Nuclear weapons in philosophy and film

bscap0008ld2From Missile by Frederick Wiseman

I’ve been interested in nuclear weapons and warfare since I was very young. The first novel I remember reading was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien (better known for the wonderful Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH); I read it over and over, and even made a paper doll of the radiation-proof “safe-suit” from the book for show and tell. With nuclear war is back in the news (just in time for the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing) I figure I should say something about it, but I struggle to articulate anything meaningful on the subject.

One thing I want to get across, though, is that there is a serious risk of nuclear war any time nuclear weapons exist in any quantity on this planet, not just when nuclear war is in the news. Effective mutual deterrence depends on the rationality of nuclear-armed states; if states are guaranteed to behave rationally, then they are guaranteed not to enter into a nuclear conflict with one another. A corollary of this is that nuclear war is only possible if states behave irrationally. If states behave irrationally, they behave unpredictably. So the circumstances most likely to lead to nuclear war are inherently unpredictable (except insofar as some circumstances make irrational behaviour more likely). It follows, I think, that we should feel no more secure when nuclear war is off the front page than we do when nuclear war is on the front page. We should feel secure only when significant progress has been made towards total nuclear disarmament.

That said, here are some of the things which have influenced my view of nuclear weapons and warfare, and which I would want to influence others.

50 Years After Hiroshima by John Rawls

Rawls was the most important political philosopher of the 20th century. But before that, he was an infantryman in the Pacific theatre during the World War Two, and witnessed the devastation in Hiroshima first hand shortly after the end of the war. His wartime experiences led him to abandon his plans to enter the Episcopalian priesthood, turn down an officer’s commission in the Army, and devote himself to the study of philosophy. This short essay on the ethics of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just war doctrine and the nature of statesmanship is the only thing he ever wrote for a popular audience.

Some Paradoxes of Deterrence and The Toxin Puzzle by Gregory Kavka

In the first of these short and accessible papers, Kavka argues that nuclear deterrence raises a number of moral paradoxes. Strict utilitarians and uncompromising Kantians can avoid these paradoxes, but only at great cost to the plausibility of those doctrines, and it is unclear how they can be so revised as to provide a satisfactory solution. If our moral thought breaks down when trying to deal with the ethics of deterrence, maybe we should try to escape from reliance on deterrence as a means of securing peace. In the second (very short!) paper, Kavka casts doubt on a central assumption of nuclear deterrence: that we can rationally intend to perform an irrational act.

The War Game by Peter Watkins (writer & director)

Watkins’s first film was made for BBC television in the mid-Sixties, but it was not broadcast for another twenty years because it was judged to be “too horrifying for the medium”. Here Watkins uses his signature documentary style to chronicle a fictitious nuclear attack on Britain at the human scale. The result is extraordinary. It is tempting to agree with the sentiment behind the BBC’s judgment, if not the impulse to censor.

Threads by Barry Hines (writer) and Mick Jackson (director)

A feature-length cautionary dramatization of full-scale nuclear war (before, during and after) as seen from Sheffield.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (story) and Nazim Tulyakhodzayev (director)

An animated adaptation of Bradbury’s story about an automated house going about its business after the end of the world. The story had previously been adapted for the American radio programs Dimension X and X Minus One.

Missile by Frederick Wiseman (director)

Sadly, this film is not easy to find online, but you might have some luck through the library. In this film, the prolific documentarian’s subject is the 4315th Training Squadron, where US Air Force officers are trained to operate the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile. Wiseman’s signature style eschews narration, talking heads, title cards, and music, yet he still manages to convey a critical, nuanced and sometimes darkly humorous perspective on this institution and the context in which it operates. A review can be found here.

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