Michael KreponNo Cities

Quotes of the week:

“Most of what we call civilization depends on reciprocal vulnerability.” – Thomas C. Schelling, “What Went Wrong with Arms Control?”

“With nuclear weapons available, the restraint of violence cannot await the outcome of a contest of military strength; restraint, to occur at all, must occur during war itself.” — Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence

Befuddled graduates and their parents heard Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara endorse a “no cities” nuclear targeting posture at the University of Michigan in 1962. As commencement addresses go, this one was beyond strange. Here are the key passages from McNamara’s speech:

“principal military objectives, in the event of a nuclear war stemming from a major attack on the Alliance, should be the destruction of the enemy’s forces, not of his civilian population.

The very strength and nature of the Alliance forces make it possible for us to retain, even in the face of a massive surprise attack, sufficient reserve striking power to destroy an enemy society if driven to it. In other words, we are giving a possible opponent the strongest imaginable incentive to refrain from striking our own cities.”

McNamara’s initiative had as much staying power as John Foster Dulles’s earlier foray into deterrence strategy, announcing a posture of massive retaliation, regardless of provocation. Both initiatives couldn’t meet the test of “practicality,” a territory wholly owned and occupied by the Wizards of Armageddon.

Massive retaliation made no sense against the least-worst crossings of the nuclear threshold. It gave way to flexible response, and flexible response required options to destroy targets, including command and control centers, critical transportation nodes, and war-supporting industry that happened to be located within or nearby cities.

Deterrence orthodoxy won out. McNamara’s revised targeting requirements included city dwellers. He was fighting battles on many fronts, one of which was trying to tamp down nuclear numbers. A No Cities posture worked at cross purposes with reduced requirements, as counterforce targeting against discrete aim points mandated far more warheads than counter value targeting against cities.

So, McNamara relented and, as was usually the case during his tenure at the Pentagon, wound up with the worst of both worlds: counterforce targeting that also happened to blanket cities with designated ground zeroes.

Fast forward to the George H.W. Bush administration, when Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was briefed on the nuclear war plan. By this time, the ready-to-target warheads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal numbered north of 10,000, thanks to the decision McNamara reluctantly agreed to make deploying multiple, independently targetable warheads atop missiles. Each of these warheads, as well as those delivered by bombers and forward-based systems including deployed aircraft carriers, was assigned a target by the compartmentalized and insular operation at the Strategic Air Command responsible for developing the war plan.

Despite being forewarned, Cheney sat in impassive disbelief as he watched the briefing on the “lay down” progress. Each target struck was marked by a red dot. As the war plan was executed, the Soviet Union looked like it had a severe case of measles, including thick red blotches over urban areas. Kiev alone was plastered by forty red dots. A large multiple of this number covered Moscow and its environs.

Cheney authorized a significant downsizing of targeting requirements. Multiple targets could be covered by a single detonation. This and other refinements led to the Pentagon’s endorsement of deep cuts in Bush’s first and second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Cities could still be spared, but this would take uncommon restraint and a cooperative adversary once the first mushroom clouds appeared.

What we call civilization is anchored by world historic cities. Cities were the prize in warfare once human beings – social animals by preference — decided to congregate in large numbers. Victory was won when cities under siege fell.

In World War I, cities were spared because armies in the field were unable to extricate themselves from trench warfare. Over the next two decades, the technology of warfare changed radically. Greater mobility, firepower, and range left cities at the mercy of the unmerciful during World War II. Cities were again under siege, this time subject to bombardment from the air and then by the first iteration of inaccurate ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles.

“Precision” bombing was advertised but was not yet possible. It was also beside the point. The central objective of bombardment was physical and psychological punishment. London and other cities in Britain were subject to terror attacks by German bombers, “buzz” bombs, and rockets. Dresden, Tokyo, and other cities were blasted and burned down by iron bombs and incendiaries delivered by U.S. bombers.

More horrors lay ahead. The war ended when one bomber carrying one atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A bleak future in which cities and military targets would become vulnerable to surprise nuclear attack dominated strategic analysis. The future looked more even more bleak, as ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear weapons were on the horizon. They could arrive on target in less time than it took to mow your lawn.

Humanitarian laws of warfare arose from the rubble of World War II along with cities devastated in war. I suspect that revulsion with the tactics employed in the war — by victors as well as by the defeated — helped prompt this resurrection. The arrival of the atomic bomb surely contributed to the rehabilitation of humanitarian laws of armed conflict. No doubt the Nuremberg trials played a role. A reader who can help me and others understand the circumstances behind the strong comeback of the humanitarian laws of warfare is hereby invited to write a short explanatory piece that I will post.

The International Committee for the Red Cross lists seven basic rules for respecting our common humanity. The three overarching norms for the law of armed conflict are the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution. These rules oblige war makers to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. They are also obliged to avoid the use of unnecessary force and overkill. They are further obliged to take all precautions in doing so.

Yes, even war needs rules. War especially needs rules. To disregard these rules because an adversary does not abide by them erases the distinction between right and wrong, good guys and bad guys, as well as the distinction between necessary and inhumane use of force.

The protection of cities is central because cities are where noncombatants congregate. The Pentagon acknowledges that it intends to “seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects. The United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects.”

Other states that possess nuclear weapons have yet to make similar declarations. Nuclear-armed states that endorse the Reagan-Gorbachev formula that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought ought to extend this formula. McNamara’s instincts were right: the protection of cities deserves affirmation, too.

For more on the humanitarian laws of war, I recommend the writing of Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner. They ask the following questions: Under what conditions would U.S. nuclear retaliation to an adversary’s nuclear or major nonnuclear strategic attack be legal? Is the target aimed at a legitimate military target or illegal civilian target? Is the collateral civilian harm caused by the attack proportionate or disproportionate to the concrete and direct military advantage gained by that target’s destruction? And has the United States taken all feasible precautions to minimize civilian fatalities?

The use of nuclear weapons against built up areas constitutes a contravention of humanitarian laws of armed conflict. Downsizing yields, relying on more accurate means of delivery, and aiming away from cities doesn’t absolve the authorizer or targeter unless escalation is controlled. The most assured way to respect the law of armed conflict is to avoid crossing the nuclear threshold. And to avoid the targeting of cities.

While the humanitarian laws of armed conflict are especially applicable to nuclear weapons, they also apply to conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons have not been used in warfare since 1945; attacks on city dwellers by conventional weapons, in stark contrast, have been an all-too-common occurrence.

Iran and Iraq fought a prolonged war in the 1980s that was called “the war of the cities.” In the 1990s, wars following the dissolution of Yugoslavia generated horrific practices, including ethnic cleansing and attacks on cities. Bosnian Serb troops laid siege to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo for forty-four months. Dubrovnik was shelled. Srebrenica became a slaughterhouse. The most recent and recurring instances of targeting built up areas are by Israel and Hamas.

The factor of scale increases the importance of humanitarian laws of warfare, but these rules of conscience apply regardless of scale. Humanitarian rules of warfare require a spirited defense whenever violated. These rules apply to nuclear weapons, katyusha rockets, armed drones, and combat aircraft carrying “smart” weapons.

In defense of our common humanity, cities are not to be targeted, even though bad guys can find refuge in them. The humanitarian laws of warfare are designed for us, not them.