New Internationalist

Protest And Survive

Issue 97

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THE NUCLEAR ARMS RACE[image, unknown] Civil defence and other ways of survival

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Protest and survive
Events of the last two years have made nuclear war frighteningly imminent. Nearly 600 cruise missiles are to be based in Europe. War expenditure is rising and new weapons systems added to the stockpiles. The Soviet-Afghanistan adventure has increased the tension already smouldering between the super and not-so-super powers. The powder keg is ready to ignite. Now people's resistance to the arms race has been fostered, strengthened and deepened by Edward Thompson's most important pamphlet on the subject. Here are some of his main arguments.

Macabre humour attacking the British Government's civil defence pamphlet, Protect and Survive'.
Macabre humour attacking the British Government's civil defence pamphlet, Protect and Survive'.

What would happen in the event of a nuclear strike against Britain? According to the defence correspondent of The Times, there will be bunkers deep under the Chilterns for senior politicians, civil servants and military, and deep hidey-holes for regional centres of military government. That is very comforting.

The population of this country, however, will not be invited to these bunkers, and where they are is an Official Secret. The population will be sent off, with a do-it-yourself booklet (Protect and Survive), to wait in their own homes. They will be advised to go down to the ground floor or the cellar, and make a cabby-hole there with old doors and planks, cover it with sandbags, books and heavy furniture, and then creep into these holes with food and water for fourteen days, a portable radio, a portable latrine, and, of course, a tin-opener.

I have long wondered why sociologists and demographers keep writing about `the nuclear family', but now it is all at length set down and explained.

Now this might save some lives, but it will also make for an unhappy end to others. The principal effects of nuclear weapons are very intense heat, blast and radioactive emissions. Within a certain distance of the centre of the detonation all houses, cars, clothes, the hair on dogs, cats and persons, and so on, will spontaneously ignite, while at the same time the blast will bring the houses tumbling down about the tubby-holes. We must envisage many thousands of nuclear families listening to Mr. Robin Day's consensual homilies on their portable radios as they are baked, crushed or suffocated to death.

The acceptance of such human sacrifice has become part and parcel of nuclear `deterrence'. The current chatter about `theatre' or `tactical' nuclear war is not a sophisticated variant of the old vocabulary of `deterrence'; it is directly at variance with that vocabulary. For it is founded on the notion that either of the superpowers might engage in a `limited' nuclear war which could be kept below the threshold at which retribution would be visited on its own soil.

Thus it is thought by persons in the Pentagon that a `theatre' nuclear war might be confined to Europe, in which, to be sure, America's NATO allies would be obliterated, but in which immense damage would also be inflicted upon Russia west of the Urals, while the soil of the United States remained immune. (In such a scenario it is even supposed that President Reagan and Mr. Brezhnev would be on the `hot line' to each other while Europe scorched, threatening ultimate intercontinental ballistic retribution, but at last making `peace'.) This has been seen as the way to a great victory for `the West'.


Psychological defence
The Cruise missiles which are being set up in Western Europe are the hardware designed for exactly such a `limited' war, and the nations which harbour them are viewed, in this strategy, as launching platforms which are expendable in theinterests of `Western' defence. While the Generals make their plans for a European `theatre' war the advocates of civil defence are offering a corresponding political initiative.

These advocates wish to hurry the British people across a threshold of mental expectation, so that they may be prepared, not for `deterrence', but for actual nuclear war.

The expectations supporting the theory of deterrence are in the final analysis that deterrence will work. Deterrence is effective, because the alternative is not only ,unacceptable' or `disagreeable': it is `unthinkable'.

Deterrence is the posture of MAD (mutual assured destruction), not of menace. It does not say `If we go to nuclear war we intend to win': it says `Do not go to war, or provoke war, because neither of us can win'. In consequence it does not bother to meddle withanythingso futile as `civil defence'. If war commences, everything is already lost.

Those who have supported the policy of deterrence have done so in the confidence that this policy would prevent nuclear war from taking place. They have not contemplated the alternative, and have been able to avoid facing certain questions raised by that alternative. Of these let us notice three.

First, is nuclear war preferable to being overcome by the enemy? Is the death of fifteen or twenty millions and the utter destruction of the country preferable to an occupation which might offer the possibility, after some years, of resurgence and recuperation?

Second, are we ourselves prepared to endorse the use of such weapons against the innocent, the children and the aged, of an `enemy'.

Third, how does it happen that Britain should find herself committed to policies which endanger the very survival of the nation, as a result of decisions taken by a secret committee of NATO and then endorsed at Brussels without public discussion or parliamentary sanction, leaving the `owning and operation' of these weapons in the hands of the military personnel of a foreign power, a power whose strategists have contingency plans for unleashing these missiles in a `theatre' war which would not extend as far as their own homeland?

The first two questions raise moral, and not strategic, issues. My own answer to them is `no'. They are, in any case, not new questions. The third question is new, and it is also extraordinary, in the sense that even proposing the question illuminates the degree to which the loss of our national sovereignty has become absolute and democratic process has been deformed in ways scarcely conceivable twenty years ago.

But the arguments of civil defence advocates are designed to hurry us past these questions without noticing them. They are designed to carry us across a threshold from the unthinkable (the theory of deterrence, founded upon the assumption that this must work) to the thinkable (the theory that nuclear war may happen, and may be imminent, and, with cunning tactics and proper preparations, might end in `victory').

More than this, the arguments are of an order which permit the mind to progress from the unthinkable to the thinkable without thinking - without confronting the arguments, their consequences or probably conclusions, and, indeed, without knowing that any threshold has been crossed.

The essence of the political problem was clearly stated at the height of the Cold War by John Foster Dulles: `In order to make the country bear the burden, we have to create an emotional atmosphere akin to a war-time psychology. We must create the idea of a threat from without.' But that was when the problem was only in its infancy. For the country must now not only be made to bear a burden of heavy expense, loss of civil liberties, etc., but also the expectation, as a definite and imminent possibility, of actual nuclear devastation.

Hence it becomes necessary to create not only `the idea of a threat from without' but also of a threat from within: `political turbulence'. And it is necessary to inflame these new expectations by raising voluntary defence corps, auxiliary services, digging even deeper bunkers for the personnel of the State, distributing leaflets, holding lectures in halls and churches, laying down two weeks'supplies of emergency rations, promoting in the private sector the manufacture of Whitelaw Shelters and radiation-proof `Imperm' blinds and patent Anti-Fall-Out pastilles and `Breetheesy' masks, and getting the Women's Institutes to work out recipes for broiling radioactive frogs. And it is also necessary to supplement all this by beating up an internal civil-war or classwar psychosis, by unmasking traitors, by threatening journalists under the Official Secrets Acts, by tampering with juries and tapping telephones, and generally by closing up people's minds and mouths.

Now I do not know how far all this will work. There are tactical problems, and Whitehall's reluctance to issue every householder with a copy of Protect and Survive is eloquent testimony to this. For there is a minority of the British people who are reluctant to be harried across this threshold. These people have voices, and if they are denied access to the major media, there are still little journals and democratic organizations where they are able to speak. If the mass of the British public were to be suddenly alerted to the situation which they are actually now in - by `alarmist' leaflets and by broadcasts telling them that they have indeed every reason for alarm - then the whole operation might backfire and give rise to a vast consensus, not for nuclear war, but for peace.

It has never been true that nuclear war is `unthinkable'. It has been thought and the thought has been put into effect. This was done in 1945, in the name of allies fighting for the Four Freedoms (although what those Freedoms were I cannot now recall), and it was done upon two populous cities. It was done by professing Christians, when the Western Allies had already defeated the Germans and when victory against the Japanese was certain in the longer or shorter run. The longer run would have cost some thousands more of Western lives, whereas the short run (the bomb) would cost the lives only of enemy Asians. This was perfectly thinkable. It was thought. And action followed on.

What is `unthinkable' is that nuclear war could happen to us. So long as we can suppose that this war will be inflicted only on them, the thought comes easily. And if we can also suppose that this war will save `our' lives, or serve our self-interest, or even save us (if we live in California) from the tedium of queuing every other day for gasoline, then the act can easily follow on. We think others to death as we define them as the Other: the enemy: Asians: Marxists: non-people. The deformed human mind is the ultimate doomsday weapon - it is out of the human mind that the missiles and the neutron warheads come.


The Politics of Tomorrow
Military technology and military strategy impose their own agenda upon political developments. As Lord Zuckerman has written: `The decisions which we make today in the fields of science and technology determine the tactics, then the strategy, and finally the politics of tomorrow'.

This logic threatens all impartially. In my view the Russian state is now the most dangerous in relation to its own people and to the people of its client states. The rulers of Russia are police-minded and security-minded people, imprisoned within their own ideology, accustomed to meet argument with repression and tanks. But the basic postures of the Soviet Union seem to me, still, to be those of siege and aggressive defence; and even the brutal and botching intervention in Afghanistan appears to have followed upon sensitivity as to United States and Chinese strategies.

The United States seems to me to be more dangerous and provocative in its general military and diplomatic strategies, which press around the Soviet Union with menacing bases. It is in Washington, rather than in Moscow, that scenarios are dreamed up for `theatre' wars; and it is in America that the `alchemists' of superkill, the clever technologists of `advantage' and ultimate weapons, press forward `the politics of tomorrow'.

But we need not ground our own actions on a `preference' for one of the other blocs. This is unrealistic and could be divisive. What is relevant is the logic common to both, reinforcing the ugliest features of each others' societies, and locking both together in each other's nuclear arms in the same degenerative drift. Within the logic of `deterrence', millions are now employed in the armed services, security organs and military economy of the opposing blocs, and corresponding interests exert immense influence within the counsels of the great powers. Mystery envelops the operation of the technological ,alchemists'. `Deterrence' has become normal, and minds have been habituated to the vocabulary of mutual extermination.

Home-made atomic shelter from 'Protect and Survive'. Hoped to reduce deaths to 20 million.
Home-made atomic shelter from 'Protect and Survive'. Hoped to reduce deaths to 20 million.

The menace of nuclear war reaches far back into the economies of both parties, dictating priorities, and awarding power. Here, in failing economies, will be found the most secure and vigorous sectors, tapping the most advanced technological skills of both opposed societies and diverting these away from peaceful and productive employment or from efforts to close the great gap between the world's north and south. Here also will be found the driving rationale for expansionist programmes in unsafe nuclear energy, programmes which cohabit comfortably with military nuclear technology whereas the urgent research into safe energy supplies from sun, wind or wave are neglected because they have no military pay-off. Here, in this burgeoning sector, will be found the new expansionist drive for `markets' for arms, as `capitalist' and ,socialist' powers compete to feed into the Middle East, Africa and Asia more sophisticated means of kill.

The menace of this stagnant state of violence backs up also into the polity of both halves of the world. Permanent threat and periodic crisis press the men of the military-industrial interests, by differing routes in each society, towards the top. Crisis legitimates the enlargement of the security functions of the state, the intimidation of internal dissent, and the imposition of secrecy and the control of information.

All this may be readily observed. It may be observed even in failing Britain, across whose territory are now scattered the bases, airfields, camps, research stations, submarine depots, communications-interception stations, radar screens, security and intelligence HQ, munitions works - secure and expanding employment in an economic climate of radical insecurity.

What we cannot observe so well - we ourselves are the object which must be observed - is the manner in which three decades of `deterrence', of mutual fear, mystery, and state-endorsed stagnant hostility, have backed up into our culture and our ideology. Imagination has been numbed, language and values have been fouled, by the postures and expectations of the `deterrent' state.

These, then, are among the strategic considerations which lead me to the view that the probability of great-power nuclear warfare is strong and increasing. Local crises are survived and it seems as if the decisive moment - either of war or of peace-making and reconciliation - has been postponed and pushed forward into the future. But what has been pushed forward is always worse. Both parties change for the worse. The weapons are more terrible, the means for their delivery more clever. The notion that a war might be fought to `advantage', that it might be `won', gains ground. There is even a tremor of excitement in our culture as though, subconsciously, human kind has lived with the notion for so long that expectations without actions have become boring. The human mind, even when it resists, assents more easily to its own defeat. All moves on its degenerative course, as if the outcome of civilization was as determined as the outcome of this sentence: in a full stop.

I am reluctant to accept that this determinism is absolute. But if my arguments are correct, then we cannot put off the matter any longer. We must throw whatever resources still exist in human culture across the path of this degenerative logic. We must protest if we are to survive. Protest is the only realistic form of civil defence.

Recognised as one of the foremost Marxist humanist thinkers in the UK, Edward Thompson is an historian and author of 'The Making of the English Working Class' and 'Writing by Candlelight'.

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