The anniversary yesterday of the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima makes it very pertinent to think of our attitude to nuclear weapons. They are one of the three categories of weapon classified these days as “weapons of mass destruction”, the others being chemical and biological weapons. Hiroshima was the first use of nuclear weapons as a WMD, but is not the first use of WMDs – chemical weapons were used for the first time in a widespread attack by the Germans in World War I, but had already a long history; biological weapons have a possibly even longer history, the first major use in warfare being by the British in the French and Indian war shortly before the Declaration of Independence.
These days, it seems that all WMDs are regarded as particularly scary; chemical and biological weapons are prohibited under international humanitarian law, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the bugbears of foreign policy for the US and Europe, at the very least – the mere fact that North Korea and Iran may have, or develop, nuclear capability is enough to put them on a list of “most evil”. The second Iraq war was famously justified by the false claim that Iraq was developing WMDs.
Why is this demonisation of WMDs so acute? I could comment that the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II and the US bombing of South East Asia during the Vietnam war did significantly more damage than did Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes, one nuclear weapon could unleash a lot of fallout (as well as the blast damage) and affect people into the future (as Hiroshima did and as Cernobyl, a nuclear accident, also did), but the really scary prospect during the cold war was not single nuclear devices, it was the mutually assured destruction policies of the Great Powers, which would have seen thousands follow even one.
I could also note that the German use of chlorine at Ypres was actually not all that effective (and neither was the earlier French deployment of tear gases which probably led to that use), and that by and large, biological warfare has only been drastically effective against native populations who lacked immunity. Despite the prominent motif of such weapons in film and television, there are significant difficulties in delivery of chemical and biological agents in such a way as to be effective (chemical largely because area effects are difficult to achieve, biological because any agent sufficiently communicable to have a drastic effect tends to pose nearly as much threat to those using it as to the enemy).
I fancy that the ultimate reason these are so alarming is that they represent a massive force multiplier. Hiroshima was levelled by one bomb, whereas Dresden and Leipzig (for instance) took hundreds of bombers in a very concentrated attack; similarly it is conceivable that a biological attack could be mounted by one individual (being patient zero in the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa, for instance). We seem to take the view that, in the case of nations, we should prevent them having these massive force multipliers.
I note, however, that at an individual rather than a national level, guns represent a very major force multiplier, particularly automatic weapons. One person with an automatic weapon can kill tens of people in a very short time, and do it from a distance (and it is well known that it is far easier to bring oneself to kill from a distance than face to face). In addition, it is extremely easy to use a gun; even children can do so with minimal tuition (though much more tuition is advisable to use it well and safely). Those considerations in fact historically led to a ban on the use of crossbows (which were considered the WMD of their day). The longbow and short bow both needed considerable training for the user to be deadly, whereas the “point and shoot” nature of the crossbow, together with its substantial penetrating power, which was greater by far than short bows, made it usable by barely trained people.
Why, I ask myself, is the US so adamant about stopping the spread of force-multipliers among nations, while shrugging it’s shoulders about the spread of force-multipliers among its citizens? It seems to me that much the same principles are at work; massive force multiplication, killing at a distance and even including the fact that WMDs can ultimately be unleashed by untrained people (namely politicians), just like guns. The principle difference, it seems to me, is that the US could probably do something about internal gun control, whereas it has relatively little control over nuclear proliferation (if it had, none of China, Israel, India or Pakistan would have had nuclear capacity).
OK, I know the parallel isn’t perfect. For one thing, mutually assured destruction has apparently worked, at least so far (even in the case of India and Pakistan, who have actually been at war since they both acquired nuclear weapons). The counterpart with guns, the “Mexican standoff” rarely appears to work – particularly the argument that the answer to a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. Good men with guns kill quite a lot of people, as the list of shootings by police officers seems to show.
There is also no argument that nations should be able to use WMDs for their own amusement, though, liberal snowflake that I am, I don’t particularly endorse playing with lethal weapons as a sport. If you must, take up archery, for goodness sake! I also note that we are keen not to allow nations which haven’t already got nuclear weapons to develop nuclear power, which I consider a far more laudable enterprise than shooting for sport. Yes, I grant you, if you have nuclear power it’s a lot easier to develop nuclear weapons, but it is (particularly in the light of climate change) a reasonably beneficial use in and of itself.
I do hope that, at some point, America will end its love affair with guns, or, at the very least, go back to being content with things with a lower force multiplication effect – bolt action rifles, revolvers and double barrelled shotguns, for instance. I grant you, those can be extremely lethal in the wrong hands (which includes anyone who is not well trained and who keeps up the training, and anyone who does not practice rigorous gun safety), but they don’t kill so many people so quickly. Equally, I hope the world will end its love affair with WMDs and consign the use of nuclear power to power, not destruction.
Unfortunately, in the second case, we currently seem to be moving in the wrong direction. I fear the US is moving in the wrong direction in the first case as well…