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Readings in Nonviolence

'Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

Disarming the Nuclear Argument

The Truth About Trident – Disarming the Nuclear Argument
by Timmon Milne Wallis.

Luath Press UK£12.99 and also available from Hive post free for under UK£10 in the UK postal area.

Reviewed by Rob Fairmichael

Long-time peace activist Tim Wallis has written what is an amazingly comprehensive book on the issue of nuclear weapons. While written in the British context, many of the arguments can be related to other nuclear powers as well, and covering 'the world' would have made it a very different book.

It is a book you can read straight through, or refer to as needed, or more usefully both. Unless you really are a very dedicated and extremely knowledgeable anti-nuclear activist there will be much that you will learn, or re-learn here. It might also be pointed out that it is very good value for a meticulously researched book of over 250 pages but that presumably comes from the fact that it is produced in association with Quakers in Britain. It has references and appendices.

It covers 'facts' about Trident as well as its role in 'security', and whether 'the Bomb' has actually kept the world safe. Published in 2016, it looks forward to the UN July 2017 treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons – through a conference which the nuclear weapon holding countries including the UK so scrupulously avoided – well they would, wouldn't they, but it shows arrogance and complete disdain for the rest of the international community. They say they are committed to multilateralism but the old peace movement slogan probably pertains here, that unilateralists are multilateralists who mean it.

Who is the enemy? Well, Russia/the USSR used to be, and partly has become again, but even a 'strategic' attack on facilities in the Moscow region might be reckoned to kill half the population there – something approaching the total inhabitants of Ireland, North and South. British nuclear firepower is more than all the bombs dropped in World War II.

Tim Wallis looks at the whole question of deterrence and retaliation. A small, fairly highly populated country like the UK using first strike nuclear weapons (and NATO permits first strike use) would be asking for annihilation against a country with much larger nuclear firepower and area such as Russia. (page 93) Theoretically, as the UK has state), it would only use it against other nuclear states so that narrows the field considerably. Deterrence operates at the level of fear:

"Ultimately, nuclear deterrence rests on the assumption that no ordinary, sane person would choose to bring death and destruction down upon family and friends and loved ones, and would therefore choose some alternative route other than to invite nuclear retaliation. The problem is that nuclear deterrence does not operate at the level of ordinary, sane people who care about their loved ones. It operates at the level of generals and politicians who make their decisions according to quite different criteria. It was the logic of those same generals and politicians who sent millions to their certain death in the trenches of WWI and authorised the saturation bombing of German and Japanese cities and the dropping of atom bombs in WWII." (page 47)

The author goes on to instance examples of when US presidents and generals wanted to, or contemplated, use of nuclear weapons - scary, and this is before we get around to accidents. The current standoff between the USA and North Korea over nuclear weapons is a textbook example of the lack of rationality that may be involved; on one side is a narcissistic, impetuous president who knows very little about world affairs or responsible diplomacy and can be gung ho, on the other a ruthless dictator of a repressive state, desperate to survive and fearing attack. While North Korea is mentioned in the book, the current crisis has happened well after the book's publication; nuclear weapons are presumably seen as the regime's path to survival but if there had been real and meaningful nuclear disarmament then there is no way that China, as the North Korean regime's erstwhile supporter, would have permitted their development.

We are currently walking on eggshells in relation to North Korea. As Tim Wallis points out, even if there is a very small chance that something will go wrong at any one time, eventually they will. And that is pretty frightening.

One of the points the author makes is the ineffectiveness of carpet bombing with conventional weapons, and that it can actually stiffen resolve to resist. That can be extrapolated to the use of nuclear weapons which cannot but kill and maim large numbers of civilians (and are illegal as Weapons of Mass Destruction for that reason).

As for the idea that nuclear weapons have 'kept the peace' since 1945, Tim Wallis points out that more people have been killed since 1945 in wars than during the entire Second World War. "What about the countries with nuclear weapons; what is the evidence that these weapons have 'kept the peace' for all these years? The UK's possession of nuclear weapons did not stop Egypt from taking over the Suez Canal in 1956, they did not stop Iceland from seizing British fishing vessels in 1974 or Argentina from invading the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982. They did not prevent the bombing of the plane which crashed on Lockerbie in 1988 or other attacks which have taken place on British soil." (page 77)

"The UK is no safer for having nuclear weapons than, say, Brazil is for having none." (page 90) is one conclusion. But he also goes on to dispute the idea that nuclear weapons 'kept the peace' in Europe (something it singularly failed to do in the area of Yugoslavia on its break up). The 19th century also saw considerable periods of 'peace' in Europe when there was no nuclear confrontation. And what about the role of OSCE and other international instruments in the modern era?

There is the question of how 'independent' the UK's nuclear capacity is of the USA. Could it be used if the USA said 'no'? Quite probably not. On the question of nuclear possession bringing enhanced status, Tim Wallis argues that it is positive roles in helping eliminate landmines, or its role in creating the International Criminal court, promoting human rights, and commitment to international development funding "are what give a nation-state like the UK 'status', not the number of missiles it can launch..." (page 117)

Regarding accidents (page 131 and following) Tim Wallis includes a section on (Northern Ireland man) William McNeilly's allegations in 2015 about the safety of Trident submarines. He correctly concludes that despite official denials "the safety and security concerns raised by McNeilly sound all too plausible given what we know about other naval accidents and especially about the lack of due care and attention found among personnel responsible for nuclear weapons in the US".

The cost of 'renewing' Trident could be as high as £200 billion over thirty years for the UK. And all that for about 20,000 direct jobs and another 20,000 people indirectly employed. Other opportunities, e.g. in renewable energy, would be much, much more productive in terms of jobs (page 153).

The author, while giving mention of some initiatives in the multilateral disarmament field, questions how serious the UK is about it all; "The UK has shown not only by its determination to press ahead with Trident renewal, but also its behaviour at the UN, that it has no real commitment to multilateral nuclear disarmament at all.....and does only the barest minimum to deflect criticism of this 'nuclear weapons forever' position." (page 171)

The book also covers the lack of support for Trident in Scotland where it is based, and by analysis of past elections totally disputes the common suggestion that a Labour Party committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament would be 'unelectable'. (page 193) Just War theory is also covered including proportionality and distinction between combatants and non-combatants, both of which make nukes definite no-nos. (page 202)

The Non-Proliferation treaty of 1968 obliged the five states holding such weapons at that time to negotiate nuclear disarmament 'in good faith' and 'at an early date'. (page 220) We are still waiting. It is to be hoped that the July 2017 UN treaty will give disarmament a further fillip because, as one of Tim Wallis' conclusions states "Trident is not a defence and does not keep us safe, All it can do is cause massive destruction and death in the aftermath of an attack on the UK, it cannot prevent such an attack."

This book can be an important part of a peace activist's library.

Copyright INNATE 2016