Is Trident justified? David Atkinson challenges some of the assumptions


by David Atkinson

First published in the Church Times and used with permission

Trident is catching the headlines again. Sometimes it is about the proposals to renew Trident, with a decision expected in 2016, and the phenomenal costs involved, not only of procurement but of on-going service. Or about the loss of jobs on the Clyde should the SNP win the referendum about Scottish independence and ask for the removal of Trident from its Scottish base. Sometimes the discussion is about the strategic value, in a world of very different threats, of a nuclear deterrent developed during the Cold War. The Government says it contemplates its use only for deterring aggression in extreme circumstances of self-defence. My concern is simpler and more basic: the use, and threat of use, of weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction is wrong.

From the very beginning, Christians have come to different conscientious views about warfare. There was a dominant pacifist strand in the first three centuries, partly for political and social reasons, but also because of theology: ‘In disarming Peter,’ said Tertullian, ‘Christ unbelted every soldier’. That pacifist strand has continued throughout Christian history. Another strand developed, however. Under Constantine the Cross became a military emblem. Ambrose of Milan helped Christians to see that engagement in defensive war could be permissible in some circumstances, provided it was just. Augustine further established the ‘just war’ tradition in the Christian conscience. Living during the barbarian invasions of the empire, and dying in Carthage when that city was under siege, Augustine argued that it was permissible to vindicate justice in the face of evil by the use of force, provided the ‘spirit of the peacemaker’ was maintained. In the Middle Ages, Aquinas extended just war thinking to include the permissibility of self-defence, and set out some causes which define ‘justice’ in war. It was the Dutch lawyer Huge Grotius who systemised these into criteria for deciding whether any particular war has a just cause, and whether it is conducted justly. In Christian thinking, ‘just war’ has not been about justifying war, which can only ever be a lesser evil, but it has meant limiting war by the requirements of justice. In other words justice has been understood as an expression of neighbour-love. We do not love our neighbours, or our enemies, it is argued, by allowing injustice to succeed. As the American Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey put it: ‘…just war theory arose…from a quite humble moral reason subjecting itself to the sovereignty of God and the lordship of Christ, as Christian men felt themselves impelled out of love to justify war and by love severely to limit war.’

Two of the ‘severe limits’, as the theory has developed, are the criterion of proportion (use only of the minimum force needed to obtain the objective), and the criterion of discrimination, sometimes called non-combatant immunity (non-combatants must not be directly and intentionally targeted). It was these criteria to which Bishop Bell famously appealed in 1944 challenging the allied saturation bombing of Hamburg and Berlin: ‘That is not a justifiable act of war.’ The use of strategic nuclear weapons are outlawed on the criteria both of proportion and discrimination. They involve a maximum, not a minimum use of force. And, such weapons are indiscriminate by design - that is what is so evil about then. The impact on innocent human beings and the physical environment is horrendous. It is not enough to argue that the UK has been reducing its nuclear capability – which it has. It is not enough to argue that replacing Trident can be compatible with our obligations under non-proliferation agreements - which I think is very debatable. I cannot see how the use of strategic nuclear weapons could ever be justified, no matter by whom or for whatever cause.

But what of the threat of their use? They are kept not for use, but as a ‘deterrent’. If the deterrent effect implies a resolution to use these weapons, then they must be renounced. But what if, as German theologian Helmut Thielicke argued at the time of the Cold War, deterrence can be maintained without any essential intention to use the weapons or any need for bluff? Possession of them, he argues, is sufficient deterrent, because our opponent is sufficiently uncertain whether we will use them or not. It is that uncertainty and ambiguity which our various Governments have sought to maintain.

My view is that the possession of such weapons would need much stronger moral justification, for what they say – and presumably what at least some in our government may well mean - is ‘we are willing to be unbelievably cruel if we are provoked far enough’. That is neither proportionate, discriminate or just. I realise that a moral direction and moral goal are one thing. Political decision about timing and implementation is another. The political choice we face seems to be either ‘the risks of abandoning our nuclear weapons are at present too great’ or ‘despite all risks, the only morally responsible course is to abandon any reliance on weapons designed for mass destruction.’ It is the latter view which I find by far the most morally persuasive - which makes the search for alternatives to renewing a strategic nuclear deterrent very pressing.

Dr David Atkinson is a former Bishop of Thetford

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