Consequences of a Broken Taboo

Nuclear First Strike: Consequences of a Broken Taboo

John Mark Mattox

Nuclear First Strike: Consequences of a Broken Taboo. By George H. Quester. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. 176 pages. $55.00 ($22.95 paper).

No one who has spent time, since the end of the Cold War, thinking about nuclear weapons and their consequences would argue that the nuclear genie is “back in the bottle”–and that there is no longer anything to worry about. For those, however, who haven’t thought much about nuclear weapons in the last 20 years might be operating under the dangerous assumption that the genie has evaporated–and that there is nothing to worry about. For those in the latter category, George H. Quester is the bearer of disturbing news; the genie has not evaporated, and the scenarios in which the genie might slip from the bottle have never been more numerous than they are today.

What keeps the genie in check? Quester forcefully argues that it is the effect of “taboo”–a sacred (or at least sacrosanct) prohibition that makes an act utterly unthinkable. A taboo, Quester notes, “is more than simply something we would want to avoid, something that we disapprove of, for we do not hear of a taboo on bank robberies or a taboo on murder. The word is distinctive in that it refers to something that we are not willing even to think about doing. There is no weighing of benefits and costs; we simply reject the idea without further thought.” As Quester points out, when it comes to the possibility that the now 62-year-old taboo on nuclear weapon use might be violated, there is much to think about.

Quester outlines an extensive array of scenarios–some very possible, others, by his own assessment, less so–in which the nuclear taboo might be broken. He assesses likely world reaction to the breaking of the taboo as well as responses from the American electorate. In both cases, one is struck by the bewildering array of possibilities and variations. While the casual reader may feel a bit put-off by so many variables, the thoughtful reader surely will pause to consider one of the more sobering implications of Quester’s argument; that the “tidy” nuclear world of the Cold War is truly a thing of the past. Nowadays, even non-state actors without state sponsorship conceivably could carry out a radiological or nuclear attack. Scenarios which never received widespread consideration during the days when only great powers had nuclear weapons now thrust themselves on the world in unsettling ways. Not only are the scenarios themselves disturbing; the second-order effects to which those scenarios could give rise are equally disquieting. The author notes, “What a nuclear attack on an American city would do to American standards of civil liberty may indeed be one of the more worrisome impacts we have to consider.”

Despite these scenarios, Quester’s central message is not one of doom and gloom. Rather, it is that if individual nations and the international community at large can leverage the force of taboo and agree that the nuclear taboo must be left unbroken, the resulting united front could have the salutary effect of reinforcing the taboo such that nuclear weapons are never used again. Quester outlines a number of taboo-reinforcing behaviors and milestones, preeminent among which is the year 2045, the centennial of the only hostile use of nuclear weapons. If the world can manage to eschew nuclear weapons use until then, that anniversary will constitute yet another symbolic firebreak–itself another reason not to break the taboo.

The author also reviews a wide variety of possible US policy approaches to reinforce the taboo. He suggests that certain prudent measures (such as a serious national commitment to a robust nuclear incident response capability), while not necessarily intended as taboo-reinforcing per se, are likely to yield the same net effect. The sheer number of possible policy approaches which the author entertains combines to confirm what the reader has been sensing all along, there are no easy answers. There simply is no ironclad guarantee that some entity–state or otherwise–will never use a nuclear weapon. The notion of taboo is powerful, but it is no panacea. Indeed, the best conceived US policies may have no effect whatsoever against the Osama bin Ladens of the world, whose philosophies actually might welcome nuclear cataclysm.

In sum, Quester presents us with a paradox–one whose ramifications must be considered carefully; on the one hand, all parties must take affirmative steps to maintain the efficacy of the nuclear taboo, which, by definition, is something so terrible that one does not even think about it. On the other hand, the only way to preserve the taboo is to think about it; don’t pretend that nuclear weapons don’t exist; don’t pretend that the possibility of their use is inconceivable; and don’t pretend that the taboo surrounding their use could never be broken. It can; and if it is broken … well then … the results could be too terrible to think about.

Reviewed by Colonel John Mark Mattox, Commandant, Defense Nuclear Weapons School, Kirtland Air Force Base, NM.

COPYRIGHT 2007 U.S. Army War College

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning