“Patriotism: the last resort of a scoundrel.” Dr Samuel Johnston
The Edinburgh Festival is now launched full-scale and among the myriad of performances is a play from Tricycle Theatre at the always avant-garde Traverse called “Letter of Last Resort“. As with many socially articulate and relevant pieces, it is more than a little discomfiting, revolving as it does around a new Prime Minister being confronted with the need to write the same letter all prime ministers since the fifties have been asked to write—the instructions to follow in the event that London is vapourised, and the current government with it.
Now, much as I am a fan of the absurdities of nuclear warfare so pithily dissected by Kubrick and his splendid cast in Dr Strangelove, I do recognise that, if you insist on having a nuclear deterrent, there must be two mechanisms in place that are absolutely cast-iron in their effectiveness: 1) a method of launching a nuclear strike, even in the case of being attacked with no warning and 2) a method of preventing that happening through fluke, mistake or some form of evil intent.
Having lived my six-and-a-bit decades entirely under the threat of nuclear war and come this far without my molecules being vapourised, it appears that those countries with the ability, as the US Military so colourfully puts it, “to make the rubble dance” have at least got the latter bit right. But what of the first—not the actual mechanisms, but the moral dilemma outlined in the play: if your country has been vapourised, what exactly is the point of you retaliating? The game’s already over.
Throughout the Cold War, this was a dilemma we lived with because the Soviet Union had, since Stalin’s acquisitiveness before, during and after WWII, been such an obvious threat. Not content with the huge land army that had crushed Nazi Germany, they had developed a ‘blue water’ navy and rocket forces just as capable as the US of killing all life on the planet several times over. While this East-West eyeball-to-eyeball Mexican stand-off may not have been the most stable of arrangements, coming after the mayhem of WWII that was directly attributable to appeasement, it had a certain logic.
More importantly (and much to my surprise at the time) it actually worked. Ronnie Ray-gun’s military “see-you-and-raise-you spend” bankrupted the Soviets, broke up their Union and dissolved an Iron Curtain that had kept neighbours, families and countrymen apart for half a century. But what now? During the Cold War, the enemy was obvious and the target co-ordinates of British missiles were all Soviet.
Unpleasant though their duty may be, most people accept that the military has a purpose and, whether because of history or the need for feeling protected, most people are fairly patriotic about their soldiers and the things they are asked to do. Conventional forces do operate on a human scale and their exploits can make riveting novels or history.
For myself, I have been interested in many aspects of the military and studied them through simulations (aka wargames) for some time. Such simulations teach much about options open and decisions taken; refighting this battle or that campaign you can see how history might have been different—whether it be the French less hidebound in May 1940 or Marlborough less audacious at Blenheim.
But, while friends and I did attempt to simulate WW3 in the shape of Soviet ground and air forces thrusting through the ‘Fulda Gap’, one of our number ridiculed the concept. “This won’t happen” he claimed. “It will go nuke and the only way to simulate that properly is to pour lighter fluid all over the map and set fire to it”. Though intended as a joke, as a metaphor it had a dreadful truth to it.
We will now never know if a Soviet invasion of Western Europe would have triggered Armageddon. But at least there was startling clarity about who the enemy was and the scenarios available were strictly limited. The whole posture of British armed forces were as heavily armoured ground forces, supporting tactical air forces and a navy split between a nuclear-tipped sub fleet and the rest geared to hunting down the Soviet equivalent.
As a result, British military actions over the last half-century have been the equivalent of opening tin cans with a screwdriver—we don’t have the right tools for the job. Challenger tanks and ASW ships were little use in the Falklands, Sierra Leone, Kosovo or Afghanistan. Brave men have achieved much but that should not conceal the fact that our forces were seldom adequately prepared and equipped for what came next.
This applies to British nuclear forces more than to any other arm. Consider the sheer idiocy inherent in our entire strategy of deterrence: no country dare attack us for fear of our retaliation. Once, the Soviets could have obliterated us with one hand tied behind their back but any strike from us was always dependent on US permission. Lopsided though that was, there was a certain logic to it.
What we have now is insane. Our deterrent could plausibly be used against whom? When New York was hit on 9/11 and London was hit on 7.7, using nuclear weapons were not even considered, not least because there were no plausible targets. What if either scale of carnage were repeated—say Canary Wharf laid low by two planes and the Taliban claim responsibility, are we going to nuke Aghanistan? Hardly. What if nasty people sneaked a nuke onto a Iranian-flagged tanker and blew it up while anchored at Hound Point? You’d lose Edinburgh, West Lothian, West Fife, Dunfermline and, depending on wind direction, irradiate the Central Belt. But is there any chance the UK would retaliate by nuking Teheran or even one of their oil ports? No.
Having a nuclear strike ability, if it ever made sense, makes no sense now. Though it may always have been a moral obscenity the disappearance of any plausible target means it is now also a logical obscenity. Add in the double-dip recession we now suffer, severe cuts affecting not just conventional forces but every family and the prospect of spending £38bn in Trident replacement (more than the entire budget of the Scottish Government) adds fiscal obscenity into the mix.
Even if our nuclear strike ability of one sub carrying 16 missiles were not constrained by the US, what possible targets could they have? Could they stop last year’s riots? Did the US’s overwhelming nuclear might prevent 9/11? Have they been any use at all in Afghanistan? If Norwegians captured all our oil or the French decided to occupy Kent, is there any chance we would nuke ‘em?
It escapes most normal people how, if we are committed to never being the first to use nuclear weapons, their risk and cost can be justified. And in the extremely implausible case of Britain being fried in a nuclear attack (by whom?), can there be any moral justification of rendering even more of this fragile planet a nuclear wasteland purely as vengeance? The play puts this dilemma on a very personal scale. And that is where each of us must think what this playground bluster (from Tories and Labour alike) about Britain “punching above its weight” is costing us all in morals as well as money.
If the last resort is oblivion, then it’s no resort at all.