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The Nuclear Revolution and the Bellum Contra Bellum Justum

Back in September, I suggested that the current literature on just intelligence theory may be unduly influenced by jus contra bellum thinking; that is, a strain popular among the more pacifistic elements of just war thinkers which tends to elevate either the jus in bello principles (i.e. immunity of noncombatants from direct attack and micro-proportionality) or the prudential ad bellum criteria (i.e. last resort, macro-proportionality, probability of success) over the traditionally-prior, deontological categories of sovereign authority, just cause and right intention.

Back in September, I suggested that the current literature on just intelligence theory may be unduly influenced by jus contra bellum thinking; that is, a strain popular among the more pacifistic elements of just war thinkers which tends to elevate either the jus in bello principles (i.e. immunity of noncombatants from direct attack and micro-proportionality) or the prudential ad bellum criteria (i.e. last resort, macro-proportionality, probability of success) over the traditionally-prior, deontological categories of sovereign authority, just cause and right intention.  I also provided the lightest of sketches for jus contra bellum’s origins.  For this current installment, I wanted to, at the very least, begin a deeper examination into the how and why of this particular line of thought, and so, I’d like to focus in on the context and content of an article Paul Ramsey wrote in the mid-1960s, “Robert W. Tucker’s Bellum Contra Bellum Justum,” which can be found in Chapter 17 (pp. 391-424) of Ramsey’s The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (1968; reprinted 1983, 2002).

Ramsey’s article was part of a set of responses provided for Tucker’s book, Just War and Vatican Council II (published in 1966).  The overarching issue for both Tucker and Ramsey was the Council’s discussion regarding “modern” (read thermonuclear) war and weapons as outlined in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).  As Ramsey explains, the Council’s “central declaration” on war in the Pastoral Constitution was its designation of “any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their populations” as “a crime against God and man himself” (392-393).


The Context of the “Nuclear Revolution”

The references to “entire cities” and “extensive areas,” of course reflected the Council’s concerns about what political scientist Robert Jervis later coined “the nuclear revolution” – the changes to, and the risks associated with, interstate conflict wrought by the debut and proliferation of large-yield, fusion-based thermonuclear weapons.  There was the fear that low-level applications of conventional force could (theoretically) escalate into city exchanges between the superpowers.  This fear of escalation, combined with changes to the arsenals themselves, posed new strategic and moral challenges for both warfighting and deterrence.  As various historians have pointed out (i.e. Marc Trachtenberg, Scott Sagan, Fred Kaplan, Alan Rosenberg), US nuclear targeting in the 1950s and up through the mid-1960s centered around a single “spasm” launch of just about everything in the arsenal (mostly long-range bombers) against “an optimal mix” of Soviet and Chinese military and urban/industrial centers.  As the 1960s progressed, however, with the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and continuing improvements to accuracy (which make it possible to destroy hardened targets with smaller amounts of nuclear material), it meant more attention was given to the relative strategic and moral (and deterrent) merits of countervalue versus counterforce targeting.

Countervalue targeting – the targeting of urban/industrial centers and populations – is meant to put at risk the things one’s opponent is believed, theoretically, to “value” most.  It is distinguished from counterforce targeting, the targeting/countering of an opponent’s military capabilities, particularly preemptive or preventive attacks against an opponent’s nuclear delivery vehicles, but could also include the blunting of a conventional attack.  From the Kennedy administration onward, even though the US’ actual nuclear warfighting (and targeting) approach moved in a stronger counterforce direction, holding urban/industrial centers and populations at risk formed the basis of “assured destruction,” the United States’ declaratory stance.  The threat of urban/industrial devastation was taken to be the threat that deterred all but the lowest levels of interstate (or proxy) conflict.  So, for remainder of the Cold War, the strategic and moral questions regarding nuclear war and deterrence centered on things like (a) whether each superpower had to keep its respective cities and populations vulnerable to nuclear attack, since effective defenses  (or the perception of such) could (theoretically) erode deterrence by tempting an opponent to strike first during a crisis; (b) whether, and if so, the extent to which, one’s actual nuclear warfighting capabilities – i.e. pre-and-post nuclear exchange command and control, alert levels, accuracy – affected an opponent’s deterrence calculation – that is, can one really deter if one cannot successfully fight (or is viewed by one’s opponent as not being able to fight successfully); (c) the connection between deterrence and the perceived reasonableness, in Moscow’s eyes, of the United States’ pledged nuclear umbrella over Western Europe given Soviet and Warsaw Pact conventional military strength; and, important for Gaudium et Spes and the Ramsey-Tucker exchange, (d) is it is morally licit for purposes of “assured destruction”-oriented deterrence to target directly, threaten to target directly, or intend to target directly, those who should be immune from direct attack.


Ramsey’s Critique of Tucker’s Alleged Bellum Contra Bellum Justum

Ramsey hones in on one specific statement Tucker makes about Gaudium et Spes.  According to Ramsey, Tucker’s complaint with Gaudium et Spes was that the Council did not forbid the destruction of an urban/industrial center if it was the result of an act “aimed discriminately.” Instead, Ramsey insists that Tucker would have probably preferred it if the Council had indicated that “any act of war aimed at the destruction of entire cities” is (if I may borrow Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s turn of phrase for a moment) categorically indiscriminate, and therefore morally illicit (396).  Ramsey responded with a stark re-articulation of double effect: in war, one could, theoretically, level a city and kill its inhabitants in a morally licit way, but only if one was (a) directly targeting that which was allowed to be directly targeted, (b) not directly targeting those who are immune from direct attack, and (c) the civilian deaths were incidental to the military effort – for instance, if the city was destroyed collaterally and incidentally in an attack against a legitimate counterforce target.  Adding an even blunter diagnosis, Ramsey suggests that Tucker’s mistake is that he begins his moral analysis at the exact wrong end.  Instead of zeroing in on the actor’s military intent and/or planning in order to evaluate the morality of the subsequent act and its consequences, Tucker starts with the anticipated or real devastation, and from there, makes moral declarations and judgments about intentions (396).

After offering his own three-part framework for analyzing ethical behavior – motives, intentions and ends – Ramsey characterizes Tucker’s argument as one wherein an actor’s military intentions – the key to determining whether a certain attack and its consequences are morally licit – are “squeezed out” and erroneously equated with subjective motives (398-399).  Then he states that Tucker ostensibly “collapses” or “telescope[s]” intentions, motives and foreknowledge, arguing that if one is able to see ahead of time that one’s military actions will clearly result in collateral civilian deaths, one cannot say that those deaths were unintended.  “Anything [one] knew would happen,” says Ramsey, summarizing his view of Tucker’s position, “must be an undifferentiated part of the meaning of what [one] meant or intended to do.” (399)  While the historical just war tradition (and according to Ramsey, the wording choice of Gaudem et Spes itself) places the focus on the “discriminating” character of the actual “aiming” (i.e. the intention behind the actor’s aiming), Ramsey insists that Tucker derives his conclusions about the licitness of a particular military course of action from the character (and extent) of the destruction in the “objective order.” (399-400)

What, according to Ramsey, are some consequences of Tucker’s approach?  One is confusion over the relationship between intention, civilian casualties, and the proper understanding of “means” when it comes to achieving military objectives and overall victory.  For example, Ramsey points out that Tucker, in one section, argues that, given significant noncombatant casualties during an attack on a legitimate military target, such casualties should be considered part and parcel of the “means” by which the objective was secured; they serve “directly [as] a means to the end of destroying the military objective,” and, at the same time, they are serving as “indirect means” for achieving overall victory (412).  And Tucker reiterates that if these casualties are foreseen, they should be considered intended.  Ramsey lambasts this as antithetical to the historical just war tradition of accepting as morally licit only those noncombatant deaths or injuries deemed “incidental” (whether foreseeable or not) to the military objective. (412)  Moreover, Ramsey has little truck with Tucker’s attempt to parse “indirectly intended” and “directly intended” with respect to noncombatant immunity to direct attack; as Ramsey explains, Tucker misunderstands the fact that the tradition does not talk about “indirect intention,” but rather the judgment of conduct against those who should be immune which was, or is, “unintended but indirectly done.” (412-413)

Ramsey repeats time and again for the reader that, in the historical just war tradition, discrimination and proportionality go hand-in-hand, and, in the area of proportionality, Ramsey is quick to dismiss Tucker’s move to divide (and play off of one another) a “proportionality of effectiveness” and a “proportionality of value.” (403-404)  The former, according to Tucker, is what most people think of when they consider the concept – measuring one’s use of force to the “effective protection” of whatever has been placed at risk. (403)  It is, according to Tucker, a concept with a well-acknowledged pedigree in international law.  The latter was meant to highlight the idea that when one uses force, one is involved in a project wherein societal values are put at risk.  Therefore, one needs to think about how the amount of force used can protect or erode said values.  Tucker identifies “proportionality of value” specifically with the just war tradition, and argues that it really gives little concrete prescriptive guidance to the statesman; it “[is a concept] devoid of substantive content.” (404)  Tucker’s distinction, counters Ramsey, over-complicates what is summarized in the tradition with the simple idea of political prudence. (403)   Indeed, in Ramsey’s eyes, Tucker’s over-eggs the pudding with his bifurcation, but seriously undercooks, when, in light of his peculiar take on discrimination, he expects the rest of any heavy lifting to come from “proportionality of effectiveness.”

In the end, Ramsey’s in bello vision is proportionality (defined holistically as political prudence) leading discrimination by the hand; discrimination defined, as Gaudem et Spes puts it, by condemning as evil any acts which are “aimed indiscriminately” at urban/industrial centers and populations.  Civilian casualties are licit only if they are unintended, collateral and incidental to the planned military target; they are not, as Tucker suggests, an intended (because they are a foreseeable) part of a chain of “means” by which states reach their military objectives (and eventual victory). Whereas for Tucker, the “nuclear revolution” has rendered the traditional formulation of discrimination an unacceptably large moral loophole, which must be closed by deeming acts of large-scale urban destruction categorically indiscriminate, for Ramsey, the classical just war criterion of proportionality (that is, political prudence) should serve as the brake on even the most discriminating of military actions; as he puts it, one’s plans and anticipated actions can be discriminating, but the damage “may or may not be a proportionate cost to pay or exact for the political goods at stake.” (405)


In my next post (in late January or early February), I intend to explore the further evolution of modern just war thinking with the 1983 Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on War and Peace.

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