Nuclear Options: When is a Pre-emptive Nuclear Strike Moral?
Israel’s leading military ethicist, Moshe Halbertal, argues that in some cases a pre-emptive nuclear strike might be moral while nuclear retaliation might not
At some point in the near or not-distant future, the State of Israel will face the question of nuclear retaliation. Consider the following not unlikely scenario: A nuclear-armed nation, or nuclear-armed terrorists, detonate enough nuclear devices to destroy utterly the land of Israel and most of its people, rendering it uninhabitable.
Israel has been called “a one-bomb state” in that a single megaton-sized bomb detonated in Tel Aviv could accomplish such destruction. Many prefer to live in denial of this possibility. The people of Israel don’t have this luxury. If you don’t think they’ve war-gamed this possibility, think again. Many focus on Iran’s potential nuclear weaponry and the statements of Iranian leaders such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that Iran would “welcome” a nuclear exchange with Israel because while it might lose 15 million people there would be a billion and half Muslims left on earth and no Jews in what was once Israel. But there is less focus on the current reality of the so called “Islamic bomb”—Pakistan’s 60 to 100 nukes, now ever more vulnerable to takeover by Taliban al-Qaida sympathizers. Seizable by or salable to terrorists.
What happens if it happens? A “second Holocaust”? One thing we can be fairly certain of: Israel will have the capacity for nuclear retaliation. Israel has purchased and put into operation at least three German-manufactured (!) long-range “Dolphin class” submarines, capable of being fitted out with nuclear weapons.
There has been all sorts of information and disinformation about the disposition of these subs, but most analysts seem to believe they are cruising the waters of the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea, within range of the most likely targets. And, many believe, they are armed with nuclear-tipped Harpoon cruise missiles. Ready to retaliate.
This is complicated by the potential of an attack from a terrorist “bomb with no return address,” smuggled across any one of three borders, or lobbed in from off shore. Whom to retaliate against? And is retaliation moral under Jewish law?
“How could they not?” is one’s first response. But what is the point, what is the morality of killing 15 or 50 million people in order to carry out a threat that failed to deter an attack? The most famous Biblical verses are divided: “An eye for an eye,” says one but “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” says the other.
What have the submarine commanders been ordered to do if they are cut off from the chain of command in what is left of the State of Israel? Will it be up to them in any case? Nations that rely on submarine nuclear capacity as their last line of nuclear deterrence have all devised “workarounds” should their subs be cut off from home base by a decapacitating attack. The United Kingdom, for instance, has a “Letter of Last Resort” locked in a safe in their subs’ control rooms. It purportedly gives the prime minister’s orders about retaliation if he’s cut off. In other words, although they may have orders not to fire without orders, if the ones who give the orders are dead or incommunicado the submarine commanders must have the power to launch in order to give the threat of retaliation “credibility.”
I wouldn’t want that power, that decision in my hands. But what if it were in your hands? Put yourself in the place of an Israeli submarine commander knowing his family has likely perished in the Holy Land conflagration. How many missiles would you launch, how many—and who—would you decide to kill? Is there a “just” number, a “proportional” number? Is any number just? Would it be done to prevent a third holocaust? On abstract “just punishment” grounds?
In the course of writing How the End Begins, which deals with the moral dimensions of questions like nuclear retaliation, I sought to find the state of Jewish wisdom about these questions among the best, most learned Jewish thinkers on this question.
It wasn’t easy.
What is the moral status of such retaliation? A friend familiar with the faculty of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary offered to put me in contact with three of the sages there most familiar with such difficult ethical questions such as justice and retaliation and the history of Jewish thinking on the question.
I asked them, separately, to put themselves in the place of a Jewish submarine commander who learns of a nuclear Holocaust in Israel, and, cut off from his home base chain of command by the destruction of land-based communications links, must decide for himself what is the just response. What, in effect, would the sages’ Letter of Last Resort say?
The results played out almost as in some biblical story, or perhaps as if I were the wicked son asking the wicked question at the Passover feast. First one sage, then a second, pronounced himself unwilling to confront the question. Almost as if it were an affront to have been asked. One just wouldn’t comment, the other claimed a lack of expertise. I hate to say it, but I had a feeling they were afraid to commit themselves. These are literally explosive issues. Better to stay in their safe tenured little patch of academia than risk saying something on urgent but controversial questions where their purported wisdom might help ordinary people wrestle with huge life-or-death decisions. Academic timidity, don’t get me started. These are the ethics of genocide and you have nothing to say?
The third sage at least left me with a memorable phrase that I felt justified the quest. When I asked him my forbidden question about the morality of retaliation, particularly in the event of second Holocaust in Israel, he said, “You’re asking something new under the sun.”
“Something new under the sun.” He understood! These are not questions that have had to be asked before the nuclear age. Perhaps the principles applied are older but the alternatives, genocide on each side of the question—this is “something new under the sun.”
And so you’re left with me to think about it and to ask you to think about it. One thing I want to think about is the possibility of nonretaliation. No striking back. Not necessarily to advocate it, but to describe my encounter with an advocate of it.
When the Cold War ended, most Americans happily forgot about the real possibility of nuclear annihilation. Ron Rosenbaum didn’t, and his new book argues that the risk is greater today than it’s ever been. A Vox Tablet conversation.