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This chapter considers the challenging relationship between contemporary ‘rights-based’ ethical concepts and the more consequentialist ‘just war’ ethics that dominate government policy. The just war tradition evolves constantly. Only analysis of the Second World War has enabled ethicists to explain concepts such as ‘double effect’, ‘supreme emergency’ and ‘dirty hands’ in the terms which are understood today and fundamental to modern conflict. However, many contemporary philosophers consider ethics not in terms of balancing national security with the use of force, but regard individual rights as unassailable, transcending the consequentialism of realist politics, and aspire to normatise international relations. To provide context, two short case studies into ways governments have handled other complex technological and ethically challenging areas are considered: human embryology and fertilisation (the 1982 Warnock Inquiry), and genetic modification of crops (the 2003 public consultation). Whilst experts routinely consider the relationship between likelihood and consequence, such balanced views are not simple for the media to present, and ‘risk’ and ‘expert advice’ can prompt distorted scrutiny of complex ethical issues. While anti-nuclear opposition can afford selective, absolutist positions, governments must adopt consequentialist morality to provide for national defence, which is difficult to portray in public, particularly through modern media.

in Supreme emergency

This chapter identifies the closely symbiotic relationship between strategy and technology, and the imperatives that each placed upon the other; critical factors for a state developing a nuclear capability on a shoestring (and little understood – then or now). Attlee’s near-obsessive secrecy impacted on both development and general understanding, and left a persistent legacy for the handling of nuclear deterrent policy within government, Parliament and in public. Both Attlee and Churchill were concerned about the moral implications of atomic weapons, but completely convinced they were necessary for Britain to retain her position and influence after the war. Neither chose to share this logic widely within Cabinet, let alone in public. Successive governments convened small, secret Cabinet committees to oversee major policy decisions, and completely ignored nascent anti-nuclear groups. Between 1964 and 1979 two Labour governments abrogated manifesto commitments to reduce/cancel nuclear commitments; Wilson’s introduced Polaris into service and Callaghan’s, faced with obsolescence of Polaris, continued updates and studied a replacement, despite having ‘renounced any intention of moving towards … a successor to’ Polaris. Both governments used carefully worded public and Parliamentary statements to convey apparent compliance with manifesto commitments despite doing almost the opposite, so naturally avoided public exploration of policy.

in Supreme emergency

This chapter considers the evolution of the mindset behind the strategic bombing campaign of the Second World War. Drawing on Baldwin’s famous 1932 dictum ‘the bomber will always get through’, it considers the evolution of political recognition that ‘… no power on earth … can protect [citizens] from being bombed …’ and traces this back to the experiences of First World War Zeppelin and Gotha bombing raids on London. In responding to them, the British government expressed aversion to reprisals against German towns and cities, but did retaliate surreptitiously. Early air power theorists (and fiction and cinema) envisaged wars dominated by strategic bombing of cities, factories and populations, rather than trench warfare. The relative merits of strategic bombing (of civilians and cities) and ‘traditional’ warfare (against armies and navies) dominated UK strategic debate between the wars, and influenced the evolution of Royal Air Force doctrine, but the Second World War provided the strategic impetus to develop technology to realise these capabilities. By 1943 the UK and USA had refined the ability to wield the destructive power of bombing foreshadowed during the Spanish Civil and Sino-Japanese wars in the 1930s.

in Supreme emergency

There was protracted and serious discussion within the British War Cabinet and RAF high command about the strategic bombing campaign and its legitimacy, a discussion which continues to this day. This chapter considers the impact of concerns about public opinion on that discussion and resulting strategy; it concludes that there was a concerted effort to maximise damage to areas of German cities, including industrial and residential areas, but that the public presentation of this policy was adapted to appear to show an aspiration to employ precision bombing against industrial facilities only, which must cause unavoidable casualties amongst non-combatants. This ambivalent position, a distinct aversion to public acknowledgement of the willingness to inflict non-combatant casualties, was inherited by those responsible for the early development of British nuclear strategy.

in Supreme emergency
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An insider’s view

This book is derived from thirty years of service in the Royal Navy submarine service, much of it in the nuclear deterrent mission. The research and argument described here is not the result of that experience directly, but a reaction to the inability of the Ministry of Defence and Royal Navy hierarchy to describe to me, the commanding officer of a Trident submarine, what the official rationale and justification for the nuclear deterrent is. I have always been content that I can justify the mission to myself, but never content that I could do so in terms of which the UK government would approve. The book considers concepts like ‘the public’ and ‘the media’ but does not explore them in detail except where they impinge on government thinking about the core issues, and the chapters centred on the lessons derived from the First and Second World Wars do not seek to produce a definitive version of the outcomes, simply to understand the ethical debates and pressures that were considered important at the time, and the lessons that were therefore carried forward into the nuclear deterrent strategy and policy.

in Supreme emergency

This torrid period saw the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament re-emerge as part of a pan-European protest against NATO nuclear weapons, NATO’s dual track response to the deployment of SS20 and the near-simultaneous decision to replace Polaris with Trident. Many technical factors affecting the Polaris decision remained relevant, including the need to use an American system because the R&D costs of a British system would be prohibitive. Mrs Thatcher’s government persisted in treating decisions about NATO nuclear posture and the national nuclear deterrent as separate, missing the point that they were indivisible in public perception. The anti-nuclear opposition mounted coherent campaigns locally and nationally, and the government did not attempt to engage for three years – by which time the debate’s parameters had been set by CND and others. Throughout, ministers’ understanding of the discourse was woeful, with the Press Office failing to grasp the importance, or the complexity, of the issue until a small Conservative Party committee began work on the 1983 election manifesto. This committee engaged with the Cabinet Office and the MOD, and government took an aggressive stance, aiming to undermine the credibility of anti-nuclear lobbies by suggesting their leadership was significantly influenced by the USSR.

in Supreme emergency
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How Britain lives with the Bomb
Author: Andrew Corbett

An ex-Trident submarine captain considers the evolution of UK nuclear deterrence policy and the implications of a previously unacknowledged, enduring aversion to military strategies that threaten civilian casualties. This book draws on extensive archival research to provide a uniquely concise synthesis of factors affecting British nuclear policy decision-making, and draws parallels between government debates about reprisals for First World War Zeppelin raids on London, the strategic bombing raids of the Second World War and the development of the nuclear deterrent to continuous at-sea deterrence, through the end of the Cold War and the announcement of the Dreadnought programme. It develops the idea that, in a supreme emergency, a breach of otherwise inviolable moral rules might be excused, but never justified, in order to prevent a greater moral catastrophe; and it explores the related ethical concept of dirty hands – when a moral actor faces a choice between two inevitable actions, mutually exclusive but both reprehensible. It concludes that, amongst all the technical factors, government aversion to be seen to condone civilian casualties has inhibited government engagement with the public on deterrence strategy since 1915 and, uniquely among nuclear weapon states, successive British governments have been coy about discussing nuclear deterrence policy publicly because they feared to expose the complexity of the moral reasoning behind the policy, a reticence exacerbated by the tendency of policy and media investigation to be reduced to simplistic soundbites.

This chapter considers the BBC decision not to broadcast The War Game; it is based on an interview with the director. The core message of The War Game, a 1965 BBC docu-drama on the aftermath of a nuclear attack on a Kent town, echoed a 1954 top secret Cabinet Office report that civil defence contingencies were completely inadequate. The film was withdrawn prior to transmission after the BBC consulted the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence. Peter Watkins (the director) resigned from the BBC in protest, and questions were raised in Parliament and in the media, leading to extensive public debate, in which an unofficial pro-government case was made by proxies. The documentary was given a limited cinematic release, winning the 1966 Venice Film Festival Award for best documentary, and the 1967 best documentary Oscar. The BBC screened it in 1985. The director insists still that the film was suppressed because of its political impact. Whatever the BBC decided, it decided only after extensive consultation with government officials, which both denied publicly. The withdrawal of The War Game highlighted the almost total government public silence on nuclear weapons, but even then the government did not participate in public discussion.

in Supreme emergency
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The bookcase at the end of the road
Jonathan Purkis

These concluding pages ask what will remain to mark the motor age after it is over and people travel differently on a recovering planet. Suggesting that humanity may rue the day it allowed itself to be misled into fetishising an instrument of mass death, the author points to his book collection of hitchhiking memoirs, guidebooks and novels as a sign of hope for making that transition and celebrating what our better selves are capable of. Too often, histories of mutual aid go unnoticed and it is the responsibility of researchers to document and be inspired by them as a counter to dominant ways of thinking – in this case about perceiving mobility less in terms of speed, efficiency and profit and more in terms of the gift economy and empathy. Even though most of us will not hitchhike, we all have enough of a cooperative spirit to contribute to an alternative vision of the world in some way.

in Driving with strangers
The personality of the ‘extreme hitchhiker’
Jonathan Purkis

According to one American study of the psychology of long-distance hitchhikers, using the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), there was a tendency for their personality type to be inclined towards the empathetic, intuitive, adventurous and flexible. Such people often continued their hitchhiking well into their twenties and beyond, believing it to be part of a political attitude towards the world – respecting nature, challenging injustice and trying to make a fairer society. This chapter uses the daunting 1,500-mile Alaska Highway (and an imaginary visitors’ book at Watson Lake) as a real-life metaphor for following pioneering women of the 1940s and 1950s (Gertrude Baskine and Lorna Whishaw), eccentrics like ‘extreme twitcher’ Kenn Kaufman and legendary world travellers such as André Brugiroux and Benoît Grieu and their often eternal quest for ‘authenticity’ in human cultures and interaction. The discussion touches briefly on the cult appeal of the ‘tragic’ adventurer Chris McCandless, before looking at contemporary eco-activists campaigning against the Tar Sands development and other despoiling projects in northern Canada and how hitchhiking fits into their world view.

in Driving with strangers