Retaliate in Kind Even if Doomed by a Nuclear Attack? Really?

If doomed by a nuclear attack, is there any reason to retaliate in kind? In other words, if we’re about to be wiped off the face off the earth, how does it help up us — beyond the consolation (for the 15 minutes we’ll be alive) of Biblical revenge taken to the nth degree — to decimate the attacking nation? One suspects that it’s one of the few questions about nuclear weapons that has crossed the mind of many in the American public.

In his remarkable new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Simon & Schuster), Ron Rosenbaum virtually wallows in that question. It’s been eating at him for all the years he’s been writing about nuclear weapons. At a symposium on nuclear deterrence in 2009 he actually questioned Major General C. Donald Alston, currently head of the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile force, and at the time the Pentagon’s assistant chief of staff, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Headquarters, on just that point.

“If we get attacked, a surprise attack. What in your view is the morality of retaliation at that point?”

Major General Alston’s entire response was curious. (Buy the book.) But most intriguing:

“Well I guess in the position I’m in I’d say . . . response in kind.” Interesting that he doesn’t suggest that it’s necessarily what he believes is right himself. It’s “the position I’m in.” [Also, without] prompting he brings up the difficulty of deciding what “in kind” would mean.

“What would be — how would you do the calculus on what response in kind would be? So I think that [response in kind] would be one course of action but that [the president] wouldn’t be brought a singular course of action.” In other words, he’d have options other than retaliation.

Major General Alston added, “In my job I have no propensity for response in kind.” Rosenbaum concludes, “If I’m reading this right . . he’s showing a reluctance to retaliate.”

The top nuclear commander (then and now) General Kevin Chilton, chief of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), might not have approved of his subordinate’s response. Asked the same question, General Chilton replied that one issue

“. . . you have to be cautious about when discussing a philosophical or, truly, hypothetical question is that you don’t send a mixed signal that would confuse anybody about your intention.”

In other words, debate in public about deterrence on the part of the military might send the wrong signal to other nuclear-weapons states. When push comes to shove, the president may flinch and fail to issue the order to launch an attack or military command in possession of the codes that ignite the attack might waver. A united front is equally as important a component of deterrence — if you believe in that sort of thing — as the nuclear weapons themselves. The saying “loose lips sinks ships” applies not only to leaking secrets but giving the enemy the impression of a command structure that’s divided against itself.

The term “second strike” has the potential to mislead. If you’re like me, your first reaction is to think it means an enemy that goes on the offensive and launches a first strike, we retaliate, and the enemy launches a second strike. In fact, the retaliatory strike is considered the second strike. Instead of first and second strike, why not just call it attack and retaliation?

As for the actual morality of the second strike when a state knows it’s doomed, it’s helpful to refer back to how George Lakoff describes the attitude of conservatives toward the underserved. They feel that, aside from church or individual charity, federal or state assistance only enables them in their disempowerment and perpetuates its continuation. Conservatives’ idea of helping means pulling the safety net out from under the underserved and forcing them to stand on their own two feet (whether disabled or not). That’s the conservative moral code.

A similar line of thinking may inform the traditional attitude of nuclear war planners toward responding to a first strike. However unconsciously, they think that refraining from retaliating when you know you’re doomed is no longer about you. It doesn’t help the attacking state to think it’s been rewarded for its aggression. In fact, refraining from making it pay in kind not only encourages such behavior in the future, but is harmful to the state. When, though it’s of no earthly advantage to us, we launch a second strike, we may be taking the lives of the citizens and command structure of the aggressor state, but we’re saving their souls.