Tag Archives: Alternatives to war

Editorials: MADness, The Law of the Innocents

Humanity and MADness

The risk of self-destruction is a real one for humanity. This is not the aim of people’s actions but the result, applying to both war and global heating. It is not that we rationally want to destroy ourselves, literally or figuratively, but that this is the possible result of our actions and policies. During the Cold War there was the doctrine – policy – of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): NATO (the USA and it allies) and Warsaw Pact (Soviet Russia and its allies) threatened each other with nuclear war which would have wiped out many cities and regions of the northern hemisphere and, ironically given global heating, brought about a nuclear winter which would in turn have wiped out the vast bulk of humanity through cold, hunger and radiation-related illnesses.

MAD was a threat; attack us and this is what you will get. But unlike conventional warfare which aims to destroy the enemy and only the enemy (not factoring in so-called ‘friendly fire’, ‘collateral damage’ to civilians, and retaliation), the result of MAD would be, as the name suggests, mutual destruction. There is a myth that this ‘kept the peace’ (we would strongly dispute that it did) and avoided war because the stakes were not only high but suicidal. This ignores the very real risks involved at the time such as with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 or false alarms when warning systems indicated one side was being attacked. The balance of terror involved in MAD was itself a form of madness and a very real risk to the future of the billions of individual people who make up humanity.

Unfortunately we live in another era of MADness, in relation to nuclear warfare but through ecological destruction too. We seem to have learned little about how to deal with threats. It is as if we do not want to know, and to some extent we do not. Considering global heating which is a threat to the whole world, fauna (including humanity) and flora combined. We know where we are going in general terms – if not precisely what temperature increase we face – and we know the likely catastrophic effects – but we seem incapable of taking the necessary radical actions which would minimise the risk. Yes, we will do a certain amount but not so much as to discomfort ourselves currently. It is rather like a scary film with a train hurtling towards destruction down the line; we know where the brake is, we know how to use it but we are unwilling to apply it because it might make for a bumpier ride in the here and now. There is an analogy here between the real prospect of global heating armageddon and the high risk (over time) of nuclear armageddon,

And the risks of nuclear warfare have certainly not gone away. Conflict and mediation theory are clear; it is through a process of discussion and building understanding that we can make progress. Threats and counter-threats simply escalate the problems. Of course there are people or countries who do harmful things (including very much those in ‘the west’), and these need dealt with, but how do we deal with them and end cycles of violence and oppression? The Irish constitution commits the southern-and-western state to the pacific resolution of international disputes; there are only occasional signs that this is a policy as opposed to an ignored semi-aspiration.

The current war in Ukraine is a scenario reminiscent of the First World War’s death and attrition on both sides. Neither side feels they can give way. Both sides feel justified in their actions, and they are unwilling to sacrifice their sacrifices to date (move away from continued sacrifice of lives and resources because of the lives and resources already ploughed into the warfare). This is a recipe for ongoing disaster. In invading Ukraine, Russia thought it would easily gain territory and solve a problem (its military security); in doing so it created a monster. But NATO and the west, in expanding eastwards in Russia and clearly not regarding meaningfully Russia’s fears, was instrumental in the creation of that monster. We are now in the grips of a limited form of MADness. Lives and money are being thrown away on both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war in a situation of attrition just like the First World War and its trench warfare but with modern weapons and technology. It is a form of ‘chicken’, racing towards each other at speed in motorised transport, in a macho confrontation which is inimical to anyone’s wellbeing.

However the greater form of MADness is lurking in the wings. Nuclear weapons have not gone away. NATO has no doctrine of avoiding first use of nuclear weapons. Neither does Russia and Putin has upped the ante by mentioning the use of nuclear weapons on more than one occasion in the last couple of years in the context of the war in Ukraine. This would presumably be ‘tactical’ (battlefield) nuclear weapons, i.e. ones with smaller explosive yields, but this would or could open the way to all out nuclear warfare. The Deputy Commander of the Air Force and Air Defence Forces of Belarus, Leonid Davidovich, has stated that the Belarusian military is ‘theoretically and practically’ ready for ‘actions with non-strategic nuclear weapons’.

On the positive side of things, the vast majority of countries in the world reject the concept and use of nuclear weapons, a position which was eventually codified in the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which explicitly bans the use, development, testing, production, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, transferring, receiving, threat of use and deployment of nuclear weapons. This treaty has been totally ignored by the nuclear powers and their fellow travellers; so much, then, in terms of respect for the international community and developing peace.

Nuclear weapons are held as a WMD/Weapon of Mass Destruction that countries can use in extremis. But the problem is not only, if used, the unleashing of everything in this Pandora’s box; the problem is that, when holding nuclear weapons, others then wish to hold them as a counterweight. This is the case with India and Pakistan, frequently at military loggerheads. All of this leads to increased international instability.

The Economist, a well informed but in many ways conservative journal, gave its analysis of nuclear weapons in its 6th April 2024 issue entitled “The balancing act gets harder” (along with a satirical graphic of Xi, Putin and Biden barely balancing on a tightrope held up by nuclear missiles). It considers various aspects of the situation. If we take The Economist article as representative of a certain important strain of western thought on the matter, there are some startling omissions in it. What it does not consider is how nuclear de-escalation and disarmament can happen; this is a bit like wondering what to do about a fire without calling the fire brigade. There is no mention of trust building, treaty making, mediative and communication processes. There is simply a detailed description of the mess nuclear issues are in and what options are considered to exist within the framework of nuclear deterrence as understood by western power holders. Nuclear disarmament has to happen for the long term security of our small globe; we have been lucky so far in avoiding nuclear war (and luck has played a part) but do we imagine we can be lucky in perpetuity? That is a nonsense assumption.

A second related issue in The Economist’s coverage is that there is no real analysis of the dynamics of arms escalation, and of why Putin and Xi are maintaining and/or building up their nuclear arsenals. One side responds to another. The USA is modernising and developing its nuclear capacity but this is not understood in the west as a problem issue for other countries, a culturally specific omission of great importance (i.e. it is a very pro-western view). Of course Russia and China may want to have strong nuclear capacity to throw their weight around, but is that any different to the USA throwing its weight around? Or indeed ‘little’ (by comparison) Britain retaining its nuclear weapons because it wants to still play with the big boys?

There is also no mention whatsoever in The Economist article of the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which has been supported by the vast majority of the world, including Ireland, but not the nuclear powers and their fellow travellers. The nuclear powers ignore the developing consensus internationally against such weapons of mass destruction. While the Treaty may be aspirational it is through aspirations that we move forward. If the Economist piece is representative of western powerholding opinion then we are in trouble.

There was a slogan in the peace movement of forty years ago that ‘Unilateralists are multilateralists who mean it’. In other words, if we wait around for ‘everyone’ to agree on nuclear disarmament then it will never happen. We need countries to be brave enough to say ‘We will start the ball rolling….’ Nye Bevan, a founder of the National Health Service in Britain, opposed the abolition of nuclear weapons by the UK on the basis that it would mean “going naked into the conference chamber”, i.e. losing a bargaining chip. But someone has to start any process and those familiar with nonviolent tactics will know that voluntary nakedness can actually be a very strong and effective tactic in situations of injustice and political tension; in voluntarily choosing vulnerability in this way it shows real strength (it has various connotations in different cultures which can be part of this). We are not advocating literal nakedness here but going nuclear-naked.

Safety does not grow from aggression and threat. Safety comes from people being comfortable with each other and this in turn needs justice and equality, relatively speaking. Belligerent words (mentioning the possibility of engaging directly in the war in Ukraine) and actions (increased supply of weapons to Ukraine) does not deal with the conflict. Wars are ended by victory and defeat or by talking, or both.

We are currently in our world, northern hemisphere certainly, in a period of MADness. We cannot continue this way, for the wellbeing and survival of humanity. We need a different form of MADness – Mutually Assured De-escalation, which perhaps we could label SANity – Simple Action on Needs, dealing with the real needs of the world which are so pressing rather than adding additional worries. We need a process of dialogue and actions which take us to safety and cooperation to deal with the urgent needs of the world in relation to global heating and ecological sustainability, as well as much greater global justice, and allow for people to feel secure and unthreatened.

MADness or SANity – we have a choice.

The Law of the Innocents, 21st century

There are different positive approaches or responses to war, and there can seem to be a dichotomy between those who a) refuse to participate or back war in any form, and those who b) try to limit and/or deal with the effects and extent of war through measures such as extending ‘laws of war’ and so on. In the first category are people who could be labelled believers in nonviolence or nonviolent activists and, in increasingly archaic and abused language, ‘pacifists’. In the second category are bodies like the Red Cross/Crescent, addressing the effects of war and other disasters, and activists who have brought about the banning, in international law, of landmines and cluster munitions, or indeed those who have worked for nuclear weapons non-proliferation and for bodies who work in early intervention and addressing the causes or war.

Life is not usually very simple and different people will take different approaches as to where to address issues of war and mass violence, or stated colloquially, there are different strokes for different folks. There are many different factors in war happening including greed, injustice, imperialist (sic) attitudes, issues of resources, xenophobia and nationalism, as well as the well of history and geography. Some of those who oppose war in totality, category a) above, may get involved as a pragmatic choice in working on restricting what is considered legitimate in war so that the effects of war are not so terrible, and warfare becomes more circumscribed.

Wars will continue as long as nonviolent alternatives are not available or are not seen. It can certainly be argued that most people’s approach to mass violence and war is a blind spot; wars are entered for reasons that are considered ‘worthy’ – however mistaken they may be – but the fact that the war in question is subsequently proven to have negative consequences – think Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya among many others – does not bring about a thoroughgoing reassessment of views and a more critical approach ‘the next time’. This is despite clear research which shows nonviolent struggle is more likely to be effective (Chenoweth and Stefan, 2011, see e.g. https://www.innatenonviolence.org/readings/2020_03.shtml and https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/2022/04/01/nonviolent-resistance-to-invasion-occupation-and-coups-detat/ )

All approaches to undermining war and aspects of war as a legitimate and legal form of action are welcome. The project on The Law of the Innocents, 21st Century, is one such enterprise and deserves support. As those who are familiar with the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland are aware, there can be problems in defining who is ‘innocent’ and who is not, who deserves sympathy for deprivation and loss (including loss of life of self or loved ones) and who either deserves less sympathy or none at all. The nonviolent approach is to say that all those who suffer are victims; Russian soldiers in Ukraine may be fighting on the side of an aggressor but if wounded or killed they are also victims. The new law states that “Given the indefensible nature of modern warfare, defence can no longer justify engagement in war or military aggression of any kind OR the military industrial complex, including the arms industry and all other associated institutions. In its protections, Lex Innocentium, 21st Century, renders modern warfare impossible without breaking this law, and necessarily rejects the Just War Theory.”

We therefore should not be too literal in our understanding of who the ‘Law of the Innocents’ might apply to in 2024 CE, more than 1300 years later after the original. Undermining the credibility of war – which includes its tie up with the state and state identity – is a major but necessary task, and all projects and critiques of war as a viable and legitimate form of action are very welcome. The Law of the Innocents, 21st century, also draws on Irish history and is part of an honourable tradition in Ireland of rejecting and seeking to ameliorate the effects of war. Various cultures around the world in antiquity had similar attempts to impose restrictions on warfare. Including the earth in the categories covered in the “21st century” version is of course a necessary and welcome move; the military are major polluters and carbon contributors even without the devastation of war which wreaks total havoc with the environment.