The revolution in military affairs brought about by nuclear weapons has largely been viewed by the American military through a technical lens as a technological revolution and not as a conceptual revolution in terms of war and its political aims. However, nuclear weapons revolutionized our conception of war, derived from Clausewitz, as a continuation of politics by other means because of their tremendous power and destructiveness which are a quantum order of magnitude above those of conventional arms. However, the realization by policymakers of their ability to potentially reach Clausewitz' level of absolute war through the use of nuclear weapons led to the limitation of their use as instruments of policy. This essay addresses Clausewitz's conception of war as an act of opposing forces and the use of nuclear weapons in this context as an irrational act. This results in the aversion to use nuclear weapons as a rational instrument of political power because of their very potential to reach absolute war.
Clausewitz stated that "War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." Force was defined as physical force whose is objective is to impose one's will on the enemy, and "there is no logical limit to the application of that force." Because force is interactive, each side forces the other to follow suit leading to extremes. This is the first case of interaction and the first extreme.
The aim of war is to disarm the enemy and the worst condition that you may impose is to leave him defenseless or likely so. Likewise, the enemy will be trying to disarm you as waging war applies to both sides. Again, there is interaction leading to a second extreme.
The interaction of opposing forces are in relation to one another, that is, to overcome the enemy you must use greater force than he has the power to resist. In response, the enemy in turn will increase his own power. This is another case of interaction that will lead to a third extreme.
Clausewitz then observes that in practice modifications exist that will prevent these extremes from being reached. These modifications include (1) war is not an isolated act and arises out of the context of relations among the warring parties; (2) war does not consist of a single blow or a set of simultaneous blows; (3) in war the result is never final. These practical restraints limit the efforts expended giving rise to the political element of the war.
The advent of nuclear weapons clearly changed this calculus of force between opposing sides. Ever since August 1945, when the only two nuclear devices ever used in warfare destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people have been awed and confounded by the power their weapons unleashed. As the technology of both weapons and delivery systems progressed and improved, in particular thermonuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, people became increasingly alienated from their own products and armed forces. Outside of the halls of governments, and in some respects within them as well, nuclear weapons by the citizenry at large were seen as a necessary evil at best. For example, during the 1950s and 1960s, American movies portrayed the popularly believed consequences of nuclear radiation, whether it being a deranged 50-foot man, giant ants, or the world shifting on its axis. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by the rise of a vast and vocal anti-nuclear movement, parti-cularly in the West, which viewed nuclear weapons as totally irrational and the consequences of their use as catastrophic to mankind.
Within the political and military realm, the advent of nuclear weapons led to profound conceptual changes as well. Due to their destructiveness, politico-military terms such as 'victory' became in a sense 'non-words' and became circumscribed by war-avoidance theories such as deterrence and mutual assured destruction (MAD). MAD in a Clausewitzian sense is irrational because governments do not pursue policies or prevent the enemy from going to war by assuring their own destruction but, rather, to impose their will upon the enemy by force. Throughout history, nations and their military establishments have recognized victory as the object of war. This was expressed in their military doctrines: if we wage war, it is for the policy objective of imposing our will on the enemy and when we do so, we call it a victory. In a nuclear war context, victory is now seen as militarily unattainable and hence as a politically irrational goal. It is unattainable because in trying to overcome the enemy's resistance to our force, we are destroyed by the enemy's opposing effort. In such a nuclear war we arrive at Clausewitz's extremes without modifying effects because the military means we have available, nuclear weapons, to achieve political objectives such as the destruction of the armed forces of the enemy, the physical occupation of his territory and the subjugation of his people, are incompatible with one another. These ends-means are incompatible because the use of nuclear weapons in a large-scale war (1) do not leave anything of use other than a nuclear wasteland, and (2) using the US-Soviet experience as an example, after the Soviet Union acquired a second-strike capability, its physical destruction by the United States was no longer possible because a US nuclear strike would entail a Soviet counterblow leading to the destruction of the US as well. If on the other hand we seek to moderate our war aims to limit the degree of military effort expended we are incurring greater political risk of escalation for less and less returns, for as Raymond Aron noted by limiting the violence in war we also limit the extent of our victory. Thus if we seek to maximize our victory which is our political goal, we must maximize our military effort against the enemy, who in turn will seek to maximize his efforts against ours. This interaction will escalate ultimately leading to our mutual destruction. In this context nuclear war is clearly not the continuation of politics by other means but rather the end of politics by absolute means. In Clause-witzian terms, once extremes are reached we are no longer in the realm of rational politics but in a war of extreme effort without the modifying effects of political reason and choice.
Traditional military terms such as victory, then, have become irrelevant in light of the awesome destructive potential of nuclear weapons. The reali-zation by policymakers of both military superpowers that their basic political and physical survival were threatened by nuclear war, led both of them to engage in a series of negotiations to limit the scope and boundary of the political and military operational environment in which the use of nuclear weapons is considered appropriate, if any. Ideally, their use is altogether eliminated. The various nuclear arms reduction treaties, test-ban treaties, and non-proliferation treaties, were products of this effort. It must be stated that this is not to say that nuclear weapons have no use per say. Lt. Col. Robert Chandler, in a thoughtful article, noted that "In both peace and war, nuclear weapons generate political effects."
Nuclear weapons by making the threat of absolute war real led policy makers to limit political goals and objectives sought through military operations. By nearly reaching a theoretical extreme policymakers recognized that there are limits to war as a continuation of politics by other means. There are some political ends that are not worth the means available to reach them. The use of nuclear weapons are an example of military means with little useful political ends.
. As a member of the former Strategic Air Command (SAC), and a B-52 crew- member having sat on nuclear alert, I often pondered the effect of nuclear weapons and nuclear war on our society and military.
. Carl von Clausewitz. On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 75. Italics in the original.
. Ibid., p. 77
. Ibid., pp. 78-80.
. Kruglov, V. V., Lt. Col. "Is There a Law of Victory." Voennaya Mysl (Military Thought), January 1994, No.1, p. 34. (In Russian).
. Raymond Aron. On War: Atomic Weapons and Global Diplomacy, trans. Terence Kilmartin (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958), p. 106.
. Robert W. Chandler, Lt. Col. "Political Sufficiency of Nuclear Forces." Air University Review. Sep-Oct 1980, p. 62.