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A tactical mistake

Editor’s note: Reporter Gareth Schweitzer contributed to this column.

If you believe that the possibility of nuclear destruction ended with the Cold War, give ear to what some of our nation’s politicians and military men have been saying lately. Talk of using “tactical” nukes in the War on Terrorism has been heard just about everywhere in Washington – from the corridors of the White House to offices on Capitol Hill and, not surprisingly, in the halls of the Pentagon.

It all started with a few comments made by Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld shortly after Sept. 11. He declared that, “we have always said … that we would not rule out the first use of nuclear weapons because there was overwhelming conventional capability that we felt that would add to the deterrent.” By putting this idea smack in the middle of respectable discourse, he legitimized it as a topic for some elected politicians to run with. And some politicians and journalists have been running pretty hard. A few prominent examples should suffice.

Last January a report issued by the National Institute for Public Policy stated, “in certain circumstances, very severe nuclear threats may be needed to deter any of these potential adversaries,” referring to the type of regional threats faced by America today. Those behind this report weren’t just a few aging Cold Warriors, nostalgic for the days of Mutually Assured Destruction – their number included President Bush’s deputy national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, and two key Bush defense advisers, Stephen Cambone and William Schneider Jr.

There isn’t any shortage of elected representatives rattling the nuclear saber either. Representative Peter King of New York boldly stated this month that he “would never rule out tactical weapons if I thought they could do the job and I thought they were needed.” At a town meeting in late September, Senator Jon Kyle was caught on tape declaring that, “I think we’ve got to say to some of these countries that nothing is off the table. And that includes the use of nuclear weapons if we are attacked with biological or nuclear or chemical weapons.” No less a person than Vice President Dick Cheney has weighed in on the side of the atomic hawks, refusing to rule out nuclear weapons as a valid option in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Alas, for those who think international terrorism can be banished with the push of a button, a few realities ought to be made extremely clear. For starters, tactical nukes are not the so-called responsible military option that some seek to portray them as – these weapons can carry the same force with the same consequences as their larger and better-known brethren. Arguments favoring the use of a tactical nuclear weapon include the immediate and total – and virtually permanent – destruction of chemical and biological nuclear-weapons facilities. After all, the irradiated rubble would not be inhabitable for decades.

But the use of these weapons has long-term, almost unlimited repercussions. Civilian casualties would be enormous. Innocents can perhaps turn and run from conventional explosives, but not from the massive, nuclear heat wave and subsequent radiation whose lethality would be measured in miles, not yards. According to Martin Butcher, director of Security Programs for Physicians for Social Responsibility, radiation can remain airborne for upwards of 20 years.

But hawks such as Representative Steve Buyer, R-Ind., a Gulf War veteran, see things differently. Buyer believes that, “before you start putting special forces in to do sweeps of targets with biological weapons or traps, I would support the use of a small, tactical-nuclear device to seal those caves for a thousand years.” Unfortunately, such a nuclear detonation, even a “small” one, of an underground facility might actually create more damage by blasting irradiated soil throughout the atmosphere. These would probably carry miles from the bomb site, provided the weapon actually hit its intended target. Fifty years have passed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the horrific images of death and destruction created by those two “small” bombs have perhaps been dulled with time.

Some sense that the American memory of nuclear holocaust has dimmed can be seen in the shift of military policy governing the use of nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction was the horror and the hope – that no side would attack the other and thereby risk the end of all civilization. But this has been replaced by another, and in certain respects, scarier doctrine – the use of tactical nukes as a first-strike weapon.

Southwest Missouri State Professor William R. Van Cleave, another author of the NIPP study, said some of the Bush advisers “believe we have marginalized nuclear weapons too much. We have removed them from extended deterrence too much.” Whether or not it is to be used as “extended deterrence” via a first strike, the unleashing of these weapons would prove disastrous for our relations with our allies in the fight against terrorism. It would isolate us diplomatically, to say the least.

Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that, “We are the world’s largest military force. If we have to resort to tactical nuclear weapons to protect ourselves, we have no claim whatsoever to prevent other countries from getting them.” In addition, virtually every nation with its signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would have an excuse to withdraw. All bets would be off the table – years of progress towards disarmament would be replaced by 1950’s fears of a nuclear free-for-all. Let’s hope that we do not travel down that road.