching the creation, use, and effects of the atomic bomb, I have now created an argument coherent enough to share. I will first explain my understanding of how a bomb ought to be used. Then I will examine the difference between conventional and atomic bombs. We will then examine some responses to common arguments. Lastly, I will explain what I think our responsibility is towards atomic power.
First, let’s examine what an acceptable use of a bomb is. I maintain that there are two purposes one might have in mind when dropping a bomb: the first is to destroy a piece of infrastructure such as a factory, bridge, train station, or highway. The other is to kill enemies directly. Obviously, there is overlap (in fact, I can’t think of an example where there couldn’t be overlap), but we can still have primary intent and allow for a certain amount of unintended consequences. One wouldn’t refuse to bomb an enemy factory because one is afraid of killing an enemy worker, for example. In the case of our primary intent being to kill people, however, we have to be much more precise. If our primary intent is to bomb people, these people must pose a direct threat to our lives and safety. Enemy soldiers on the front line seem to be an acceptable example. Enemy soldiers on the back lines who are not actively shooting or fighting, however, do not seem to pose an immediate threat and, I would argue, ought not be bombed.
I contend that the difference between atomic bombs and conventional bombs is a difference in kind, not degree. A conventional bomb can be built on such a scale that it is possible to restrict damage to specific structures or targets, therefore ensuring that it can be used with precision. Conventional bombs also have certain limits; their destructive power is capped when the bomb becomes too large to practically transport. Atomic bombs can be built on a much larger scale: the largest one ever detonated produced a fireball (associated with total destruction) with a radius of 5 miles. This does not account for the blast radius or fallout. Now, it is true that atomic bombs can be produced on a smaller scale than those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is also true that the largest produced conventional bombs have blast yields higher than the smallest produced nuclear bombs. However, I believe that if any nuclear warfare is admitted, then it becomes difficult or impossible to draw a line over which one ought not cross. So why is there a difference in kind? Two reasons:
- Because the yield of atomic weaponry has the capacity to be increased to such a great extent that the bomb cannot be used with precision. The only way an atomic bomb can be used with precision is if your goal is to kill indiscriminately- and that holds no place in any form of just warfare.
- Because the use of atomic weapons has a consequence that cannot be controlled or predicted: fallout. Obviously, one cannot predict every consequence of a conventional bomb either, but fallout is a known result of using an atomic bomb. We can mitigate unintended consequences by using conventional bombs.
Are there conventional bombs that, based on my argument, ought not be produced? Yes, I believe so. However, that is a difference in degree, since I maintain that we may produce certain conventional bombs and use them correctly. I will leave that argument for another time.
One often hears an argument claiming, ‘The United States had to use nuclear bombs against Japan to force them to surrender. The cost of life would have been far greater had we not used nuclear weapons.’ This may be objectively true. However, as Catholics, we are familiar with the concept of sacrifice for ideals. If we win the war at the cost of using atomic weapons, have we truly “won”? Through my own contemplation, I have arrived at the conclusion that it might be better to lose a war than use atomic weapons. We believe as Catholics that there are fates worse than death. We ought to die rather than commit apostasy or blasphemy, correct? Then why not sacrifice our country for our belief in the injustice of nuclear war? These are strong words, I know, and easy to type from behind a laptop. Quite another to live out that principle when you are facing the primal reality of defeat. Still, I invite you to contemplate these things with me so that when the time comes we do not act mindlessly.
The way forward is not obvious to me. It does not seem prudent to publicly and immediately disarm all U.S. nuclear missiles. However, if there is one thing history and our own souls have shown us, it is that if we, the global populace, own these weapons, we will use them. It might not happen in our lifetimes. It might not happen for 1,000 years. But I have no doubt that it will happen again. However, it is also clear that no one- no public figure or political leader- wants to use a nuclear weapon for fear of retaliation. As a result, we have collectively placed ourselves in an absurd situation: sitting atop our stockpiles of arms that are so deadly we dare not use them against each other. For all practical purposes, it would be better to globally disarm ourselves- but that would require a level of trust in our fellow man that is almost incomprehensible. Until the second coming (or perhaps just after), it does not seem likely that we will ever see such universal brotherhood.
The only proposal I have is as follows: that perhaps there is a way we could unite our global resources to build atomic power plants instead of bombs. Yes, that merits its own discussion, but I cannot help believe that if men had spent the last 80 years working furiously together to design nuclear power plants that fall within an acceptable realm of risk, they would have succeeded. Instead, we have worked furiously to design weapons- and look how much better we have gotten at that! There are risks involved, sure: a foreign country could trigger a meltdown, the power to build such plants can only come from an elite ruling class, and so on- but I still believe we could globally shift our understanding of nuclear power from being weapons-centric to renewable-power-centric. Then we would be truly using the gift of science as responsible stewards, instead of trying to harness godlike powers of destruction as our own. The splitting and fusing of atoms has certainly given us levels of power heretofore reserved for deities- how will we use it?